Some of the greatest moments in NBA history might have been transformed for the fans in the buildings on those nights, if only certain next-millennium technology had been available.
Imagine the 4,124 people who attended the game in which Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points receiving text messages at the buzzer, informing them that commemorative t-shirts would be sold at the exits of the Hershey (Pa.) Sports Arena on March 2, 1962.
Think how the folks toting smartphones to Madison Square Garden in May 1970 would have been able to Google “Carbocaine” via WiFi or 4G to learn the benefits and side effects of the painkilling injections Willis Reed took in his thigh prior to limping through that tunnel for Game 7. Posts on Twitter, Instagram and Vine would have documented the Knicks captain’s dramatic entrance simultaneously with Marv Albert’s play-by-play.
Just 15 years ago, many of those Utah fans frozen in time in the famous photograph from the 1998 Finals, watching Michael Jordan’s title-clinching shot descend, would have begun poking madly at their phones an instant later. By hitting the rewind function on the NBA’s mobile app, they could have reviewed Jordan’s alleged nudge vs. Jazz defender Bryon Russell nearly in real time.
It wouldn’t have changed anything. But it would have been something to do besides staggering out of the Delta Center in silence.
Technology is a part of the NBA in-arena experience now. The league has been leading in some ways, working to stay current in others and occasionally playing catch-up with the moving targets of technology.
An article last week in the Sports Business Journal looked at some of the challenges – and opportunities – facing sports leagues and teams in trying to maximize their connectivity with, and for, customers:
How fast is the technology moving? By the end of 2013, the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population of 7 billion, according to research compiled by Cisco Sports and Entertainment, a provider of wireless technology for sports facilities. By 2017, the number of mobile devices activated globally will jump to 10 billion. By that time, streaming video will take up two-thirds of the world’s mobile data traffic, Cisco officials said.
“I’ve read several articles that say by 2015 we will use our cellphones less than 5 percent for a phone,” said [Dave] Stewart, SMG’s chief technology officer at the Superdome, home of the [NFL] Saints. “The majority of use will be for streaming video, email, Twitter and Web surfing.”
Merging worlds at heart of technology upgrades
Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s executive vice president of operations and technology, talked with NBA.com this week and said it comes down to keeping people connected – both to their outside worlds and to the in-arena world for things that enrich that experience.
“You have to set that table and provide them with everything they’re accustomed to,” Hellmuth said. “It’s not just about Facebook and Instagram – it’s the fact that they have a babysitter at home. They have a business that they’re operating. And we’re all expected to be connected and to be available these days.”
Plunging into a three-hour service and WiFi blackout is unacceptable to today’s wired consumers. Hellmuth said most NBA arenas have upgraded their systems, or soon will do so, to handle the demands of 20,000 users.
The SBJ article delves into some of the specifics of distributed antenna systems that handle cellular traffic as well as the financial details involved in such infrastructre. Whereas the presence of cell antenna systems can be a source of revenue, the teams and arenas have to make significant investments in their wireless networks. Getting it right can be worth it, Hellmuth said.
“When you walk into the [Brooklyn Nets'] Barclays Center and you see that WiFi wide open and you’re pegged, it’s just like being in a nice warm bath,” he said. “Same thing when you walk into a Starbucks. It’s a real amenity for fans , to say, ‘Hey, we care enough to get this right for you.’ “
Teams, players benefit from advancements, too
Once the systems are in place, with sufficient bandwidth, the next frontier is optimizing the in-game experience. It can be as simple, for example, as tipping hungry fans to the concession stands with the shortest lines. Or offering thank-you discount codes on the phones of repeat customers, whose previous attendance has been tracked wirelessly as well.
Then there are the NBA-specific possibilities, such as streaming video, stats, premium content and more. If the accessibility to social media – and simple phone calls and texts – are what might keep fans tethered to their worlds, the opportunities of in-arena wireless can bring them together the way the peak moments of great games do.
“Both the Spurs and the Heat fans proved that in The Finals,” Hellmuth said. “They were really functioning as a sixth man. That’s the reason you go to an NBA venue.
“We don’t want to create more ‘heads down’ experiences around video. It’s nice to have but when you look at the investments our teams have made in HD video screens, for me, I want to look up and enjoy a replay with the person I came to the game with, right?”
One area in which technological advancements are altering the NBA landscape is with teams, coaches, players and video coordinators having access to plays and strategies almost immediately.
Hellmuth said NBA rules allow teams to bring laptops, tablets or any other devices courtside loaded with video. If Dallas coach Rick Carlisle wants to flick through the Mavericks’ 10 favorite late-game inbounds plays, he and his staff can show them to the players, in high definition, rather than scribbles on a white board.
For now, streaming video feeds to the benches are prohibited during games. Why? Potential hacking by a rival or fan, or a tech issue that could disadvantage one team. Such pitfalls would necessarily require the game’s officiating crew to oversee the use of such video, when they already have their own replay triggers to handle and master.
Content remains king for fans
In terms of connecting participants to the spectators, the field is wide open. Video is king, Hellmuth said, but audio and written content can heighten a fan’s connection to the game. (By the way, NBA techies have been at work developing wearable microphones that are half the size of current models. That should increase the opportunity for capturing the sounds of the sport, once they’re introduced sometime during the 2013-14 season).
Hellmuth and Michael Gliedman, the NBA’s senior VP and chief informational officer, apparenty talk often of the pre-, in- and post-game states and the ways connectivity can enrich them. Maybe it’s a video blog from an assistant coach or a media person previewing that night’s action. Perhaps fans will spend halftime watching first-half highlights on the same phone from which they just ordered a sandwich. Afterward, there’s the postgame news conference or some analytics review.
“The app has to be appropriate for the game ‘state’ that you’re in,” Hellmuth said. “You need a digital team working to produce that all if you expect people to attach to your apps. It’s work. There’s no automated content.”
Technological advancements in all sports can serve fans who go to games, offering something in the arena they still cannot get in front of the TV at home. Ultimately, though, it’s not the hardware that drives the NBA’s (or any other league’s) offerings.
“It’s about content,” Hellmuth said. “I really think that’s what these systems are about in the future. It’s not about technology.”