Ben Beecken, Grandstand Central Staff Writer
To some extent, we’ve already seen technological advances have a significant impact on sports that were once outside the fringes of mainstream consciousness — at least here in the United States.
Some recent examples have to do with something as simple as available high-definition satellite TV channels, DVR and social media. Look no further than the Olympics. Sports like handball and curling survived largely on their own cult following until they became must-see Olympic sports. Curling wasn’t added until 2006, and while handball has been around since the 1970s, something tells me that it wasn’t receiving primetime air during the later part of the 20th century. Now, the Olympics are broadcasted and streams in a variety of places, and the advent of DVRs has changed viewing habits significantly, too.
There are dozens of extreme sports — extreme enough that there are certainly folks that would argue they fall in the “sports” classification — that will see their followings increase in scope due to technology. It will start similar to Langeree’s kitesurfing example; there’s an audience for everything on YouTube, and if you’re doing something awesome, then someone will find you. (And if you’re good at it, lots of someones will find you.)
ESPN The Ocho made a return in early August with sports such as dodgeball (of course), darts, handball, roller derby and chess boxing (!) making it onto ESPN2 as part of an entire day’s worth of broadcasting. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why some of these sports were selected, but it shows that there is at least somewhat of an audience out there for all of it.
In terms of the more extreme fringe sports, anything in the family of kitesurfing would be a candidate to explode based on advancements in camera technology — you might have a fear of water, but there’s something about feeling like it’s you that’s windsurfing high above the ocean even while your feet are firmly on solid ground. If you have a fear of heights, maybe try watching first-person footage of a freestyle rock-climber dangling hundreds of feet above jagged rocks and what looks like near-certain death. Or, there’s the relatively new cousin of hang-gliding and parachuting: wingsuit flying.
It’s really the natural evolution beyond the X Games, which are now considered fairly run-of-the-mill but are also generally accepted as sports. To truly appreciate some of these newer, even fringier sports, we have technology that can make us — the viewers — feel as though we’re in the athlete’s shoes, wing-suit or hang-glider. Remember, cameras have been able to film some of these actions for years, but we’re now getting better and better cameras, and the ease of disseminating the footage is far easier in 2018 than it was in 2008.
The next step is taking these extreme sports and making them attractive to view in a virtual reality setting. Once VR technology becomes more prevalent — will there be a day when having VR technology in the home is completely normal and expected, as HDTVs are today? — it’s natural to expect that the more daring (and less stuffy) sports will at least vie for the attention of folks that would otherwise be watching the more traditional athletic events.
While technology has been used to enhance the viewing experience of the Big Five sports (think the catcher’s helmet cam in baseball, the “skycam” or ref cam in football, the goalie cam in hockey), the “wow” factor just hasn’t been there. After all, there’s something more exciting about tumbling through the air and experiencing real thrill and danger than simply watching someone catch a fastball.