Having spent four years as Twitter's head of sports partnerships, it wasn't an easy decision for Danny Keens to leave his executive role. But he realized that the virtual reality landscape held more promise.
"Everything we do at Twitter is about meeting the demands of the fan," said Keens, "and I truly believe that virtual reality will meet the demands of the fan like no other medium in history has been able to do."
Today, he serves as VP of Content at NextVR, a virtual reality broadcasting company that works with major TV networks like CNN, Fox Sports, NBC Sports, and HBO. Just last week, the Laguna Beach, Calif.-based startup announced a deal with the NBA to stream one basketball game each week--for the duration of the season--in virtual reality. The first VR match up, last Thursday, was between the Sacramento Kings and San Antonia Spurs. The broadcast included dedicated announcers, camera angles, and graphics.
The games are accessible to NBA League Pass subscribers via NextVR's app and a Samsung Gear headset. The partnership, however, isn't exclusive to Samung; users can access content across all VR devices in the coming months--including the Google Daydream and HTC Vive.
VR is growing in popularity
There are a number of startups trying to cash in on the burgeoning virtual reality industry, which is expected to top $1 billion in sales this year, according to Deloitte. Jaunt, for instance, is a production company backed by Steven Spielberg. It has translated films, baseball games, and music concerts into virtual reality. Meanwhile, smaller startups like TheWaveVR aim to bring musicians and live concerts to VR. What may set NextVR apart is its focus on recasting sports.
In fact, the promise of VR is just as great for professional leagues as it is for film producers. "Many sports fans never get a chance to actually see their team play live," explained Keens. "With virtual reality, you experience what it's like to actually be at the stadium." That's something TV can't yet deliver.
"One of the things that sports teams and leagues will tell you is that how they convert casual fans into core fans," he continued, "is by getting those fans to attend a game."
The seven-year-old company is headed by co-founder and CEO David Cole. To date, it has raised more than $110 million in venture capital--including a recent $80 million infusion, mainly from Chinese investors. Although Keens declines to share revenues, he indicates that the business model operates "as a traditional media company would"--meaning that sales are driven by advertisements.
The challenges of working in a still-maturing industry
Of course, virtual reality is still an incredibly nascent industry. Analysts say that one of the bigger challenges for a startup operating in this space is an overall lack of visibility. "There's still going to be years of building awareness of VR," says Stephanie Llamas, the director of research and insight at Superdata, a firm focused on games and interactive media. In fact, more than half (52 percent) of Americans are either unfamiliar with or uninterested in virtual reality. But Keens remains confident that NextVR can become a global media company.
Keens has taken many lessons from his time at Twitter and applied them to his role today. Here are his top three:
1. Content is king, but distribution also reigns.
Media companies need to be embracing video, and especially live video, as the mode of distribution that gets the most views, Keens says. That's a big part of what inspired the partnership with the NBA.
"My biggest takeaway from nearly four years at Twitter is that you can have the best content on the planet, but if you don't have distribution, it might as well be the worst content," he explained.
Once you've experimented with the platforms that can drive the most traffic, "with content comes audience, and with audience comes revenue," he says.
2. Twitter was uncharted territory -- but virtual reality is more-so.
Because the industry is still young, NextVR has to make risky decisions without having much of a precedent.
"Twitter was dealing with more traditional media," Keens says. "The challenges were how to bring video into a tweet, or how to bring multiple images into a tweet. That's not the stuff we're doing at NextVR."
"The biggest challenge is planning for the unknown in terms of how the technology will evolve," he adds.
3. Don't fool yourself: The competition is robust.
Startups in the space need to be aware that the competition for attention--and, ultimately, ad dollars--is fierce.
"All of these media companies are competing for the same eyeballs," said Keens. "That's the reality of it. And there's only so much time that each individual has to watch sports or listen to music."