When you have the opportunity to take part in an exciting panel at SXSW, it’s a good day. When Obama references that panel, it’s even better. POTUS was at SXSW yesterday for a talk that happened to be at the same time as my session, something he took note of, according to the Austin American-Statesman’s live blog:

He noted that his SXSW panel was in [competition with] strange topics like “Dude, where’s my par? Making virtual reality golf.”

“It’s true,” Obama said. “So I can confirm, you’ve kept Austin weird.”

I’m happy my panel topic and copywriting skills could help keep Austin weird. And hopefully, the topic my fellow panelists and I discussed was an interesting one. Kudos to T.J. Won of Oculus and Alex Lindsay of Pixel Corps for joining me in the session.

My portion of the panel centered on the efforts I’ve been leading with the PGA TOUR around virtual reality, efforts that really started during last year’s SXSW conference when I connected with Won. They continued last summer as I spent time in the Oculus lab in Palo Alto and as we began testing VR content production at a Web.com Tour event.

For the test, we spent two days filming at the Stonebrae Classic, working closely with Web.com Tour players to shoot a variety of videos, including instruction, player-caddie interaction on course, and video from the practice putting green. As with any good test, we learned a lot. Instruction video, for example, came across extremely well in the VR environment. Gathering good audio from the windy course proved tricky, a common issue for a sport that deals with the elements on a daily basis.

The other big takeaway was in how unique golf comes across within VR, particularly as compared with other sports. For one thing, our venue changes every week. And those venues are beautiful. Being immersed on any one of the courses where we play is compelling. The other element comes back to the individual nature of the sport. When a viewer puts on a VR headset and gets immersed in the environment, there’s a sense of being there with the player or with the player and his caddy. It’s an intimate view of the player and creates an experience that can’t be captured in traditional video or broadcast TV.

That brings us to this year. In February, we became the first sports league to launch an app on the Oculus platform. The initial app is meant to give us a foundation on the platform, one that we can build on over the course of this year and beyond. We launched the app with four pieces of original on-demand VR video. All were shot and edited during the Waste Management Phoenix Open. One provides a unique view of the experience on the 16th hole. We also captured two instruction pieces, one with Peter Malnati on chipping out of bunker and the second with Patrick Rodgers on putting. And finally, we went behind the scenes at our PGA TOUR LIVE production, showcasing the TV truck environment, something few fans ever see.

Throughout the year, I’m excited to continue experimenting in VR storytelling, identifying players or storylines that may play well on the platform. We’ll continue to publish those videos to the Oculus platform. And to reach a broader audience, we’ll be publishing 360-degree versions to Facebook and YouTube.

Thanks to SXSW for making video from the panel available. Enjoy!


ESPN’s Matthew Berry moderated a SXsports session this afternoon that brought the more traditional world of Fantasy gaming together with the daily model. Nigel Eccles, CEO of FanDuel, kicked things off with a tale of the origins of his company. “It was born in Austin six years ago,” he said. He and his partners stood in front of a shed with post it notes containing several ideas. FanDuel is the idea that won. How’s that for Austin startup lore? Pretty amazing as it turns out. FanDuel boasts 1.5 million paying players. And they’re growing all the time.

That growing audience isn’t just for the good of FanDuel either. As Berry pointed out, “Fantasy drives traffic everywhere…Even if they play at another site, we believe it means they’re going to be more engaged in sports and will eventually come to an ESPN platform.” To put that into context, for ESPN, the average sports fan engages with an ESPN platform about six hours per week. The average Fantasy player engages about 18 hours a week.

That’s in line with what FanDuel sees from a broader perspective. Not only are FanDuel players consuming more sports content, they’re also paying for that content. About 10 percent of its players buy a league pass. Another notable characteristic of the FanDuel audience is that it skews younger than the traditional league model where 40-something men dominate.

While daily gaming is the shiny new object, league play remains popular. Clifton Ma, Head of Fantasy Sports for Yahoo, rounded out the panel with the league perspective. “It’s about camaraderie with friends,” he said. “The stuff Nigel (FanDuel) is doing is more around money.” The tricky element in the league model is in how you keep people interested late in the season when their Fantasy team is already out of the playoffs. Certainly, the daily model has a leg up there.

This afternoon, Brent Dewar, Chief Operating Officer at NASCAR, and Bob Bowman, President & CEO for MLBAM, joined reporter Rachel Nichols for a discussion on how each league thinks about technology, and more importantly, its fans.

NASCAR looks to its very passionate audience for guidance, including a group of about 13,000 that make up its Fan Council.

MLBAM also prioritizes its fans. “With technology, it’s hard not to make money as long as you serve the fan first,” Bowman said. If you don’t put the fan first, “it will either be inauthentic or it won’t work.” It’s wise advice but too many brands forget the fan, putting emphasis instead on internal or sponsor demands. By focusing on the fan, brands can find success and the rest should follow suit.

Another encouraging tidbit from MLBAM is that they start with social media and, from there, they work backwards. “It’s the only way to reach tens of millions of people,” Bowman said. This is another common brand miss. Many brands start with a message, thinking about it from a television or traditional website perspective. By starting with social, the content or program goes where fans already are. And it can ensure it’s focused and relevant to fans. From there, it can be built to go deeper across a variety of platforms.

Closing out the session, an attendee asked how MLBAM tackles the question of the ROI of social media. Bowman’s response was that he’s not sure if there’s a direct link to commerce, but “you ignore at your peril.” Baseball has to be where its fans are. Even if one of those fans has been a Facebook fan for three years before making it to a game, it’s a big deal. “Once you’ve gone to a game, you’re a different kind of fan,” he said.

It’s a theme NASCAR echoed in the session as well. Their highest loyalty comes from the fans who attend at least one event a year. Serving those fans at the event and away from the event is the key to success. And to that ROI question, those fans who are attending are likely promoting the experience to friends and family as they post to Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and/or Facebook. If you’re looking for ROI, that kind of promotion is priceless.

As part of this year’s SXSports agenda, a team of heavy hitters talked about what watching sports will look like in the future.

In the session, the topic of the smart TV was raised. Will this or won’t this be the key to the way sports are consumed going forward? Mark Kramer, Head of Digital Technology for Pac-12 Networks, argued one of two possibilities will happen here. The first, is that smart TVs die off in favor of “dumb TV.” The TV becomes just a monitor and your phone is your cable box, allowing you to put whatever you want on your TV. A true remote control.

The other possibility Kramer outlined was that TVs start to become bundled with providers much like they are with phones today. This scenario would allow TV technology to move much more rapidly, with consumers replacing their TVs every two years.

Another key topic for the future was around data and personalization. The purpose here–and to some extent, this is already happening–is to better understand fans. “It’s not to be creepy but to make the experience better,” Kramer said.

Understanding what fans are interested in and how they want to watch the game opens up interesting possibilities. Having the ability to change camera angles on the fly is one such possibility, according to William Mao, Head of College Sports Partnerships for YouTube. This could involve anything from moving to a first person perspective or getting audio from a coach, player or ref who’s mic’ed up.

For fellow panelist Spencer Hall, Editorial Director for Vox Media/SB Nation, he’d like to have the ability to switch to other broadcasts on the fly. That might mean going between hometown broadcasts to get their view or tuning into international feeds. That international feed angle is where “the confetti” is. You don’t need to understand the language to get the sense of excitement during a big moment. These examples could take fans to new places, but of course current realities around media rights prevent such things from coming to life.

Whatever the creative idea, the message is clear. In the words of Kramer, “The more choices we can give fans, the more they’re going to want to watch…and the more they’re going to buy a ticket and come to a game.”