For the second consecutive year, Fox Sports is partnering with NextVR to livestream the 116th US Open at the Oakmont Country Club in virtual reality June 16-19. NextVR’s multi-camera broadcast of the tournament includes live four-hole coverage and provides immersive views of the tee boxes and greens at Holes nine, 17 and 18, in addition to roving coverage between neighboring Holes 10 and 12.

But this marks the first time that a brand, Lexus, will be sponsoring the livestreaming experience. Lexus is also an official partner of the US Golf Association (USGA).

“We began with the US Open last year,” Sarah Tourville, Fox Sports senior vice president of sports brand activation, said. “It was unsponsored because we wanted to get a sense of what VR coverage would look like. Moving forward, our goal is to align a sponsor with all of our VR content moving forward.”

The US Open VR experience will feature Lexus as a branded backplate, similar to how Toyota was featured at the Daytona 500 VR experience. “As you look around at the 180-degree view and it’s always in the back view,” Tourville said. “The backplate offers permanent branding during the entire live event. We’ll do branded Lexus call-outs to the content as well.”

The broadcast also includes a video-on-demand lineup featuring a narrated behind-the-scenes look at the history of Oakmont Country Club, as well as live look-ins at Oakmont’s driving range. Fox Sports is also producing two-minute-long golf tips from Fox pros on the both short game and the long game and putting—and Fox Sports analysts will detail each hole.

Fox Sports analysts will provide a description of the hole and then users will be able to experience the hole from several locations. Ultimately, the VR experience will allow fans to explore each of the featured holes as they like. Tourville also explained that the video-on-demand content has the potential to live on YouTube 360 and Facebook 360 as well, although that hasn’t been solidified yet and the USGA needs to approve it.

“Lexus is a USGA official partner, which allows us to be more innovative with them as we explore VR,” Tourville further notes. “In addition, Lexus—as a brand—has done other VR tests with partners, so they’re familiar with this technology.”

The US Open virtual reality broadcast will be available free through the NextVR portal. Samsung Gear VR owners can download the NextVR app to compatible Samsung Galaxy phones.

Outside of the sponsored Lexus content, Fox Sports is working with Joe Buck to cover some VR content. According to Tourville, he’ll do a series of custom VR pieces in a lifestyle venue that will be distributed on social media platforms.

Joe Buck

“Overall, we’re trying to enhance the VR content experience,” Tourville said. “Last year, very few people were talking about VR. Now it’s the shiny object that sales and marketing executives and clients that aren’t in the technology space are asking about, because they want to understand it and participate in it. We’re getting the belief that VR will be a bigger proposition than 4K was ever believed to be.”

Virtual reality is also attracting a younger demographic to golf, although the sport has been helped with the success of players such as Jordan Spieth, Ricky Fowler, and Rory McIlroy of late. “Golf is an older sport and we’re trying to enhance the experience for a younger audience,” Tourville said. The young guns playing and competing in the US Open are taking the sport and revitalizing it. Technology like VR resonates with this newer audience.”

Jordan Spieth
Jordan Spieth

In addition to finding 360-degree content visually appealing, Tourville notes that early adopters and tech savvy people like to share it. “It allows them to feel like they were part of the action,” she explains. “VR personalizes the experience more than a traditional linear broadcast.”

The US Open is the fourth major event Fox Sports has offered in VR in 2016, following the Daytona 500, a Premiere Boxing Champions (PBC) title fight, and the Big East basketball tournament.

At this early stage, measuring success in virtual reality isn’t about how many people who own a headset watched the live event.

“We don’t measure success by the number of downloads or people who went to the Fox Sports channel on NextVR,” Tourville said. “We’re measuring the social conversation and PR buzz associated with this type of innovation. Until we build a broader distribution of headests, it’s not going to be comparable to a traditional media buy of impressions.”

Key questions sponsors need to think about include: Do I feel I’m impacting innovation? Am I providing fans with unparalleled access to the event? “The number one reason advertisers are coming to Fox Sports for VR is because we’ve been in this space for a long time and we’re constantly experimenting,” said Tourville.

Although Fox Sports will continue to work with NextVR as part of its five-year partnership, Tourville stated that the company is undergoing a lot of testing with LiveLike. That company allows fans to congregate inside a virtual suite to watch sports events together in VR.

Tourville further states that Fox Sports will cover 10 to 12 major events in VR across a variety of sports in the coming year, and the sports broadcaster will likely work with multiple VR partners.