NAB 2017

NBA Fan Engagement: Millennials, International Reach, and the Player/Brand

During the NBA’s Golden Age of Innovation session at NAB 2017, the league made clear that it will not be joining the NFL and NHL with a Las Vegas team (it is not in expansion mode) and reminded attendees that the league does have a large presence with the Summer League and Team USA training in Vegas. NBA Deputy Commissioner/COO Mark Tatum said that bringing sports betting out into the open — which had served as the sticking point for any league’s major team coming to Sin City — was a step forward for all professional sports.

NBA’s Mark Tatum: “We recognize that fan engagement with media is most valuable in the live game. All other media is ancillary, with clips and highlights serving to drive interest in the game.”

That issue finally put to bed, the business of the NBA was front and center. According to Tatum, basketball is big in Europe, China, and the rest of Asia. In fact, basketball has been played in China since the early 1900s — the Chinese had a team in the 1936 Olympics — and is played by more than 300 million people in the world’s most populous country. Today, the league’s focus is on the 1.2 billion potential fans in India, a population that increasingly consumes Western culture via media (and having the first Indian — Satnam Singh — drafted in 2015 to help open the doors to NBA basketball doesn’t hurt).

From a “boots on the ground” perspective, the NBA is not missing the opportunity Singh brings. “We’re sending the game of basketball worldwide, with governments implementing programs in schools,” said Tatum. In India, there’s a two-week NBA Academy outside Delhi, where coaches deal not only with fundamentals but with nutrition as well — all to develop better players (and spread the word with a roadmap for kids interested in basketball). This development strategy with kids (the sweet spot is age 12) works well, as proved in Madrid, where the Junior Lakers recently took on the Junior Knicks.

Connected Content
Whether it’s traditional linear TV, mobile, or a connected device, the connection between international cities and the NBA’s teams has given the league a pipeline for U.S. content to reach the players and fans of today and tomorrow, especially when international “Junior” teams are connected to their NBA counterparts. In addition, the NBA has more than 1.3 billion global followers on social media, making it number one among professional leagues in the world.

Regardless, millennials are a challenge, as they are for all media owners. Although they change devices frequently, millennials consume enormous amounts of content, according to Tatum. “Every day, we learn something new,” he said in discussing how content is consumed. That includes hundreds of millions of people being able to instantly see the positives and the negatives of the NBA and its players.

“We recognize that fan engagement with media is most valuable in the live game,” he said. “All other media is ancillary, with clips and highlights serving to drive interest in the game.”

That’s extremely important when, according to Tatum, only 1% of fans ever attend a game in person.

The Virtual Reality of the NBA
If the reality is that 1% of fans see a game in person, it’s virtual reality that can give fans the best seat in the house. The NBA collaborated with NextVR, a leading broadcaster of live events in virtual reality, to bring NBA LEAGUE PASS subscribers selected games of the 2016-17 regular season live and on-demand in virtual reality. NBA VR gives fans virtual courtside seats, where they can see and hear the action, and increases the NBA’s brand exposure.

“We produce games especially for VR,” Tatum pointed out. “It’s customized, not repurposed for the fans.” Eventually, he predicted, holographic games will be shown on a tabletop at home; the  technology exists today.

Although Tatum believes that holography will be the way content will eventually be consumed, he acknowledged that live VR game productions are the best that the NBA can do — right now. Moreover, he doesn’t see any decrease in the value of that live content, regardless of how it’s viewed or delivered.

Supplementing that live content (through the single or a companion screen, a tablet also providing game information to a viewer who is watching on TV, for example) is a vast array of options that the NBA is uniquely able to “test-drive.” Currently, players wear biometric patches during practice, and both the WNBA and Development League (D-League) can be used as test beds for new rules, conference play, and technologies, such as a “coach’s challenge.” These types of technologies might find their way upstream to the NBA in the future.

A Multitude of Global Brands
With technology unlinking players from a specific geographic area and with videogames, and commercials, every player has the potential to become a global brand, especially with every game available around the world. Say “LeBron” or “Russell” or “Harden,” and fans recognize those names (or brands) immediately. According to Tatum, each team currently has two to four global players/brands that fans know by name.

Of course, player/brand is nothing new in the NBA, going back years with players like Bill Bradley, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson. However, the technology of the 21st century has been able to propel more players to international stardom and build the NBA brand and its fan base like never before.

Now if we can only get that tabletop hologram working for The Finals.