The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

zero-g flight
Weightlessness, even for a few moments at a time in an aircraft, opens up new possibilities for sports. (credit: Space Adventures)

Carrying the torch: opening the commercial space frontier with sports

Last week, Taylor Dinerman wrote about space sports and space tourism, but focused entirely on rockets and rocket-based sports (see “Space sports and space power”, October 9, 2006). It left out a huge market in weightless sports that not only would provide a reason for tourists to go to space, but provide a reason for them to go again, as repeat customers.

It is extremely important that such endeavors are profitable before going into orbit. The Rocket Racing League, launching later this week at the X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, provides an example of the business model that will make space sports happen. However, team-based weightless sports (versions of football, basketball, volleyball, etc.) may be the genre of entertainment that will carry the torch all the way into orbit.

Perhaps Peter Diamandis and Granger Whitelaw, the founders of the RRL, have something clever up their sleeves to make it happen, but it is not obvious how the RRL can make that transition to orbit successfully. People will want to see the action with their own eyes or from a television vantage point that lets them follow along. The current plans for RRL’s three-dimensional courses near the ground will give them that close-up view of the action, and it should be a lot of fun. I personally hope to enter a team sponsored by my company, IPX Entertainment, into the RRL sometime in the next few years. But is it possible to design a suborbital and/or orbital version occurring at the edges of or in space? That remains to be seen. Any kind of race in orbit is likely to be a significantly different sport. The RRL has yet to hold its first race, but its greatest success may be in whetting the appetite of the public for space sports in general. Proving it can be done and drawing an audience will be in itself tremendously important to do before considering options for racing sports in orbit or in cislunar space.

The RRL has yet to hold its first race, but its greatest success may be in whetting the appetite of the public for space sports in general.

The most likely vehicle-based sport is one described by John Spencer in his book on space tourism: an orbital yachting club with annual races for those rich enough to buy their own space yachts. This is nothing like the RRL in the physical characteristics of the race or in its business model. It will take some clever thinking by the most brilliant business minds in the space industry to figure out how to make suborbital and orbital races in space as exciting to watch and financially viable as the ground-hugging RRL is expected to be.

Aside from racing sports, there are other opportunities that can build a market for activities in space. Weightlessness is a new environment, like snow or water, for which many different sports can be created. The most marketable and likely to be sponsored by advertising dollars are team-based sports that allow for the amortization of costs over many flights rather than an event or tournament with individual players. Since parabolic flights are available in the US, Russia, and Europe, and is anticipated to be available at the new Dubai and Singapore spaceports, dozens of different weightless sports can be invented that can transition to orbit quite easily, can occur at any airport around the world, and can be created with only trivial research and development costs. Once an economic case can be made for weightless sports, the sports-entertainment industry will back it financially.

With IPX Entertainment, using flights provided by the Zero Gravity Corporation, I’m bringing the world’s first game of a weightless sport to the market in about a year, and will begin taking it worldwide. If it is viable, it would be possible in five to ten years to bring it to orbit at a private sports arena that could be constructed from inflatable modules purchased from Bigelow Aerospace.

The game is Zero Gravity Football (it has been in the media under the name Parabolic Football or Paraball, but the name is hereby officially changed). The rules of Zero Gravity Football will be kept under wraps until the first game is publicly seen. But you should be able to imagine the difficulties in creating a new sport that can only be conducted for 30 seconds at a time and within the space limitations of a Boeing 727 aircraft. The space limitations make it necessary to limit the number of players. The 30 seconds of weightlessness provided by each arc in the parabolic flight may be too much time for a down in a traditional game of American football (where the average down is eight seconds long), but the rules of Zero Gravity Football allow for continuous scoring by the offensive side to make full use of the down rather than stopping after a single play when the player with the ball is tackled. The mechanics of maneuvering in zero gravity is of course what will make the sport most interesting. Tackling in zero gravity to stop a player in his tracks will be impossible, so another way to take athletes out of play will be used. It is designed as a co-ed sport where large male players will sling-shot small female athletes down the field in order to score the initial points, transferring inertia from player to player and giving the viewers a very visual and clear lesson in space physics. When the players invent new tactics and maneuvers the game will have that element of excitement that will keep viewers watching.

The value of space tourists to the business case for space sports is not in the dollars they would bring in ticket tales for a game, but as part of the marketing effort itself.

Plans for Zero Gravity Football include an annual charity tournament with celebrity athletes, a professional Zero Gravity Sports League, and a reality TV show called Space Champions to select the athletes to play in the pro league. IPX’s video download service/internet TV channel SpaceChannel.TV will make episodes available, but plans are to distribute through broadcasters around the world both the reality show and the league games. SpaceChannel.TV will also be offering an amateur tournament so that the general public (subscribers to SpaceChannel) may play Zero Gravity Football themselves. There may be room on board for spectators, but the audience will be primarily watching on their computer screens or televisions. If it is possible to broadcast the game live down to an audience on the ground, we will be attempting that as well.

The advertising-supported entertainment industry is the obvious moneymaker to be able to fund space activities. Space tourists need a destination where they can have fun beyond the awesome view of the Earth (or the Moon) and the limited activities they can do by themselves in zero gravity. Zero Gravity Football and other sports provide the motivation for fans to go as repeat customers up to orbit. The value of space tourists to the business case for space sports is not in the dollars they would bring in ticket tales for a game, but as part of the marketing effort itself. Two teams facing off in zero gravity will be much more exciting to a television audience if they can hear the cheers and shouts of the people floating courtside. It might even make good marketing sense to make sure the arena is full by subsidizing or giving away those seats to the rich and famous who can pay for their own launch into orbit. The revenue to be made from the worldwide broadcast and webcast rights would also likely more than make up the cost for flying ordinary people up to orbit to watch the game. If each ticket is sponsored by a wealthy corporation, the average person can have a chance at winning a ride to space and serve as a marketing spokesperson for the sponsoring company. The possibilities are tantalizing. The opportunities for the average person to become a Zero Gravity sports star would inspire millions to think about becoming one, and create a demand for parabolic flight to train in weightless sports.

Employees of space entertainment/hotel conglomerates may be the first permanent tenants to take up habitation in space. Before then, two-week events such as a Space Olympiad would provide the infrastructure, the entertainment/advertising dollars, and the motivation for a family to spend their vacation in space. IPX Entertainment is considering what it would take to host a Space Olympics with an audience of a few hundred in space and a few hundred million on the ground. Of course, it may take a decade or longer to win approval from the International Olympic Committee for such an event, with a dozen demonstration sports played over a two week period. Within the next year IPX will hire some interns to consider the engineering requirements and business case for a Space Olympics. Perhaps by 2016 a consortium of companies and nations can win IOC approval for this historic event, and bring the Olympic spirit of peaceful competition to space by the year 2020. By then, several companies should be able to provide lower-cost rides for cargo and people to begin building a hotel/entertainment complex in orbit. The legacy of a Space Olympiad could be the first economically self-sustaining privately-financed city in space, a city like Las Vegas that never sleeps and is built for recreation. Prior to this, perhaps in about five years, a Zero Gravity Sports League championship game may just be the torch that lights the flame.