NBA commissioner Adam Silver raised some eyebrows in the month before the start of the season when he brought up Twitch. At Recode’s Code Conference, Silver again highlighted Twitch, describing it as a place where the streams are filled with the chatter of fans and all sorts of information appearing on the screen.
He did so right after noting that the broadcast production of NBA games “essentially looks the same way it did 30 years ago.”
Silver wants that to change, and it comes at a time when streaming services like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have shown a willingness to make waves with live sports. ESPN is scheduled to roll out an over-the-top service next year, and another NBA broadcast partner in TNT will soon provide weekly games in virtual reality.
NBA League Pass, which was developed by the League and Turner Sports, already offers broadcasts in virtual reality, on a virtual big screen while viewing on a headset, and zoomed-in feeds on mobile. Earlier this week, the NBA announced its partnership with Intel to produce 360-degree volumetric video that could eventually be integrated into the VR experience.
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“I think the real sales pitch that is going to carry the day and it’s beginning already is how they’re going to find new ways to engage our fans in these telecasts,” Silver said.
Silver has sat with executives of these companies and likes what he’s seen — a future in which fans are engaged enough to watch games for longer periods of time.
“They’re laser-like focused on that, not just bidding against conventional linear television saying, ‘Can we pay a higher rights fee, but how can we present this in a new, different and compelling way that we create more engagement on behalf of viewers?’”
Here are a few ways in which future broadcasts of NBA games could change — and soon:
Fields of data
With Silver embracing change, it’s expected that the viewing experience of the future will include more analytics, graphics and innovations.
ESPN will experiment with graphics packages during its coverage of the G League this season, including potentially collapsing part of the screen to show stats such as points, rebounds and assists — plus NBA player tweets about the game being played, SportsBusiness Journal reported.
And there is plenty of excitement about what could be achieved over-the-top with production elements.
“And what they can do over-the-top on the other hand is you can really have unlimited fields on your screen,” Silver said. “You can have information popping on, coming off. You can have descriptions of plays, more information on players.”
“With OTT streams being delayed in the encoding process, there’s things that you can do related to the player-tracking data and the statistics to augment what is seen,” Steve Hellmuth, the Executive Vice President, Media Operations & Technology for NBA Entertainment explained on the SportTechie podcast last month. “And we’re working experimentally on a number of fronts with Second Spectrum on that. But we’re also working on an app that can be controlled by your thumbs in mobile that you can get different statistical views as the game is going because I can deliver the stats, and they can actually be in the cloud ready for display before the video gets there.”
Second Spectrum is fully functional this season after having installed its optical player-tracking system in all NBA arenas. The company has also provided a vision of how it could help NBA broadcasts, as an investor — Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer — is collaborating on a personalized viewing experience for fans of the team that can include stats and fantasy points appearing above each player during the action.
[email protected]_Ballmer shows future of #Clippers broadcasts: plays, fantasy and lightning strikes. #codecon #sportstech https://t.co/Rg8WOV4Lgq pic.twitter.com/jPB20KOVkC
— SportTechie (@SportTechie) May 31, 2017
“What’s most interesting to me, and I’ve seen a lot of the sort of R&D work that’s being done by these over-the-top services is that I think our game not next year but three, four, five years from now is going to start looking very different,” Silver said.
Biometric data from wearable devices
Unlimited fields of data in NBA broadcasts could one day allow for fans to quantify the calm and pressure that players are experiencing on the court.
“You can be getting all kinds of different information about those players…it may be biometrics,” Silver said. “Like wearables is a hot area in sports right now. It may be fascinating to try to measure stress levels of players when they go to the line when they’re in a certain situation.”
For now, wearable devices may only be used in practices and not in NBA games, according to the collective bargaining agreement that went into effect this past offseason. But that could change. The NBA and players association “agree to continue to discuss in good faith the use of Wearables in games and the commercialization of data from Wearables,” according to the CBA.
Asked about how wearables fit into a content play in near future, Hellmuth confirmed, “We’re in discussions with our players association about players wearing devices.”
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The NBA has done R&D on in-game wearable devices. It announced in 2014 that the NBA Development League would become the first U.S. professional sports league to use wearable devices on players during regular season games. The devices — reportedly from Catapult Sports, STATSports and Zephyr — could generate individual player data on cardiovascular exertion, musculoskeletal intensity, fatigue, rate of acceleration and deceleration, number of jumps, and distance ran and direction.
At least two NBA players — Matthew Dellavedova and DeAndre Jordan — have admitted to ESPN that they sneaked their personal WHOOP straps onto their wrists during games. The devices measure strain, recovery and sleep. After WHOOP partnered with the NFLPA to provide football players with straps as well as the option to commercialize their health data, CEO Will Ahmed provided his vision of how the data might be used for storytelling in the NBA by using Michael Jordan’s flu game as an example.
Stats from in-game usage of wearable devices have already found their way into live basketball broadcasts earlier this year — in Australia. The National Basketball League began displaying graphics showing the intensity level and workload of players using data collected from Catapult devices.
Fans could have access to “unlimited audio feeds,” according to Silver, who noted that Amazon has looked to use different audio feeds. During its global streaming of Thursday Night Football on Prime Video, Amazon produces three additional feeds for fans who prefer Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese or English designed for U.K. residents.
“You may not want to listen to the same standard play-by-play that you always get,” Silver said. “Instead, it could be your friend doing play-by-play. It could be a comedian doing play-by-play. It could be a celebrity doing play-by-play who happens to be sitting courtside.”
Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, happens to invest in a streaming platform that is enabling fans to do just that.
SportsCastr.Live users can transform into color commentators by streaming video of themselves during live games, with the platform providing graphical scoreboards and play-by-play updates in real-time. No studio is required, and veteran NBA sportscaster Steve Smith is among the investors as well.
“Eventually when it syncs up with feeds from the leagues, you’re going to be able to cut out announcers you don’t like or don’t want to listen to, and you can either substitute yourself or someone else who announces that he’s calling the game,” Stern said on the Forbes SportsMoney podcast. “And that’s about as personal as you can get.”
Audio can also take fans closer to the action.
“Or you have a better sense of what’s happening on the floor, that there’s audio that wasn’t previously available,” Silver said. “You know what the referee is saying to a player. You know what a player is saying to another player. I think our content’s incredibly compelling.”
FOX Sports recently deployed 14 underground microphones around the playing field and an additional 15 to 20 mics available for managers, coaches, umpires and players. That meant the home plate umpire’s ball and strike calls could be heard along with the exclamation of Los Angeles Dodgers’ Joc Pederson after a home run.
“You like that?”