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NBA Redesigns Fan Experience for the Social Media Generation

NBA commissioner Adam Silver on using technology for an enhanced live experience

Kindra Cooper

NBA fan experience

NBA commissioner Adam Silver knows what he’s up against. Less than one percent of NBA fans worldwide ever set foot in an arena. And for those that do, their fickle attention spans are subject to the lure of Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.

During an onstage Q&A with ESPN reporter Holly Rowe at the Qualtrics X4 Summit in Salt Lake City, Silver discussed the rising stakes of the experience business and what the NBA is doing to optimize the viewing experience for its fans both in the stands and through live streaming.

Using technology to replicate the experience of sitting courtside  

Most live events are strictly for onsite consumption, but the sporting events business has to leverage primetime advertising, riveting camera work and pre- and post-game reporting to bring the game to life for sports fans who aren’t watching from the stands. Since TV viewers can disengage in a split second by changing channels, every second counts.

“If you think about people’s attention spans in this day and age, we’re starting from scratch to design a two and a half hour experience, especially for people who need to sit in front of a television - which, historically, has been a relatively passive experience,” Silver said.

Data shows the average viewer watches just 48 minutes of a 2.5 hour game. The purpose of collecting minute-by-minute data on viewer behavior is to understand why people tune out.

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“The best way for us to increase ratings and engagements is to take the person who’s watching for 48 minutes and get them to watch for 55 minutes,” Silver explained.

“Why are they tuning out? Is it that the commercial breaks are too long? Is it that the halftime is too long? Do people tune out when players go to the free throw line?”

NBA fan experience

Data insights have galvanized the NBA to make major changes to the game format. For instance, the basketball league changed its timeout rules for a smoother, shorter viewing experience and experimented with virtual reality broadcasts via Google Cardboard.

The NBA also caters to casual fans by offering $1.99 piecemeal packages for customers to watch the fourth quarter of a close game rather than paying $199 for full-season access to League Pass, the official NBA live stream.

Silver also discussed using high-definition cameras and playing up the “human” moments of the game to create a more emotional experience for the viewer, such as the record-setting moment LeBron James broke down in tears after surpassing his idol Michael Jordan in the NBA scoring list.

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“He’s a kid that grew up watching Michael Jordan, he wears the #23 because of [him], and if you weren’t at the game you missed that moment that was the human moment of the game,” Rowe chimed in. “So it’s about taking that experience and magnifying it for people as well.”

Not just a distraction: Smartphones and social media create a sense of community

Rather than fight a losing battle to wrench people away from their smartphones, Silver said the better question is: “how do we get them to engage in something directly related to that arena experience or what’s happening on the court as opposed to looking at their friend’s vacation pictures?”

Compare this with some years back, when certain NBA teams banned Wifi at their arenas to prevent the audience from using their phones during games.

Those watching the game from home are likely to be browsing social media simultaneously, something Silver says can also work to the NBA’s advantage for fans watching remotely.

NBA fan experience“When you’re in the arena, you get that instantaneous feedback because people are cheering, booing, screaming at the refs, whatever is going on,” he said. “You can now begin to replicate that experience of being in the arena because you’re getting this instantaneous feedback [on social media].”

The NBA has embraced social media by offering its players freedom of speech protections to express their political views online to demonstrate that they are more than just basketball players and they have political opinions and tastes in music and fashion.

In a bid to rope in younger viewers, who are content to watch highlights on social media rather than paying for a cable subscription to watch the full game, the NBA posts highlights on YouTube and has experimented with short broadcasts on Facebook and Tencent. In that sense, social media can enhance as well as detract from the experience. 

“We’re now in an arena where 18,000 people can create this communal experience of multiple feeds,” said Silver.

New arena technology to optimize the in-game experience

In fact, the Chase Center, a new NBA arena opening in San Francisco this year, was designed around “reimagining the fan experience,” outfitted with technology involving new customer interfaces and behind-the-scenes data crunching that offers ways for visitors to interact with the site, make reservations at a restaurant, or order food and have it brought to their seat. 

Silver says there’s still no substitute for the “physicality” of sitting courtside, close enough to touch the players. And as commissioner, no amount of data can replace being physically present with customers, because surveys, viewer analytics and tweets don’t reveal the entire reality.

“I realized there is no substitute for experiences...for being out in the field with your customers, sitting in the stands of an NBA game and just talking randomly to whoever’s around me. That aspect is really important, and it merges with the data.”