How Pro Sports is Succeeding With Virtual Events During Shutdown

Kelsey Formost

21 Apr 2020 · 3 min read

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As the world continues to shelter in place, the professional sports industry has had a unique hurdle to overcome with regards to how to pivot from their main revenue stream: live events.

For now, every in-person sporting event is on hold until further notice; from the Boston Marathon, to the entire NBA season, to the most-watched sporting event around the world, the Olympics. As no one really knows when it’s going to be safe for live sports to resume, it’s become clear that new measures are needed to keep fans engaged.

Enter: Digital sports.

Over the past month, the world has witnessed an incredible pivot from live, in-person sporting events, to real-time competition that takes place via a simulator or screen. What’s surprising is how effective the shift has been in generating fan interest and engagement.

Some of the ways that various leagues have approached the shutdown of live events have been truly innovative. The NBA has explored VR, or “Virtual Reality”, headsets as an option for viewers to experience games. The Chinese Professional Baseball League is filling their stands with mannequins and robots in lieu of fans. But perhaps the most successful pivot in sports belongs to NASCAR and pro racing.

NASCAR’s unique solution

NASCAR has found a creative way around the current ban on in-person events through iRacing and live digital races. Where racing is uniquely advantaged is that drivers’ have already been training inside professional-grade iRacing simulators for the last decade. Much like pilots use flight simulators to learn and test equipment, race car drivers have been using simulators to practice, troubleshoot, and test out engineering solutions to make their cars go faster.

Last week, I spoke with Townsend Bell, a pro driver and current racing commentator for NBC sports. “The only thing that’s changed in this racing simulation world is we’ve flipped the switch to compete. And now we’re broadcasting those events to a live audience. So that’s been very exciting and fascinating to watch how that’s developed.”

And the fans agree. On-air and online engagement with viewers is growing as fans tune in to watch a live, simulated race between current professional drivers. These aren’t just re-runs of old championships. These are formal professional races with eNASCAR, broadcast live in real-time on FOX and NBC. “It’s given race fans plenty to sink their teeth into because, at the end of the day, the competition is real,” Bell said. “You have every one of the current 26 drivers at home on their simulators making every one of the same moves they do in their cars.”

But this new world of online racing doesn’t come without its hiccups! Bell filled me in that unlike normal races, drivers are able to broadcast live to their own personal social media feeds, and more than a few times they’ve had a few (his words) “oopsies”.

Drivers have had to be muted because of heated headset chatter, which from an entertainment standpoint, is all part of the appeal. You’re not just watching cars whiz around a track, you’re hearing your favorite drivers literally navigate this new normal, filled with more competitive vigor than ever.

The additional element of drivers simulcasting via Twitter, Twitch, or other social channels opens up a world of possibilities for fan engagement. Viewers of these online races can have the TV broadcast going, while also watching a second feed with a driver’s Twitch feed. It appears both entities are feeding the other. One of the first online races received over 500K viewers online, and the latest eNASCAR broadcasts have over a million tuning in. And those numbers are steadily growing. As awareness of these races and the issues between drivers become more well known, people want to tune in and see how those rivalries develop over the season.

So, what can other sports learn from NASCAR’s success?

The world is adapting, perhaps more quickly than anticipated, to living even more of our lives online. What’s abundantly clear is that sports fans are willing to try something new when it comes to supporting their favorite teams. Coming up with a creative solution that allows athletes to engage in real-time competition via digital channels can only help the sports industry, even after the pandemic has passed.

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