The Arizona Cardinals Competitive Advantage: Virtual Reality

Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals’ competitive advantage: virtual reality… How this technology can allow NFL owners to have their cake (win games) and eat it too (maximize profits)

What can the sports industry learn from the tech industry? Sports, generally considered to be an industry that lags others in utilizing innovative technology, is proving to be ahead of the curve in the usage of virtual reality. In 2015, one NFL Quarterback, Carson Palmer, of the Arizona Cardinals began using virtual reality to memorize his playbook, study his competition, and review his technique.

Before getting into the specifics of how the Arizona Cardinals organization is utilizing this technology, it will help to first describe the virtual reality experience. Arpita Aneja of Time magazine says, “a virtual reality headset shows you an image and as soon as you move your head it modifies that image to make it seem like you’re really there. 3D audio can also enhance the experience and make you forget your physical surroundings.”1 In the context of football, a player can use the headset to review the captured video (360-degree view) and audio from team practice.

As a result of the competitive advantages this technology can provide a team, we will dive into the potential impact that the technology can provide and will explore the idea that an NFL organization may be able to maximize both wins and profits.

Offensive Preparation, Competitive Recognition, and Personal Improvement

Carson Palmer uses virtual reality each week, leading up to his next game. Sports Illustrated reports that each week, Carson has “5 days to learn 171 plays.”2 The burden of preparation falls to everyone on the tam, but none more important than the quarterback who is the leader of the offense.

These 171 plays require strict memorization, but more importantly need to be learned in the context of what the competition will be doing on defense. In a complex game of football, a deep understanding of how to adjust a play to exploit weaknesses within an opposing team’s defense is crucial to a team’s success. While the coaches can call plays from the sideline, it is up to the quarterback to “audible” or change plays at the line of scrimmage to address the defensive scheme. Virtual reality has helped Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals because of its ability to place the quarterback in the situation and allow him to practice real reads on the defense. This perspective cannot be recreated without the full participation of an offense and defense present, in person. Prior to virtual reality, this limiting factor decreases a quarterback’s ability to run through their reads and implement plays in real-time.

Finally, Palmer can use the virtual reality footage to review his own technique and performance. While working with coaches, he can see from all angles, his every movement and decision. This perspective allows for greater personal development as a player. Interesting to note is that Palmer’s Quarterback Rating (a commonly used statistic in football to assess a quarterback’s performance) increased from 95.6 (2014) to 104.6 (2015) in the year he started using virtual reality, leading one to believe that he found tangible value in the technology.3

Virtual Reality’s Contribution to the Business of Winning

Akin to most any business, a sports team thrives on individual performance within the context of a strong team. For the Cardinals, some examples of the results of these efforts are seen in wins on the field, revenue generated, and motivated players (employees). But, there have been many studies done on the NFL that states that most ownership are win-maximizing rather than profit-maximizing.4 What this looks like in reality is that owners prioritize purchasing large contracts for superior talent to win, forgoing the maximization of profits in the process. So, my question is simple: can both profit maximization and win maximization be achieved with the introduction of next generation technology as a competitive advantage? If the traditional model requires paying the most talented players to maximize wins, can an owner maximize wins by improving player development with a $300,000 investment in virtual reality technology?

“Doubling Down” on the Virtual Reality Investment

If we can reasonably show that the return on developing talent using the virtual reality system is greater than the high-cost return of acquiring superior talent, then we can start to think about the greater applications for the technology. Currently, Carson Palmer is the only player to use the system, but this technology could be used across the team, allowing for personal development and group learning in an interactive environment. The full integration of this technology on NFL franchises forces us to consider a world where an NFL franchise can be both win-maximizing and profit-maximizing with this competitive advantage.

(757 words)

1: http://time.com/3987716/how-does-virtual-reality-work/

2: http://mmqb.si.com/mmqb/2015/11/17/nfl-carson-palmer-arizona-cardinals-inside-game-plan

3: http://www.nfl.com/player/carsonpalmer/2505245/careerstats

4: https://www.nassm.com/files/conf_abstracts/2012-064.pdf

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4 thoughts on “The Arizona Cardinals Competitive Advantage: Virtual Reality

  1. Great article! Despite being a fan of both football and VR technology, I had never heard of football teams using VR technology to train prior to reading your writeup. I think this is a great example of how VR can make learning more efficient and effective across a wide variety of subjects.

    The company that supplies the Arizona Cardinals (Carson Palmer’s team) with VR technology is STRIVR. [1] They also provide solutions for hockey and basketball, but their football solution seems to have gotten a lot more traction. Something that struck me was the cost of the solution you cited in the article — $300,000! Given the relatively low cost of hardware and software development, I would be surprised if STRIVR was able to maintain pricing at anywhere near that level going forward. In fact, we’re already seeing examples of football programs pushing back on the price; the University of Tennessee developed an in house VR training system for a fraction of that cost after receiving a $250,000 quote from STRIVR. [2]

    I also question the ability of VR technology to enable team owners to maximize profits in the medium to long run. Assuming the system truly does improve performance, once managers realize the edge VR provides NFL teams, I wouldn’t be surprised to see most teams adopt VR as part of their training programs. The end result would be that no one team would have an edge. VR reminds me of the book “Moneyball” in which the Oakland Athletics used statistical analysis to gain an edge on player acquisition; once all teams realized the benefits of using statistical analysis in evaluating players, the Athletics’ edge disappeared.

    Thanks for covering such an interesting topic!

    [1] STRIVR website, http://www.strivrlabs.com/
    [2] Peter Graham, “NFL VR Training Could Cost You $250,000,” VR Focus, August 19, 2015, https://www.vrfocus.com/2015/08/nfl-vr-training-could-cost-you-250000/

  2. Hi GB – Thanks for an exciting and relevant Sunday NFL read!

    While I admire Carson Palmer’s and the Arizona Cardinals’ tech progressiveness, I wonder whether virtual reality will have the biggest impact with NFL teams, or instead with NFL fans. I actually believe that a much greater opportunity exists with immersive in-game VR experiences for fans. For example, using a network of 360 cameras and 3D audio, the NFL could place each fan on the field during a game. Also, the target market increases from 32 teams, to over 100 million (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/sports/football/viewership-of-super-bowl-falls-short-of-record.html?_r=0).

    Watching an NFL game via VR will be an unparalleled fan experience, but it may come with a cost. If fans flock to VR, what changes will that have on how we view games? Will sports or entertainment become less social, and more isolated? As VR becomes more ubiquitous, I believe content and hardware creators will need to find ways to make VR more social.

  3. Really cool read. I didn’t realize NFL players (or athletes in other professional sports leagues for that matter) were seriously using VR technology in a training capacity. Professional sports are a uniquely under-pentrated area in terms of digital and technological innovation. There is an ungodly amount of data that is captured about players and teams — every pitch that a baseball patter swings at, every shot a basketball player takes, or every throw a football player makes over the course of games, seasons and careers can be analyzed thousands of different ways to assess trends and potentially make improvements. I am firm believer that the teams that continue to embrace the trends like VR and data mining will have significant advantages over old guard teams that simply shrug off data analytics and other innovations. One of the most interesting sports data tracking companies that I’ve read about is STATS SportVU, which uses six high technology cameras placed in NBA arenas to analyze every single step a basketball player makes. 29 teams have signed up for the technology already. In a free flowing game like basketball, really accurate data is harder to track, but STATS SportVU technology is opening up the door for more rigorous player analytics. It will only be time before this technology is put into NFL and NHL stadiums as well.

  4. I think this is a very interesting topic and one that isn’t covered enough in the context of sports. Technology has become such a big part of all professional sports and has contributed to the evolution of the athlete. Arizona is a great example of an organization that has invested time, energy, and capital into leveraging the full benefits of technology. Athletes are becoming bigger, faster, stronger as a result of technological advances and they are also becoming better informed. I wonder how long this evolution will continue to take place and what technology means for the broader sports landscape.

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