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NBA H-O-R-S-E competition proves mixed success due to “unique” logistical challenges 

  • Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul came up with idea for tournament  
  • Individual shooting event hampered by some weather and technical issues
  • Entire competition was pre-recorded and filmed late last week

The National Basketball Association’s nationally-televised H-O-R-S-E tournament represents a bold and innovative attempt to stage a rare non-esports competition to keep fans engaged during the global Covid-19 pandemic.

With the NBA currently on an indefinite suspension because of the ongoing health crisis, the individual shooting competition is the league’s second newly-forged event amid the sports competition hiatus, following the players-only NBA 2K Players Tournament.

However, due to a series of logistical issues – namely wind, rain, picture quality of the filmed content, and WiFi strength – the officially-titled “NBA H-O-R-S-E Challenge Presented by State Farm” has proven something of a mixed success.

In part also because of a perceived absence of creativity among some participants, the quarterfinals gained an average audience of 686,000 viewers on cable network ESPN on April 12. By contrast, a re-run of Tiger Woods’ epic victory at The Masters in 2019 averaged over two million viewers on broadcast channel CBS on the same day. Despite the complications, the event was still one of the top-rated programs since the start of the sports hiatus in mid-March.

To try to reach a wide audience and include all of the broader NBA community, the initial eight participants included both NBA and Women’s National Basketball Association talent, as well as former professionals. The full lineup of participants included Chauncey Billups, Zach LaVine, Tamika Catchings, Chris Paul, Mike Conley Jr, Paul Pierce, Trae Young, and Allie Quigley.

The final four participants are Billups, Conley, LaVine, and Quigley, with the semifinals and final set to be broadcast on April 16.

Due to social-distancing requirements, the participants took part under quarantine from their homes. Conditions ranged from lavish indoor gyms and outdoor basketball courts to ramshackle hoops on driveways.

As it was not possible to send producers or camera operators on site, broadcast partner ESPN was forced to innovate by using Zoom videoconferencing technology, while tablets and smart phones were used in a two-camera set-up. In most locations, a tablet was attached to fixed items such as a step ladder or a patio table, while the second camera – generally a smartphone – was operated by a friend or family member. ESPN staff themselves produced the action from their own homes, with the entire event pre-recorded and filmed late last week.

Various weather and WiFi issues, however, resulted in blurry videos and muffled sounds for the challenging set-up, which inadvertently led to a disappointing viewing experience for many.

SportBusiness spoke to Paul Benedict, the NBA’s associate vice-president of broadcasting content management, about the various challenges of putting together the NBA H-O-R-S-E Challenge.

Whose idea was this tournament?

We have worked closely with our broadcast partners and the National Basketball Players Association to brainstorm many ideas to keep fans engaged during the hiatus. Chris Paul approached ESPN and the league with the idea of a televised H-O-R-S-E competition, in hopes of getting the players competing again and providing entertainment for fans at home.

What was the process of deciding the format: in terms of the number of participants, make-up of the participants etc.?

We considered a variety of factors for who to choose for the competition, including representation from current and former NBA and WNBA players as well as those with access to a regulation basketball hoop at their home. We felt eight was the right number of participants to create a bracket-style single-elimination competition.

Why did you think it was important to have both NBA and WNBA players?

The NBA H-O-R-S-E Challenge was created with the entire NBA family in mind, which includes WNBA players and legends.

What have been the main broadcast challenges? 

Protecting all of the participants and abiding by social distancing measures was a priority for the broadcast. With that in mind, ESPN used Zoom technology and a two-camera set-up – with tablets and smartphones serving as the cameras. Family members and friends quarantined with participants helped film each shot to provide a different angle for the broadcast. WiFi and weather conditions presented a unique challenge to the planning and execution of the broadcast.

What learnings, if any, did you take from the NBA 2K tournament about how best to stage and broadcast the H-O-R-S-E event?

The interaction between the participants was a highlight of the NBA 2K Players Tournament, and we wanted to be able to see those reactions during the H-O-R-S-E competition as well. Allowing participants to communicate directly with each other helped bring out their natural competitive edge. Fans do not typically have access to such close interactions between players during a regular NBA game, and both the 2K Players Tournament and NBA H-O-R-S-E Challenge gave them the opportunity to see that.

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