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How to Build a Collegiate Virtual Sports Program

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By Dr. Mark Janas |

For the purposes of this discussion, a “virtual sport” refers to an esport that requires approximately the same or similar skill and fitness as the “real sport” counterpart.   For example, the skills in SIM racing (motorsports) translate directly to real racecar driving. The skills required in live golf translate directly to playing a round on a golf simulator. The fitness required for cycling and rowing translates directly to what is needed to compete in a virtual event on a smart bike or smart rower.

Contrast these virtual sports with pure esports competitions that use a game controller, such as those based on the Madden or NBA 2K video game series, or on the popular Fortnite first-person-shooter game.

If you’re interested in building a virtual sports program at your school, it’s important to understand the value such a program can offer. In an age of pandemic restrictions, budget cuts in athletic departments, and the need to remain competitive to recruit and retain students, a virtual sports program can be a valuable asset for colleges and universities for many reasons.

A virtual sports program can be launched and maintained at a small fraction of the cost to manage a live sports program.  After a modest, upfront cost for equipment, there are minimal maintenance, travel, or other recurring costs associated with virtual sports programs.  For example, a collegiate golf team could easily accrue thousands of dollars in green fees alone in one season.  A single golf simulator (at a cost of ~ $500) could support unlimited rounds for an entire team for multiple seasons. Race-quality bicycles can cost thousands of dollars each and often require hundreds of dollars per year in maintenance.  Typically, a single bike would support only one rider. A smart bike (used for virtual training & racing) will have a lower upfront cost and almost no maintenance costs.  Further, an adjustable smart bike could support multiple riders.

A virtual sports program can be operated in a very safe manner and with much less liability, compared to a live sports program.  Virtual cycling requires no travel to races and no exposure to cars or other road hazards.  Virtual cycling is not affected by bad weather, and training sessions can be scheduled at more convenient times, including after dark.  Consider an even more extreme example. Crashing a virtual car in a SIM motorsports event is much less painful and dangerous than crashing a real racecar!

A virtual sports program can provide a valuable recruiting and retention tool.  Schools that have virtual sports programs will maintain a recruiting and retention advantage over schools that don’t.  Students today increasingly demand new programs and content.   They want more than just the traditional sports offerings, particularly when those traditional sports programs are at risk due to budget cuts or other factors, such as global pandemics.

Virtual sports are much more accessible.  A virtual program option can make sports more accessible to schools that might not otherwise have them.  Sports such as cycling, crew, golf, or even motorsports are not traditionally (or culturally) available to all schools due to cost or other factors, but they can be made accessible through virtual programs, creating more diversity in sport, as well as new opportunities for students in the classroom and on the virtual field of play.

A virtual sports program can provide a segue to live programs.  A virtual or SIM sport should not be thought of or positioned as a replacement for the real sport alternative.  In fact, virtual sports can have the opposite effect.  For example, a virtual cycling program could draw students who might otherwise be intimidated by the sport of cycling.  As these students become more comfortable with virtual cycling and learn the sport, they are more likely to be drawn to a live cycling program.  The same is true for any virtual sport.

Steps to Get Started

If you’re still reading this, you may already be sold on getting a virtual sports program going at your school, or you’re at least intrigued.  The next likely question is, “How do I get started?”  Here are a few steps to consider:

Step 1:  Establish a champion.  If you are a faculty member or coach who appreciates the potential value of a virtual sports program, then you may be in the best position to sell the program to the decision makers at your school.  Or, you may have someone in mind with a nice mix of technical aptitude and sports experience, or maybe even some prior experience in virtual sports, who can take the lead.  Your champion doesn’t have to be a virtual sports expert out of the gate, but he or she should be motivated to learn, deliver the sales pitch, and build the basic program infrastructure.  Of course, the champion must be empowered and supported by the school’s leadership.  Your champion could come from any department, including your athletic or exercise science department or even your computer science or business schools.

Step 2: Determine your sports and programming.    There are many virtual or simulation sports from which to choose. You eventually might offer most or all of them in your program, but it’s best to choose one or two for starters based on your goals, student interest, budget, and existing equipment.  For example, you may already have rowing machines in your campus gym equipped with “smart technology” that would allow your students to compete in virtual crew events.   Or, you may have students who already compete in virtual sports with their own equipment but want to compete under the school colors and brand. 

Step 3: Set your budget.  While virtual sports are much cheaper to launch and maintain, there are of course some upfront costs to consider.  You may need new PCs or game consoles.  You will need the hardware specific to the particular virtual sports, such as golf simulators, wheel and pedal sets for SIM motorsports, smart trainers/bikes for virtual cycling, or smart rowers for virtual crew.  As mentioned earlier, you may already have students who can compete using their own equipment, but as a general rule, you should budget approximately $1000 per station, excluding computer hardware.   (One student at a time can compete at a station.)  Some sports may be a bit cheaper, while others may be a little more expensive.  But, it is important to note that these costs are largely upfront costs.  Relatively speaking, there is minimal maintenance cost with virtual sports equipment.

Step 4: Determine your facility requirements.  The beauty of virtual sports is that they can be done anytime, anywhere, often with equipment that it is portable and that can be checked out to students as needed for competition and training.  (This might be particularly important when live competition is affected by pandemic restrictions.)  

Some equipment however, such as smart bikes, rowing machines, and SIM racing cockpits, may be less portable and may require set up in a dedicated room or facility.  

Depending upon the number of stations, vacant offices or conference rooms could be utilized, provided they have the appropriate ventilation to support physical activity. You’ll need to make sure you have enough power outlets, as well as security for your facility. SIM golf may prove to be the most challenging in terms of finding locations with enough ceiling height to accommodate a full golf swing. However, it is entirely possible to run a   collegiate virtual sports program without any dedicated space or facility. In fact, that may be the most attractive approach for many schools.  In such programs, smart trainers (that attach to existing student bikes) might be utilized instead of smart bikes for virtual cycling training and racing. For SIM motorsports, steering wheel controllers that can be mounted to a desk in a dorm room or apartment might be deployed instead of full cockpits that would require a dedicated room.


Step 5: Network with other schools. Join the NCVSA.  Of course, there is no sense in reinventing the wheel, so a good place to get started is by talking to others who have virtual sports programs or who are working on establishing their programs.  (This could just as easily be Step #2.)   You can find other such schools by joining the National Collegiate Virtual Sports Association (www.NCVSA.org).  NCVSA membership will give you access to various guides, vendor discounts, and other resources to help launch your program.

Step 6: Fundraise as needed. Get your equipment.  You may be lucky enough to already have funding and a budget to start your virtual sports program.  If not, you’ll need to think about ways to fundraise.   The NCSVA has a unique offering that could help support your these efforts.  In addition to a varsity collegiate track, your faculty, staff, and alumni can also compete under your school colors on a club track.   The club track requires that competitors be approved, registered, and managed by the official designee at your school, giving you the ability to charge membership fees to fund your program.  Getting alumni involved and engaged is a great way to sustain the effort.   Many of your alumni will already have their own equipment and may be ready to compete right away.  When it comes time to make your equipment purchases (based on the programming you plan to provide), first consult the NCVSA.  You may be able to take advantage of discounts or other special purchasing/acquisition programs already in place.  These discounts may also be available for your club members. Consult the NCVSA eligibility rules for additional guidance.

Step 7: Establish your program rules and structure.  You’ll need to decide which students are eligible to compete.   You may require a certain GPA or membership in a specific club. You’ll have to decide who can access your facilities and when, and you’ll have to put procedures in place for distributing equipment.  You may want to establish student team captains for each sport you offer, as well as a coach for each sport.   Finally, you should consider creating an athletic director position specifically for your virtual sports program.  All of these positions will likely have to be filled on a volunteer basis initially.   But as your program grows, generates revenue, and becomes more visible, the decision makers will take notice, opening the door for more formal school support.

Step 8: Start competing!   Of course, this is what it is all about.  You’ll find that in the world of virtual sports there are many, many opportunities to compete, particularly as individual athletes.  You will likely take advantage of these, as well as the more formal collegiate competitions managed by the NCVSA.

Conclusion:

Virtual sports continue to grow and are here to stay.  Look no further than the pinnacle of all sports competition, the Olympic Games, for evidence of this.  This year’s Tokyo Games included virtual sports exhibitions in cycling, rowing, SIM motorsports, sailing, and baseball.  The time is right now for colleges to get their respective virtual sports programs established.  Those that don’t may find themselves behind schools that have been more proactive and better positioned to take advantage of opportunities available to early adopters.

Dr. Mark Janas is an endurance sports competitor and the founder of RevoRace.com, a virtual event and race management platform. Janas teaches in the sport management program at Saint Augustine’s University where he also serves as the Head Coach of the cycling team. Janas received his doctorate in sports management from the United States Sports Academy (the Academy). He sits on the Advisory Board of the National Collegiate Virtual Sports Association (NCVSA.org) and is a national faculty member of the Academy.

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