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NBA Experience forges bold new ground for fan development

  • First-of-its-kind partnership between Disney and a sports property created a new interactive attraction at the Walt Disney World resort
  • Roughly five years in development, 44,000-square foot facility mixes real-world and virtual elements
  • Disney Imagineers employed many of same design concepts as when creating a new ride

When you think of Disney, sports marketing doesn’t necessarily spring first to mind. The entertainment behemoth is more famous for its animated features, popular characters, and theme parks than sports, even though it is also the majority owner of ESPN, and has held a variety of sports assets over the years. 

A key part of Disney’s core strategy is corporate synergy as its movies encourage fans to visit its theme parks, both of which in turn help drive sales of its merchandise, with many of its recurring franchises continuing the virtuous circle.

There is a lot that sports rights-holders could learn and try to adapt from this strategy. But, as they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

That’s the approach the National Basketball Association (NBA) took when it decided to partner with Disney on a cavernous indoor attraction at the Walt Disney World theme park complex in Orlando, Florida. 

The NBA Experience, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between a major US sports league, its intellectual property, and a theme park, opened last August. Roughly five years in the making, it is Disney’s first-ever attraction themed to a sports league, and represents a potentially influential fan engagement model for other properties to follow.

In stark contrast to the social media landscape and almost any professional sports venue, which are often cluttered with corporate brands, Disney World is largely free of advertising. That makes the brands that are present even more memorable, especially to children comprising the next generation of consumers.

And those brand exposures are powerful both in terms of quantity and quality.

Disney World, comprising four theme parks and two water parks, is already the world’s most-visited theme park complex with an estimated 62.6 million people visiting annually, according to the Themed Entertainment Association and leisure consultancy AECOM. That figure is nearly triple the NBA’s 21.9 million in attendance during the 2018-19 season. 

Because that Disney figure is comprised of vacationers all choosing to be there, it’s also full of people in a good mood and more inclined to carry positive associations with the brands they do experience. 

Against that powerful backdrop, the NBA and Disney collaborated on creating a two-floor, 44,000-square-feet attraction within Disney Springs, the shopping and dining district serving the resort, that acts as a large-scale celebration of basketball.

The NBA Experience attraction inside and out echoes of the feel of an NBA arena, with design touches including a sleek curved steel roof, a giant video screen with actual game highlights, LED ribbon boards, and a circular lobby resembling a center court. Inside, the NBA Experience is replete with interactive games and activities such as recreating the annual NBA Draft, testing basketball skills in a combine-like setting, and participating in dunk contests.

And unlike much of the rest of the resort, there is not a licensed Disney character anywhere in sight.

The NBA Experience was designed primarily by Disney’s Imagineers, the wizards who create the resort’s other cutting-edge theme park attractions. The imagineer name is a fusion of imagination and engineering which helps explains why they create a plot for all of their attractions, and they employed the same approach for the NBA alignment.

“We always begin with the overarching story idea,” says Stan Dodd, creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering. “The story which underpins the NBA Experience isn’t just that of the league itself. Its plot is that guests are setting out in the career of an NBA or WNBA star and will see it all from walking into the locker room at their first match to being picked in the draft and holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“Our design brief was to create an immersive experience that would allow guests to connect to their inner basketball player. Using the NBA brand and Disney ‘magic’ we wanted to put our guests in the heart of the action and showcase the full basketball player experience, both on and off the court,” Dodd says.

There are 13 basketball-themed activities at The NBA Experience at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. (Disney)

Hefty research effort

Of course, developing the NBA Experience took much more than the wave of a magic wand. Discussions on the attraction first began during the NBA’s negotiations of a new large-scale US media-rights deal with Disney holding ESPN that were completed in 2014.

By 2017, the NBA Experience project was in active development, and Dodd says dozens of Disney staffers worked on the creative design of the NBA Experience, and then led the project and construction management over more than two years.

There was also plenty of external field research, as members of Dodd’s team also traveled to the NBA Draft combine and Draft itself, visited NBA arenas in numerous cities, and interviewed players to develop ideas. That process, though involving a different type of content than the Disney norm, didn’t deviate from the company’s standard procedure.

“Designing the NBA Experience was very similar to our process of developing attractions and other guest experiences,” Dodd says. “Our design approach and goal to create a world-class experience is the same.”

The first stage of attraction development is known as blue sky and sees the Imagineers brainstorming ideas about what the attractions could involve. Their ideas are often written on post-it notes which are then grouped into themes on a wall to narrow down the strongest directions. 

The designers try to be as free-thinking as possible and the direction of the discussion is mainly driven by the type of technology they want to use, the story they want to tell or the geographical location of the attraction.

Once the designers have narrowed down the strongest ideas they move on to what is known as the concept design phase. This involves creating storyboards which are a series of hand-drawn illustrations showing the key moments in the attraction, not unlike the initial animation process for many of Disney’s feature films. 

From there, the development effort moved through physical scale models, and then to three-dimensional computer-assisted design, in turn moving beyond story-telling concepts to more banal, but critical, elements such as where to install utilities and air conditioning. 

But the heart of the extensive effort remained squarely on connecting visitors with basketball in every way possible, particularly what Dodd calls their “inner player”.

“The biggest challenge in the design process was determining which activities best told our story,” Dodd says. “ We wanted to have a variety of activities that allowed our guests to connect to their inner player. The team needed to create and decide on the best activities that would allow guests to explore the rich history of the NBA and WNBA, challenge their basketball skills on the court, and create fun memories together.”

The NBA Experience isn’t just Disney’s first attraction partnership with a sports league, but one of the only major permanent sports-themed venues worldwide. The closest comparisons are the Ferrari theme parks in Barcelona and Abu Dhabi, though only part of the attractions there are themed to the carmaker’s famous Formula 1 team.

There was also a temporary NFL Experience on New York City’s Times Square, which was home to a 4D film theatre, a simulated locker room and practice area and other features, but that closed in 2018

Immersive attractions

The end result of the lengthy development work for the NBA Experience is an immersive mix of real-world and computer-generated elements among the 13 different activities. The actual components include a recreated NBA locker room where visitors can sit and get the view a current player has, and a combine setting where users can can measure their vertical leap, wingspan, and other attributes, and compare those with the pros. 

There is also a wax model of NBA commissioner Adam Silver where fans can simulate a draft-day photo opportunity, complete with the team hat of their choice, and additional chances to have pictures taken with the league championship and most valuable player trophies. The dunk contest, meanwhile, happens on adjustable-height rims.

The virtual side, meanwhile, offers a simulated coach that offers tips to visitors on their ballhandling and dribbling skills amid a full-size court, as well as a separate replay center where fans can review clips of game action and must make the correct call in a timed challenge.

“The various activities were chosen to best tell the well-rounded story of the player experience and to make the experience accessible to most family members,” Dodd says.

Conceptually similar to the league’s aggressive moves over the past decade in emerging technology and social media, the NBA sees the Disney initiative as a way of marketing basketball to millions of people who have never or rarely attend games, or may be altogether unfamiliar with the league and what it does.

And given Disney World attracts a global visitor base, it represents one of the most fertile efforts possible for new fan development. The entry fee is $34 (€31) for adults and $29 for children, marking a separate fee from the bulk of Disney World parks and the largely free Disney Springs. But those costs are far less than many NBA game tickets. And the sense of being an NBA or Women’s National Basketball Association player the attraction seeks to recreate is something that can’t be purchased.

“Only a few people in the world get to experience being a NBA or WNBA player,” Silver said at the opening of the NBA Experience, a high-profile event that featured Basketball Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Grant Hill, among many others. “This is the next best thing. This is the NBA experience, brought to you in a way that no one else can but Disney and its Imagineers.”

And given the NBA and Disney are already talking about potentially taking the NBA Experience to other Disney parks elsewhere around the world, there could be a whole lot more of that next best thing. 

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