Originally published on cbc.ca/sports

Do you watch alpine skiing? What about horse racing?

If not, what if a virtual-reality camera was attached to the ski racer or jockey’s helmet, putting you on the mountain or in the saddle of the horse you just placed a bet on — allowing you, in real-time, to experience the thrilling charge to the finish.

Would you watch then? Eye-Live Media co-founder Murray McKercher believes you would, and his company wants to deliver such an experience in a wide range of sports.

“Think goalies, catchers, anyone that can offer viewers a fixed point of view,” he says. “What better way for an athlete to create buzz than to literally put fans in their shoes?”

McKercher’s Toronto-based company is just one of several in Canada that are trying to change the way people consume sports.

This is happening at a time when sports media companies are dealing with declining viewership. People aren’t just changing channels, they’re tuning out in favour of other entertainment options.

The media research firm Kagan estimates that ESPN, for instance, is paying approximately $8 billion US this year alone for the rights to NFL, NBA, MLB and other live games. Nevertheless, the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” appears to be on the decline, having lost nearly 10 per cent of its value since 2011, according to Forbes.

ESPN and other sports media companies are trying to adjust to an increasingly digitized world where highlights are instantly available on social media, furthering the push towards cord-cutting — especially among millennials, whose preference for streaming services has put a dent in TV ratings.

As a result, the search is on for ways to increase “fan engagement” — a phrase that has become a bit of buzz word, according to Mike Cotton, director of Zone Startups Sports + Media at Ryerson Futures, a startup accelerator in Toronto.

“You have to understand that sport is a very risk averse industry,” says Cotton, who looks for “mature companies that are still raw enough to mold, connecting them to leagues and teams, so that we can get them working on more targeted problems.”

A game-changer

Take Elevety, a startup that began three years ago after two friends — Bart Lipski and Sebastian Koper — grew frustrated with their inability to communicate while kite surfing.

“When you’re outside a mobile zone,” says Lipski, “Your only solutions are archaic… walkie-talkies were created in World War I and haven’t, quite frankly, been updated.

“What we’ve developed is wearable and it’s a closed system, completely independent [think Bluetooth], meaning it will work anywhere — in the middle of the ocean, on top of Mount Everest… it doesn’t matter.”

The mainstream sports world took interest, especially after the NFL invited them to compete this past January at “1st and Future,” the league’s exclusive pitch competition.

Suddenly, Elevety began to see that its idea could do more than modernize referee communication.

“Imagine if we could link the quarterback back to the offensive coordinator, or the entire offensive line to the coach,” says Lipski.

That could be a game-changer on the field, but what helped Elevety win third place in the competition was the technology’s potential to bring in viewers. Better communication between players could lead to a faster-paced, more exciting game that keeps eyeballs on the screen.

Now, imagine you’re watching hockey — say, Habs vs. Leafs — and right as your team gets a power play your phone prompts you to predict the outcome.

Or perhaps you’re watching the Olympics, and as Canada’s next medal hopeful prepares to compete, your phone chimes in with all of his or her pertinent info.

Think of it like Cineplex’s TimePlay or Nintendo Wii, says SmartTones Media president Daryl Hemingway. Except, instead of Wi-Fi, this technology uses sound (which is highly accurate through short distances and doesn’t need IP addresses, user names or passwords) to synch your smartphone to the broadcast you’re watching.

When he began, Hemingway simply wanted to find a way to help fellow documentary filmmakers generate revenue and connect with TV audiences. He didn’t realize that his invention would become an advertisers’ dream, turning your phone into an engagement device instead of a distraction.

It works, says Hemingway, because “90 per cent of people keep their phone within arms reach 24/7, allowing us to derive if a person is watching a specific program.”

So the next time you’re catching tennis, you’ll not only be able to join in, by using your phone as an imaginary racket, you’ll also be providing content creators with feedback on what engages your brain.

This actionable quality means advertisers will no longer be in a vacuum — not when every swipe and click allows them to measure, just as they can with digital ads on Google and Facebook, their return on investment.

That’s why, as Cotton puts it, sport tech is “red hot.”

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