Virtual reality? Facial recognition? Stadiums, fan experiences evolving

Virtual reality will likely be a bigger factor in the fan experience in the future. Here Arizona Diamondbacks employee Sienna Villa tries out a virtual reality headset in the Cox Connects VR Bullpen at Chase Field. (Photo by Samantha Pell/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — The year is 2057.

You hope to attend a football game, but you do not want to go alone. No worries, stadium seating is based off social media contacts so someone you know will be sitting by you. Have security and safety concerns? No need, entrance requires facial recognition and stadium cameras are programmed to locate any potential threats. Concerned about boredom? An extended fan zone that includes virtual reality rides, tailgating inside the stadium and personal video feeds to follow favorite players will help prevent that.

Those are just some of the upgrades stadiums will implement in the future, experts say.

Stadiums and fandom are constants in the world of sports but as technology evolves and attention spans shorten, sports teams will rethink ways to enhance the fan experience.

The Chase Field pool is one example of how sports teams are trying to make the fan experience better. More technology-savvy enhancements are one the way. Photo courtesy Arizona Diamondbacks)

Some changes already are underway, including supersized video boards, swimming pools, constant music or in-game emcees.

“The whole stadium is just like a jangling set of keys and we’re all kittens with A.D.D., and it’s just trying to keep our attention the whole time,” said Rafi Kohan, author of the book “The Arena.”

Sports franchises and businesses are constantly exploring unique stadium upgrades and different methods of fan engagement, Kohan said. In a way, sporting venues have become huge entertainment centers. He points to an experience at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.

“I swear to you, I went up during halftime to an upper deck sports bar that they have in the stadium and there was a real dance party happening, as if you would see it in the basement of a fraternity house,” Kohan said. “That level of dance party. It smelled the same. It was like red bull and vodka, and people didn’t leave until the middle of the third quarter. They just stayed there and danced.”

Stadium upgrades will have an impact on fandom and the way fans view sports, said Brian David Johnson, a Futurist in Residence at Arizona State University and a Professor of Practice at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

“With the amount of data and technology out there, we’ll definitely be able to experience sporting events in a variety of ways, (like) being able to map every player and gameplay in stadiums,” he said. “We’ll be able to literally be in the game, which is amazing. As (artificial intelligence) gets better, that digital world starts becoming intrinsically linked to the physical worlds.”

Stadium upgrades in the future could included virtual reality rides, seating based off social media contacts, facial recognition and hologram replays. Fans might watch games with a virtual reality headset through the perspective of one’s favorite quarterback, USA Today’s Erick Brady wrote after interviewing futurists.

These technological advancements are not just going to have an impact on sports fandom but on the athletes as well.

Turf football fields will be designed to help receivers hit 22-plus mph on their routes, and spring-loaded, carbon-fiber basketball floors will be designed to add six inches to vertical leaps, Brady wrote.

People evaluate performance based on what can be achieved as an unenhanced human being. However, with technology evolving, experts like Andrew Maynard, a professor at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, as well as the Director of the ASU Risk Innovation Lab, believe we are approaching a point where it will be increasingly difficult to maintain that mindset.

“At some point, we’re going to flip over to athletes that are being enhanced in certain ways, and we’re going to accept that,” Maynard said. “But that’s going to completely change the relationship between the athletes, the sports and the fans that watch them, and I think it’s going to lead to a lot (of) big changes and expectations of what we really get out of watching sport.”

Maynard said he is studying the idea of genetically engineering someone so that in 20 years, they become a top athlete.

“What happens in a world where you can actually program somebody’s genetic code so it enhances certain athletic abilities,” Maynard said. “Now, the initial response to that would be to resist it, but at some point, the pressure to change is going to be so much that we’re going to have to accept the sports people we’re watching are being enhanced in certain ways with technology. And we’re going to have to work out how we embrace that as a society.”

Sports at their best brings people together and creates a unique camaraderie and community atmosphere. But fans also crave the next big thing and sports franchises recognize it.

The mindset of sports fans is perpetually changing, said Sasha A. Barab, a Professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Teachers College at ASU, who also co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact.

“I think in some level what fans expect is not to just go watch the greatness of others, but they want to feel like they’re great, too,” he said. “And when you move from where ‘I’m just here to watch other greatness, but actually feel great while I’m here,’ it puts a different burden on the franchise, so to speak, both in the stadium itself, but also in how I’m relating to those fans around that stadium.”

Franchises will have to adapt to an ever-evolving society. Upgrades are necessary to maintain intrigue. Interestingly, the same sports franchises and businesses that make these upgrades might be the same people who push fans away from attending live games. They want more fans to attend games and support their teams, but they must reconcile that with what reigns supreme to sports franchises and businesses: money.

“I think we’re back again to this whole idea of cannibalizing because the leagues have a lot of pressure on themselves, or put pressure on themselves, to find more revenue, and more revenue exists when there’s another way to present the game and you get somebody to pay for the rights,” said Kenneth Shropshire, the Adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport and CEO of Global Sport Institute at ASU. “So they keep going up further and further, pushing people arguably away from actually going to games. Then they circle back and say, ‘Oh yeah, we have to improve the live game experience,’ and so the tension goes back and forth.”

Futurists say sports franchises and businesses hope change reflects progress in terms of stadium renovations and fan support, especially with the help of technological advancements.

But change must come with purpose, Maynard said, and an understanding of that purpose. He stressed the importance of being careful to avoid innovation for innovation’s sake, also known as “naive innovation.” Innovation is only innovation if people are willing to actually pay for, or invest in, what you do, or what you make, he said.

“Everything has got to come down to what is the value people get out of sports and being part of a community that engages with sports,” Maynard said. “I think you can’t talk about the use of technology until you’ve really understood what it is that people desperately want to get out of this.

“Once you’ve understood that, you can work out how to use an amazing raft of new technologies that are coming along to enhance that experience. The biggest risk, I feel, is trying to impose the technologies without really understanding what it is people want to get out of sport.”

Ultimately, stadiums and fan engagement could come full circle.

Maynard imagines scenarios in which stadiums evolve into something new but eventually return to the basics.

“If you’re looking at 50 years, you could imagine a future scenario where over the next 10 to 20 years, stadiums become incredibly technologically advanced to the stage where there’s a big push toward virtual stadiums,” Maynard said. “So we don’t know real stadiums, but people sort of sitting (at) their own homes without the (virtual reality) headsets on, or something like that. But then I can imagine there being a big social pushback against that because people just aren’t getting that visceral sense of being part of something that you do if you go to a real stadium.

“So I wouldn’t be at all surprised in this scenario if in 50 years we didn’t see a resurgence of old-style stadiums where people actually go and rub shoulders with each other, and actually really watch the sport.”