Ben Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Laduma, previously worked on award-winning feature films such as Cold Mountain and Hannibal before switching his attention to newspapers and broadcasting during a decade with the The Times and the BBC. His switch to newspapers came in 2005 and for five years he was a key part of The Times’ award-winning sports desk.
He joined BBC in 2012 and built on his reputation for trusted and informed journalism. During his time at the BBC Ben interviewed some of the biggest names in sport, broke major stories across BBC television, radio and online and covered world’s most important sporting events.Smith’s career has seen him work in the US, South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.
His current role as CEO of Laduma sees him leading a fantastic team of industry pioneers and technology wonder-kids as they create 360-degree 3D content for some of the most recognizable brands in the world.
1) What utilization of Laduma’s virtual reality platform in professional or college sports has recently blown you away?
We are really proud of all of our work that is out there from the content we created for the Wimbledon tennis championships, the series we created for the LA Galaxy right through the VR we are about to release with the Denver Broncos. But one moment stands out. And that was the work we did with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the NFL at the street party in Regent Street towards the end of last year. Our activation team went there with the brief of showing fans who were lining up to buy merchandise or food, some of the content we had shot around the opening weekend of the new NFL season. But what transpired took on a life of its own. The team started to put a few headsets on fans as they sheltered from the rain under a giant inflatable Jaguar head. Before we knew it, thousands and thousands of fans were lining up to do the same, without really knowing what it was they were going to see.
This was families, with young kids, right through to grandparents. The reaction and feedback we got blew us away, but so too was the fact that VR was of so much interest to so many people on that day, that they were willing to stand in the rain to put on a headset without even knowing what it was they were going to watch. It told us, that we were on the right track and that sports fans want and need more of these experiences if they want to feel closer to the sports they follow so passionately. In the end, the team had to stop people joining the back of the line because the phones in the headsets were running out of batteries. Make no mistake, the fans are ready for VR.
2) If you had to invest in one technology that would alter the sports landscape, what would it be and why?
I am fascinated by the role that holograms will have, perhaps in tandem with VR, going forward. At present, live VR is still in the early stages, although the content NextVR is producing with the NBA is excellent. The issue fans have is 1) they are isolated from their friends and the social aspect of watching the game is lost. And 2) they don’t want to wear a headset for hours on end because, at present, they are quite big and bulky. Both of those issues are being worked on by the industry at this very moment to try and make the experience altogether more social and enjoyable. But the advances we have seen from Microsoft with Hololens and the work that is being done with holograms more broadly threaten to take the industry in a very exciting direction. The ability to have the game happen in your living room, to walk wherever you want within that field of play and have the action happen around you, is something every sports fans would relish.
3) If money were no object, what technology would you build or buy to help you do your job better?
A door that allows me to walk through it and instantly transport myself to any where in the world in an instant. That would be useful. And save on flights. As would a remote control that could pause the world to allow me to catch up with the rest of my life! As CEO of Laduma, I oversee a really super talented team of 40-plus people across three continents and five time zones. Not only does that mean a lot of travel, because we have staff and clients all over the world. But it also means a very long working day. That said, it does allow us to have a unique insight and understanding of each and every marketplace around the world and therefore, allow us to know where that market is in terms of its development with VR and how then we work with our clients in each of those markets to make the biggest possible impact.
4) As a sports fan, what sports-related service, app, product, etc., could you not live without and why?
Can I say social media? Not only was a critical part of my career in the sports media, as a source of information and a platform for me to share information, but it remains an unparalleled service for every sports fan. Twitter, in particular, delivers that instant, from the ground, news — ahead of TV in many cases that means wherever I am in the world, I feel like I am there. No question, I am watching less full matches on TV. I am either at the game or catching up in a few seconds. Falling TV ratings for the likes of the Premier League suggest that is a growing trend. People want their replays quickly. They want to see the goals, the highlights, the big moments. And then get on with their lives. Time is THE single most precious commodity we have in our lives at present. And anything that eats into that, or anything we can do to save time, people will grab. I am no different.
5) If you had to project 20 years into the future, how will most fans watch their favorite sports teams?
All the evidence suggests that our habits around watching sports will change beyond all recognition. And yet, I suspect the change will be more gradual. Can I see fans connecting with their favorite teams in a more profound and immersive way through VR and AR? Absolutely. Will it be bite-size chunks of content that builds loyalty and understanding that promotes wonderful storytelling and helps people feel empathy? I am certain that will happen. But we also have to consider that TV as a product has been around for a very long time and is constantly improving. The basic premise of sitting around with your family and friends and watching the game is something billions of people around the world are loyal to. That is a habit that has been formed over a long period of time. And will take time to change. But can VR/AR add value around that experience? Before, after and perhaps for moments during? Absolutely. Time will tell.
6) Give us your bold prediction about a form of technology that will be integral to sports in general over the next 12 months and why?
Video streaming on social platforms. We have a number of social media platforms making a land grab for rights, and I see that continuing over the course of 2017. Mobile is and has been a key part of viewing habits for some time. But the drop off in TV figures has sounded alarm bells for major leagues, and they now see the need to stream their product on social media platforms. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
And in addition to that, I would also say that 360 video and VR will become increasingly integral to the way clubs engage with their fans. Take the Premier League for instance. So many of their fans are in Asia or North America. The vast majority will never visit their team’s stadium. So what better way to draw them in to that experience, make them feel like a “real” fan and, ultimately, monetize that relationship, than by creating a brilliant immersive experience? I also see training and recruitment specifically in the EPL tapping into the power of VR.