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.