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You can’t have a conversation about the intersection of sports and technology without mentioning virtual reality.

At the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit earlier this month, I had a chance to interview two top entrepreneurs leading companies that are utilizing virtual reality technology in the sports world.

Brad Allen is chairman of NextVR, a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based company which was recently valued at $800 million and lets fans experience games from totally new, immersive perspectives. NextVR has a 5-year deal with Fox Sports to broadcast events like the U.S. Open and the Daytona 500 in virtual reality. 

During the 30-minute chat on stage, which you can watch above, Allen made it clear that his technology won’t replace a full-on production of a live sports game. But he certainly feels like there’s a place for VR in sports.

“I have never seen anything in my business career that has so much interest at such a high level, not just here in U.S. or Silicon Valley, but globally,” he said.

Brad Allen (center) and Derek Belch (right) speak at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit.
Brad Allen (center) and Derek Belch (right) speak at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit.

Derek Belch, meanwhile, is CEO and co-founder of STRIVR Labs. The former Stanford kicker teamed up with a professor to develop a way for football players to train with virtual reality technology. His company launched last year and already has several NFL and collegiate teams using STRIVR’s software to improve training.

GeekWire Sports Tech Summit attendees try out NextVR's demos.
GeekWire co-founder John Cook (right) tests out NextVR’s technology at the Sports Tech Summit.

Like Allen, Belch also shares the same passion about the potential for virtual reality in sports. But he cautioned that there is “certainly a long way to go” — everything from improving the hardware to partnering with the right leagues and teams.

“I always tell people, ‘cautious optimism,'” Belch said. “For every amazing idea, there are like 16 things that have to happen to pull it off and make it legitimate.”

It’s very much the early days for virtual reality technology, given that so few people actually own headsets themselves. But Allen said that once the hardware become smaller and more comfortable, the sky is the limit.

“We are looking at a future where there’s a new way to experience life,” he said.

Most virtual reality companies, particularly ones in sports, are not turning a profit (STRIVR, which is bootstrapped, is one exception). Yet when you think about possible scenarios, it’s easy to see why some investors are betting big on companies like NextVR, which lets fans experience live games as if they were actually there.

Brad Allen & Derek Belch speak at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit
Brad Allen and Derek Belch speak at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit

“There are 300 million NBA fans in China,” Allen explained. “How many will get to go to a game, or much less sit courtside? When you think about a virtual ticket for a courtside seat at an NBA game, you can sell millions of that same seat to every game.”

Belch said it can be difficult to convince coaches and athletes to use his platform — “you have to be able to talk about experiences over impressions,” he noted — and added that virtual reality companies need to present actual use cases.

“A lot of VR right now is, check out this cool solution and tell me the problem,” Belch explained. “People who find legitimate use cases and do it correctly will win.”

Our conversation touched on a variety of other topics, from the social aspect of virtual reality to the art of inking partnerships with leagues and teams. Watch it here.

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