The Future of Racing: How VR Is Evolving the Fan Experience

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The 2018 horse racing season is close to ending, which means the Melbourne Cup is drawing near. Racing Breaks previously listed it as one of the top 10 international events for 2018 with fans of world-class racing looking forward to it the most. It is known in Australia as “The race that stops a nation,” with attendance regularly topping 100,000 since 2003. Attendance, though, has dropped for two straight years and last year’s crowd, while still impressive at 90,536, was in fact a 15-year-low for the fabled race. 

That decline in attendance seems to reflect a greater problem hounding horse racing: a dwindling fan base. In an article written by Phil Goldstein on BizTech, he explained this problem succinctly: “Horse racing isn’t what it used to be.” The Kentucky Derby, another prestigious horse race, just saw viewership go down to 14.9 million this year, resulting in a 12-year low. Here in the UK, even the beloved Grand National has seen a decline in viewers, particularly last year. According to reports, the amount of people watching the Grand National dropped to 8.2 million in 2017 compared to 10 million in 2016, which translates to an 18% drop year-on-year. 

Part of the problem is that the sport is not exactly attracting a younger demographic. But there are means to rectify the situation and one of them is through technology. Virtual Reality (VR) in particular looks promising for horse racing as it can enhance the fan experience in ways traditional viewing methods cannot. The technology, in many ways, is fan friendly, which is why it is the next logical frontier to explore and invest in. Virtual Reality gives spectators the chance to get closer to the action to experience the same feelings that their heroes experience on a weekly basis. This technology can fully immerse fans into the exciting world of horse racing; it can offer them unprecedented access to their favourite jockeys and behind the scenes views. It can even let fans view the race from the vantage point of the jockey. To a certain degree, the VR experience is something that the sport can certainly use to attract new fans, particularly the younger tech-savvy generation.

A pioneer in this field is NBC Sports, which first brought VR to the sport in 2016. The US broadcast giant, in partnership with VR company NextVR, began offering the first ever live-VR experience in horse racing — and at the Kentucky Derby no less! The experience includes a virtual videoboard where viewers can watch the live telecast as well as NBC-produced stories and features. Stats and replays are also available for viewing via virtual videoboard. 

Here in the UK, applying VR to horse racing is yet to fully pick up. However, the multidisciplinary production company UNIT9 is hard at work on Get in the Race, a VR platform that will help horse racing fans experience a live race in a 3D environment. In other words, the fans will not just be spectators; they will be virtual jockeys themselves, seeing everything the jockeys see on the racetrack.

Virtual reality, once fully integrated into horse racing, will no doubt improve fan experience. How much it will expand the sport’s fan base remains to be seen. The hope, ultimately, is for VR to help horse racing regain much of the popularity it has lost throughout the years. 

Feature post exclusively for blog.racingbreaks.com

Written by Amber Williamson