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NBA draws on Microsoft partnership to reshape virtual fan experience 

(Credit: Getty Images)

  • NBA fans can be seen and heard in real time on sidelines of quarantined Orlando tournament 
  • Moderators keep supporters engaged and ensure they abide by various rules and regulations
  • Participants also include players’ families, sponsors, charities, celebrities and contest winners

The National Basketball Association has successfully leveraged its new partnership with technology giant Microsoft to reshape the virtual fan experience at sporting events in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

In April, the NBA agreed to a multiyear, multi-faceted deal with Microsoft, which has been designated the league’s official artificial intelligence partner and an official cloud and laptop partner for the NBA, Women’s National Basketball Association, NBA G League, and USA Basketball.

SportBusiness understands the deal is worth about $25m (€22.2m) per year and puts Microsoft in the top five NBA sponsors by pure marketing rights spend.

As part of the long-term agreement, Microsoft and NBA Digital – which is co-managed by the NBA and longtime media rights partner Turner Sports – will create an innovative, direct-to-consumer platform on Microsoft Azure’s cloud computing platform, which will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to customize and localize experiences for the league’s global fanbase.

Planned features include delivering games in fans’ native languages, letting them chat during games, alternative audio and video feeds, real-time statistical overlays, gaming elements, and utilizing archive footage to augment the viewing experience. The platform is also intended to integrate the NBA’s business services and products, including tickets and merchandise offers, and social media integration.

The wider partnership with Microsoft is set to begin in the 2020-21 season. But the initiative got off to an early start with an additional element designed to enhance the NBA’s broadcast initiatives during its return-to-play plan for the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida.

In Orlando, 320 fans appear each game on “Michelob Ultra Courtside” 17-foot video boards surrounding the courts. Utilizing Microsoft Teams’ new Together mode, the participating fans are made to look and feel like they are sitting next to one another at the games and are able to interact with each other. Meanwhile, players can see and hear their reactions in real time.

(Credit: Getty Images)

It is a significant enhancement on other leagues’ initiatives in relation to the virtual fan experience amid the coronavirus crisis in terms of scale and innovation, though it has since been replicated in part by World Wrestling Entertainment. That WWE effort, though immersive, has had some early operational issues with inappropriate and offensive content.

“The partnership with Microsoft is really valuable to us in terms of just what the future is of our telecasts looking far beyond just the scope of Orlando. But in Orlando, Microsoft has been incredibly valuable to us in our partnership with the virtual fan experience and bringing that to life,” Sara Zuckert, NBA’s head of next gen telecast, tells SportBusiness.

“It’s been a great experience with them working hand in hand to develop that and really innovate around it and come up with best practices. We’ll get a lot of learnings out of it for what the future of our games may look like even when fans do return [to games],” Zuckert says.

Competition winners, family members and celebrity cameos

The virtual fan experience in Orlando is a joint collaboration between the NBA and Microsoft.

“It is an idea that we [had] in the NBA and we were discussing with Microsoft early on in terms of what we could do to bring it to life. Microsoft had the Together mode as the idea for how to create a unique experience where you can feel more like you’re sitting in a community of fans and all those other pieces as well,” Zuckert says.

The initiative was initially run past the National Basketball Players Association, as well as team coaches, to ensure that the main participants in Orlando were aware of the plan and could provide their input as well.

The NBA opted for 320 virtual fans essentially due to size, based on the set-up of the courts in Orlando, and visually what it looked like on the telecasts. Those 320 virtual seats are divided into 10 sections of 32.

The designated home team is awarded the vast majority of seats for games, with places offered to fans through registration forms and, in some cases, directly to season-ticket holders. There are also dedicated seats for players’ families and friends, sponsors, charities, and Michelob contest winners following a multiyear commercial deal with the beer brand, which is sponsoring the initiative.

To add extra interest, there have been some celebrity cameo appearances in the stands, including rapper Lil Wayne and former NBA superstars Bill Walton, Rasheed Wallace, Dirk Nowitzki, Shaquille O’Neal, Paul Pierce and Chris Bosh, who have supported their former teams.

In order to participate in the virtual fan experience, supporters need to have the Microsoft Teams program downloaded onto a digital device – which must include a camera and a microphone – from which they need to log in to the initiative around 30 minutes before the start of the game. As part of the Together mode, participants see the live-game feed on one side of their screen and their section of seats on the other.

There are a series of rules and regulations including: one fan per seat (although babies and even dogs on laps are not uncommon), no offensive behavior or language, and no inappropriate messaging or apparel that promotes a commercial third party.

Generally fans have been well behaved, Zuckert says. There have been some instances of fans playing pranks on each other by, for example, pretending to virtually kiss the person in the seat next to them.

Fans are encouraged to wear team merchandise and colors. They are also expected to stay in their virtual seats for the duration of the contest, with extended absences potentially leading to seats being reassigned to replacement participants. There is a general understanding, though, that fans may have connection issues or need to leave their seats for a bathroom break.

Each NBA team also provides moderators for the 10 supporter sections. Their role is to keep fans engaged in the games by, for example, getting them to do the wave or try to distract opposition players when they are taking free throws, just as would happen with fans in arenas. Information Technology staffers are also on hand to help with any connection issues.

There have been some instances of multiple fans leaving their virtual seats towards the end of games when their teams have no chance of winning the contest. “We don’t encourage that, we like to make sure it’s the best atmosphere for our players and for the fans watching at home,” says Zuckert, “but I think some of those fan behaviors you may see in an arena carry through to a virtual experience.”

The virtual fan experience has largely stayed the same since the beginning of the NBA’s season restart. But the position of players’ families in the stands has been improved in recent weeks. “That was something that came from the players to make it more genuine and more like a real game for them,” Zuckert says.

Alternate feeds with innovative camera angles

In addition to the virtual fan experience, the NBA’s domestic broadcast partners ESPN and Turner Sports have looked to enhance the telecast experience in the absence of supporters at the arenas by repositioning more than 30 cameras, including many in robotic form, closer to the court and showcase never-before-seen camera angles.

Meanwhile, microphones around the court also capture enhanced sounds from the floor, including sneaker squeaks and ball bounces. DJs and announcers are also in the venues to help replicate the sounds and experiences teams are accustomed to in-arena.

Additionally, fans are able to digitally cheer for their team through the NBA App and NBA.com and on Twitter using team hashtags throughout the game. Those virtual cheers are featured on the video boards with graphics and animation that capture the level of fan engagement around the world.

NBA Digital, meanwhile, has also provided customized viewing options on NBA League Pass and NBA TV via the NBA App and NBA.com. Fans also have access to alternate feeds with new camera angles, enhanced graphics, gaming options, and influencers calling the games with a focus on areas such as analytics, fashion and music.

The NBA has also created an alternate broadcast option devoted to sports betting within its suite of video platforms, called NBABet Stream.

“This is a real unique opportunity, just to be in a neutral-site, fanless scenario. These are buildings that are smaller than your traditional NBA venue so from the start we’ve been looking at the basketball court and the venue as a TV studio,” Paul Benedict, the NBA’s associate vice president of broadcasting content management, tells SportBusiness.

“So how can we position cameras to best capture that to help the fans with something they’ve never seen before, to make them feel like they’re courtside and in a really exciting environment?,” Benedict says.

The innovative Rail Cam, which glides along the sideline at floor level to create a unique courtside view of the action for fans at home, has been particularly well-received. It is utilized in linear broadcasts on TNT and ESPN, as well as having its own feed on the ESPN App.

“The rail camera was one that jumped out to us from the very start because in your average NBA venue, one of the beautiful things about the NBA is that you have courtside seating around the perimeter of the floor from six to eight feet off,” Benedict adds. “Obviously with fans not in the venue we could position a camera like Rail Cam that can go the entire length of the floor, about 16 feet off and five feet up and it simulates what you would see if you were sitting courtside.

“We thought it would provide a really stunning look that complements what NBA basketball has become – a really fast-paced sport. Players aren’t being distracted by fans and I think the offence and the shooting has been up and Rail Cam has really piggy-bagged off of that,” he adds.

The feedback from players and coaches to the new camera positions has been extremely positive. Notably, they have helped with post-game team analysis.

“From a basketball operations [and] coaching perspective, they are reviewing video constantly so you’re seeing new things with these different angles, you’re capturing it even closer. We’ve received nothing but compliments from folks who say that they’re really impressed with what the game and broadcast presentation has looked like,” Benedict says.

Going forward, the NBA will look to take the lessons from the broadcast initiatives in Orlando, both for a potential 2020-21 season without fans in arenas and in the longer term.

“I think there’s a lot that we’ll be able to carry forward from this,” Zuckert says.

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