Imagine watching an NBA broadcast that’s tailored just to you. Instead of getting the standard play-by-play, you can opt to listen to analysis from your favorite commentator. You can switch to your preferred camera angles and see stats for each player overlaid atop the broadcast and updated in real-time. The virtual advertisements that appear throughout the arena are customized to your interests.
This is the future of game broadcasting, according to top NBA executives. In a conversation today at Fast Company‘s Agenda 2022 virtual summit, Krishna Bhagavatula, the league’s chief technology officer, and Matt Wolf, head of global strategy and innovation, offered a behind-the-scenes look at how the NBA’s forthcoming direct-to-consumer game-streaming platform is coming together.
The NBA first announced the platform, which will be powered by Microsoft Azure, in April 2020, promising to use artificial intelligence to enhance the game-viewing experience. The league has already been piloting elements of this streaming experience. In 2020, it began experimenting with alternative streams for League Pass and NBA TV subscribers, including ones enhanced by “influencer” commentary and alternative, courtside camera angles. Subscribers have also been able to watch NBABet Stream telecasts, which include commentary and graphics that cater to the real-time sports bettors.
But the platform’s big unveiling will be next year, for the 2022-2023 season, and will offer the NBA an opportunity to “own the direct relationship with our fans” in powerful new ways, says Wolf.
Bhagavatula stresses that the platform will encompass more than just live and on-demand game broadcasts. It will also offer fans different ways to access the NBA’s vast array of player data and historical video archives. And it will incorporate elements from the NBA’s e-sports and fantasy leagues, along with merchandise and ticketing.
The NBA has been at the forefront of embracing new technologies that allow fans to get closer to the game and its players. Today, that tech is finding its way into the streaming platform. Five years ago, the league installed cameras from a company called Second Spectrum around its arenas to gather 3D spatial data on player and ball movements. The NBA is now using that data to enhance games in real time, including overlaying data graphics on broadcasts.
“There is a segment of fans that wants a much deeper connection to the stats in our game,” says Wolf. “We’re now able to deliver to fans, in a very visual way, a new way of thinking about the game that’s beyond the traditional box score.”
Wolf says the league is even doing biometric testing with certain fans as they watch games to see how their bodies respond to different plays and determine what “excites” them. The league can then align these moments with the Second Spectrum data to understand what, precisely, drives fan engagement—and use those insights to adjust the viewing experience, pull highlights for social media, and even “tailor the game design itself,” according to Wolf.
The new streaming platform will include customization opportunities for NBA sponsors and advertisers as well. Wolf points to the virtual signage that the NBA inserts into linear broadcasts (i.e. virtual ads that “appear” on the court itself, in places where physical ads might not be appropriate). “In a direct-to-consumer world, [these ads are] even more compelling because now you don’t have to pick one advertiser or marketing partner per broadcast,” he says. “You could theoretically pick one advertiser or marketing partner per stream or even per viewer.”
Underpinning all these efforts is a robust data-analytics effort, says Bhagavatula. The league is harnessing data from its own apps and tools, as well as all of its teams and arenas, to understand different types of fans and anticipate what they want. The ultimate goal, he says, is “to create truly delightful experiences for our fans in a way that engages them and hopefully leads to monetization opportunities.”