Drones and VR give pro surf league fans beachside views

Drones and VR give pro surf league fans beachside views

The World Surf League is experimenting with drones, live streaming video and virtual reality to build viewership and increase fan engagement.

Many modern sports organizations look to advanced cameras for a technology edge. The NFL uses cameras on wires; the NBA has hoop cameras; and NASCAR uses cameras inside some racecars to show viewers different points of view, for example. Now professional surf organization World Surf League (WSL) is catching on, incorporating drones and other new technologies to improve broadcasts and encourage more fans to tune in. 

[Related Feature: Fan experience key to success of drones, VR in pro sports]

"We're making a conscious effort to elevate the production value of the broadcast," says Jed Pearson, WSL senior vice president of broadcasting and executive producer of content and programming. "We're turning our 'bro-cast' into a broadcast."

Hitting the wave with drones, live video

Until the latter half of 2014, the WSL TV and online broadcasts were quite simple. In an effort to modernize, the league placed sideline reporters closer to surfers with waterproof cameras and microphones to capture more sound bites. And in May 2015, WSL brought in drones to capture new perspectives of the surf action. Today the league uses a DJI Inspire 1 drone to record footage for each broadcast from the air, and it keeps an extra drone on hand in case the main unit runs out of battery life. (Some geographic locations have local or national government regulations that restrict drone use, so they're not available for every broadcast.) The league selected the DJI drones because they don't easily get blown away in strong winds.

world surf league app athlete page World Surf League

During competitions, drones fly over waves to take footage of aerial views in front, behind and next to the surfers — angles a long-lens camera or onsite cameraman can't easily capture. That footage is then added to live broadcasts via radio frequencies, so it doesn't need to be uploaded separately, and there are no delays. Producers also use drones to collect opening shots for the introductions to the broadcasts, such as swooping scenes that show the length of beaches from overhead. Two staff members that have experience with the devices, or a third party company that is licensed to fly drones, typically manage them. 

"The big bonus of the drone footage is that it's unique," says Pearson. "We don't have traditional stadiums, so we can't do a cable camera above the field. Sometimes waves are breaking almost a mile out to sea, and [drones] enhance the broadcast and give the viewer an aerial view so they can see how close a reef is and the waves approaching."

Hang 10 on mobile, via VR

In March the WSL launched its official mobile app (free for iOS and Android). The app lets you view live streams of surf competitions, set up alerts for the start of competitions, create lists of your favorite surfers and adjust fantasy surf lineups. The app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times to date.

The league also started the Virtual Water Lab initiative to experiment with how to create more immersive experiences for viewers. The goal is to provide 360-degree experiences using virtual reality (VR) headsets, or 360-degree camera views on desktops or in the mobile app. Viewers would, for example, be able to watch competitions from a seat on a beach, or from the perspective of a surfer, by wearing a VR headset.

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