- Publish Date
- Wednesday, 27 May 2020, 10:26AM
Chris Cairns once performed in stadia worldwide as a professional cricketer, now he's in the business of creating their virtual equivalents.
The coronavirus has taught a sports-deprived, social-distancing world that watching any code in future may require more creativity than squishing through turnstiles, cramping up in bucket seats and wolfing battered hot dogs.
Cairns craves a better solution.
Since his December 2015 acquittal on a perjury charge in relation to cricket match-fixing allegations, the former Black Caps all-rounder has developed a company called Smart Sportz from his Canberra home.
He aims to work alongside traditional sport by building computer-generated imagery to enhance viewing and tap into a younger audience.
A Black Swan event such as Covid-19 has made Cairns' concept all the more topical, given most professional sport will operate behind closed doors indefinitely.
Elsewhere, there have been rudimentary attempts to create what might be loosely called "an atmosphere". These have included piping in crowd noise, populating the stands with cardboard cut-outs or, in the case of FC Seoul football club in South Korea, sex dolls.
Cairns believes the experience can be revolutionised by comparison.
"You can't replicate or beat a live Bledisloe Cup test at Eden Park, centre court at Wimbledon, or the first day of a Lord's test. Those provide special moments, but grounds at present have no people, so that's a problem.
"We want to bring creativity from Hollywood movies through photo realism on how we can deliver a game. You could have it in a stadium with 100,000 people, under the ocean in a bubble, or on the moon.
"We're looking to incorporate technology like the post-production worlds created by Marvel movies; it's similar gaming technology to Fortnite. We apply that to a virtual green screen and put sport inside."
Cairns says one regular question from potential clients was how athletes felt about playing in front of no one?
"My response, as an ex-athlete, was it didn't matter if you played in front of nobody or 60,000 people; you'll compete."
In a promotional video, Cairns explains their raison d'etre as an ability to enhance storytelling by applying production values to sport's unscripted drama.
He says musicians and actors have been performing live in studios for decades, so why can't athletes?
"If you've got 20 teams, you don't need 20 stadiums. Our software engineers can build 20 environments. It's the ability to take the infrastructure cost out of sport.
"Even if a stadium's half-full, quarter-full or empty, millions of people can be watching on TV – it's not about replacing live sport."
Such a premise has seldom been more relevant in the current echoing cauldrons.
Examples include league's NRL preparing to return this week after myriad logistical debates to mollify broadcasters; declining Super Rugby crowds; and efforts by basketball's NBA to find an empty arena at Florida's Disney World to resume their season.
"My initial conversations with sporting bodies didn't go so good," Cairns says, "but as they've allowed the information to percolate they've realised we're not competing with live sport, we're just looking at a new way of delivering it via the studio.
"We've kept going despite the initial push back and - when Covid hit - a lot of our 3-5 year ambitions advanced to 3-5 months because people are putting a different lens on things and listening to ideas regardless of how crazy they are. Sport needs solutions… and we don't know how long this will go for.
"Sportspeople are being asked to take salary cuts and governing bodies are laying people off to keep afloat. It's debilitating for everyone involved in the business."
A core Smart Sportz objective is how they bring down the average age of fans, which has been creeping up in traditional codes. According to a 2017 study commissioned by the US publication Sports Business Journal, the average baseball, gridiron and basketball fan is 57, 50 and 42 years old respectively. The hunt for the plum 18-49 year-old advertising audience remains crucial for administrators.
"It's about talking a relevant language," Cairns says, "and the one thing about using the virtual world is we can build anything we wish. Sponsorship can be incorporated into assets that move and engage."
But, like cricket form, Cairns knows the industry can be fickle.
"No matter how good an idea I think it is, if the fans think it stinks, it dies.
"The dilemma to any [sporting] start-up is getting the confidence of governing bodies and investors.
"It can be quite demoralising, but as long as you're prepared for lots of 'nos' and door-slams then you can survive. At Smart Sportz we have a theory and if the fans like it, then happy days."
This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission