By Chris Hayhurst, Contributor
Hoops fans starved for action may soon be rewarded for their patience: The National Basketball Association (NBA) has plans for a new game-streaming service it says will “redefine” the way professional basketball is experienced.
Not long after the NBA paused the current season in response to the coronavirus, the league announced that fans will be able to follow their favorite teams using an online platform it’s developing with Microsoft. The service will allow individuals to customize the content accompanying game broadcasts to fit their unique interests and preferences. It will also leverage artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and fan-viewing and engagement history to personalize their overall experience with the platform.
A fan interested in statistics, for example, might see player stats updated in real time as they hit or miss a shot, grab a rebound or make a steal. And a fan who wants to catch up on games they may have missed would find all the content they’re likely to need ready for viewing when they log in.
The direct-to-consumer technology, which has yet to be named, was in the works before the pandemic hit. But moving forward, experts like David Anderson believe it’s exactly the kind of innovation the league needs.
“I think the NBA is leading the way in this [fan interaction], and maybe it’s because their owners are a little more tech-centric. They’re not afraid to try new things in how the game is turned into content and distributed.”
—David Anderson, chief digital officer, Gains Group
“It’s going to be exciting to see how this plays out,” says Anderson, chief digital officer with Gains Group, a consulting agency that helps sports organizations use data and technology to grow their businesses. The coronavirus has deprived many fans of the sports they love to follow, he notes, so as life returns to normal they’re going to want to watch “anything they can get.” That sentiment won’t last for long, however, so the NBA and other professional sports leagues will eventually need to adapt to remain competitive.
“I think the NBA is leading the way in this,” Anderson says in regard to fan interaction, “and maybe it’s because their owners are a little more tech-centric. They’re not afraid to try new things in how the game is turned into content and distributed.”
Anderson knows that for a fact. Before he joined Gaines Group, he worked with another firm that helped the Los Angeles Clippers develop Clippers CourtVision. Similar in many ways to the coming NBA platform, the AI-based technology works on the FOX Sports Go application to diagram plays as they unfold and create graphics showing players’ real-time shooting percentages. It also displays a variety of special effects designed to keep fans glued to the game.
The Clippers announced the launch of their viewing platform back in October 2018, but it was hardly the first time an NBA team embraced innovation in the name of improving the fan experience. In 2009, for example, the Sacramento Kings became the first team in the league to host interactive Twitter and Facebook Q&As with fans; and in 2016, the Boston Celtics joined a growing number of NBA teams to announce their own mobile app. The league, meanwhile, presented select games in virtual reality as early as the 2017-18 season.
More recently, for the 2019-20 NBA All-Star weekend, the league relied on AI (from WSC Sports) to create highlight clips of the participating players; and for the 2019 NBA Finals, it teamed with ESPN to live-stream a game over the television network’s popular app. Tailored to appeal to a teen audience, the Finals broadcast featured data and graphics elements superimposed on the screen, and was described by one media consultant as the “Twitch-ification of television.” In 2017, the gamer platform began live-streaming matchups between the NBA’s minor league teams. That offering, which is still running today, includes interactive stats overlays and a fan-loyalty program that allows viewers to earn points and win prizes.
The NBA’s digital efforts continue with a host of other fan-focused initiatives—everything from the launch of their own esports league (NBA 2K League) to a program it calls “Jr. NBA at Home,” a series of videos on basketball skills and drills led by NBA and WNBA players. A quarantine-inspired project meant to keep kids active as they cope with restrictions related to the pandemic, Jr. NBA at Home now shares daily posts across the league’s “Jr. NBA” social channels.
“The way the game is consumed is drastically different now. We’re in a social-media generation, a content-now, if-it-happened-five-seconds-ago-it’s-old-news generation.”
—Jason Fiddler, VP of Sales, Marketing & Partnerships, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
The NBA is hardly alone when it comes to sports organizations that have turned to digital outreach. Like other professional leagues, it’s recognized that a large number of its fans will never attend a game in person, notes Jason Fiddler, VP of Sales, Marketing & Partnerships with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “The way the game is consumed is drastically different now,” Fiddler says, not only compared to when Dr. James Naismith invented the game back in 1891, but also relative to a decade or two ago. “We’re in a social-media generation, a content-now, if-it-happened-five-seconds-ago-it’s-old-news generation.”
Looking ahead, Fiddler predicts, the NBA will continue to redefine how the game is experienced as it evolves to keep up with the times. This season’s developments in the wake of COVID-19—and next season’s innovations, when they arrive—are simply the latest chapters in a sport with a long history, he says, “and I’m sure we’ll see more in the years to come.”
Thank you to Dell Technologies interns Adrienne Foley, Alyssa Towle and De’Vonte Parker for their efforts in publishing this article.