Advances in tech and changing consumer habits are threatening the established business models of professional sports, leading fans to swap TV viewing for streaming and traditional sports for video game tournaments. While many sports executives view these trends as a thread, the NBA is turning the digital developments to its advantage.
The league has been at the forefront of using digital technology to improve the fan experience, from the 1954 introduction of a shot clock that speeds up the game by forcing players to take shots every 24 seconds, right the way through to the 2018 launch of the NBA 2K League, the first esports tournament created by a traditional sports league.
Today's initiatives span an array of applications from broadcast personalisation to AR gaming that are all based on one fundamental concept. "What lies at the centre of our strategy is providing our fans with the best possible content on the right platforms at the right time," Samuel Farber, vice president of digital media at the NBA, explained at the Leaders: Meet Innovation conference in London. "That's really the covenant that we have with our fans."
Social media strategies
That principle has supported a tailored social media content strategy for each platform that has made the NBA one of the largest social media communities in the world, with 1.5 billion likes and followers across all platforms. In 2018, it attracted more than 100 million NBA-related tweets, the most of any sports league in the world.
"It's not just the way we engage with our fans, it's the way our fans engage with each other, and the way that our players engage with each other and with fans," said Farber.
That engagement is increasingly driven by video, which has attracted more than 4 billion views on social media in this season alone. The growth of social video has caused some concern that it is replacing live broadcast viewing, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
"As new platforms emerge, the total consumption of our content has gone up year in and year out, we have not really seen the type of cannibalisation that I think a lot of people were concerned about," he said.
He divides video content on social into two categories: highlights from games and access to players.
"Sometimes that type of content can actually overshadow what's going on in the game," he said. "You look at a guy like [Oklahoma City Thunder player] Russell Westbrook, everyone's talking about what he's wearing. It's really creating a holistic 360-degree look at the league and it really helps people care deeply about our players and care deeply about the match-ups and care deeply about the league."
The rise of user-generated content was viewed by many sports leagues as an IP infringement and threat to its image control but the NBA chose to use it to actively engage consumers with the brand and create social communities.
That community has gone on to create videos on YouTube with more than 4 billion total views, tweets with more than 100 billion impressions and 600 million views from Snapchat viewers this year.
Players also make a big contribution to the social content.
"That's had such a tremendous benefit to the league, because it makes people care about them and it makes people want to root for them," said Farber.
"It makes people want to tune into their game and to want to engage with the league, and it also helps create global icons of our players. A lot of the success that we have, I would say is a result of our players. "
Telecasts of NBA games have also adapted to changing consumption habits. In response to the growth of smartphone viewing, the NBA has introduced vertical camera orientation and Mobile View, which provides tighter, zoomed-in angles for smaller screens.
The idea was inspired by a meeting with Facebook executives, who noted that the NBA's video content on Instagram had been using broadcast angles designed for TV - and that this didn't suit the platform. The new feed doubled the NBA's engagement rate on Instagram and was later extended to the NBA League Pass television subscription service, which has since enjoyed a 67 percent increase in mobile views.
The NBA also now offers the viewing option of an isolation camera that focuses on one player and has partnered with the Twitch streaming platform to let fans provide their own commentary.
"You could think about broadcasts in the future on different topics," Farber predicted. "You could have one that's about fantasy basketball, or one about statistics, or if gambling became widespread and legal in the United States, you could have one about that. There's so many different possibilities. And people could more or less choose their own adventure when watching a game, which we think is incredibly powerful."
Declining attention spans and increasing second screening has made interaction another crucial aspect of the engagement strategy.
The NBA has responded by experimenting with instant messaging through Twitch Chat and has plans to add interactive overlays with statistics that can satisfy the evolving demands of viewers.
"We see that behaviour while people are watching games," said Farber. "They wonder about the statistics of the players that are on the court. They wonder what other people are saying about it. They wonder about if something's going viral. The more that we can try and integrate all of those extra pieces of information into the game experience itself, the better."
Farber believes that augmented reality and virtual reality will have a big impact on the fan experience. The NBA has worked with Oculus to provide virtual reality broadcasts of live games with integrated chat and has released an app called NBA AR that offers two different experiences: a "pop-a-shot" game and Portals, which lets fans walk through a virtual door and onto the court for a 360-degree of player intros, huddles, and post-game celebrations.
The NBA has also built a messenger bot on Facebook and an Alexa Skill for Amazon that gives fans different ways to ask for stats, highlights, scores and schedules, but Farber believes these different bots will only show their potential when they can all connect to each other in a single system.
"You can imagine a seamless experience where you can ask your smart speakers something at home, and when you go into your car, it remembers the conversation you had with your smart speaker, and you could continue the query in the car," he says.
"And then when you get out of the car, and you're walking around with your phone, you can continue that on your phone, we really think that's what the future of the experience should look like."
Future fan engagement
The NBA's digital investment is already paying off. Last season, the league set new records for global fan engagement, with more than a billion viewers around the world tuning in to the sport, and Farber believes the best is yet to come.
He describes his vision for the future fan experience of going from their home to the game and back as "driveway to driveway".
"Perhaps your virtual smart speaker wakes them up, tells them that a game is happening that night between your favourite team and a rival team," he says. "It tells you about the scores the night before. You have a conversation with that bot and you tell it you want tickets to the game. You use an NBA virtual currency to buy those tickets.
"You call automatically. A driverless car appears in your driveway. In the driverless car there's highlights of last night's game, there's a preview for the game you're about to go see. There's stats, there's information about what you're about to go experience. There's all of the social media chatter about the game.
"You walk out, and instead of a ticket, facial recognition is what gets you into the arena. You have smart glasses on so you're able to navigate directly to your favourite food vendor and to your seat right away. And while you're looking at the game through your smart glasses, you can see all the vital signs of the players. You can see all their stats, you can see the meme that's trending on Twitter, you can see all the conversations going on about the game.
"When the game's over you're navigated to the right exit. Your driverless car picks you up and it creates a personalised highlight reel that not only has all the plays from the game you were just at, it also has plays from around the league of games you missed while you were at that game, and it has photos of you in the arena. It's not the craziest world and I think it's going to be here a lot sooner than we think."