Stoke City has become the latest Premier League club to announce that it will use virtual reality (VR) technology as a training tool for its goalkeepers.
The Premier League team has followed Arsenal's lead and signed a deal with Beyond Sports with the aim of using VR:
to provide ready-made training scenarios for players, focussing on on-field spatial awareness, decision-making and high pressure in-game scenarios; and
as a post-match analysis tool using real match data, allowing players to relive in-game situations and recognise what could be done differently in future.
Beyond football, VR presents athletes in other fields with the ability to augment their training regimes, for example, STRIVR Labs are a start-up working with six NFL teams. The benefits of VR are enhanced in the context of American football, as it allows players to minimise their exposure to the physically damaging nature of the game, reducing the risk of injury. Further, VR is particularly useful in the context of the recovery of injured players, in the words of STRIVR CEO and former Stanford kicker, Derek Belch "We’ve seen guys that couldn’t practice because of injury come into VR and put the headset on and actually go through [their] footwork at 10 percent speed”.
In addition to its use for athletes, football clubs have begun exploring the use of VR to improve, and even reimagine, the fan experience. In August last year, Bayern Munich became the first football club to show a live match in VR and, more recently, Manchester City have recently launched a VR offering with Jaunt Inc. The experience enables fans to access a game day experience from the comfort of their own living room and reduces the barriers of entry for them (e.g. those who cannot attend live games due to the distance they live from the stadium or because of the ever-increasing prices for attending live matches). The appetite also appears to be there for fans, with LiveLike's recent VR broadcast of Barcelona v Real Madrid capturing 37,000 viewers, even more impressive when you consider it was with less than a week's notice and behind a paywall.
However, clubs should consider the potential complications of taking advantage of VR technology. For example, in the context of using VR for training, staff will likely be handing over confidential tactical data to the entity providing the technology. This type of information is akin to trade secrets for sports clubs and they go to great lengths to protect it, such as on the recent Lions tour to New Zealand where the coaching staff decided to have a security company regularly sweep the team's hotel for listening devices. As a result, a detailed risk/reward assessment will need to be made by clubs before disclosing their 'crown jewels' to any third party and, at the very least, they should consider:
including robust confidentiality provisions into any agreement with a VR provider to help mitigate the risk of this information being lost or leaked; and
undertaking thorough due diligence on the potential supplier's systems or any third party system on which the provider relies, to ensure that they are secure.
There is no doubt that the potential is there for sports related entities to exploit VR technology. The next few seasons will serve as a test for VR, during which we may see a change in football viewing habits if fans favour a more cost-effective and convenient way of achieving the experience of attending a live match. Equally, as noted above, it will be interesting to see whether more sports entities utilise VR to enhance their training procedures. Either way, it seems sensible for clubs to consider turning the commercial and training opportunities presented by VR technology into realities.