NBA enters “Second Life” universe to better understand media landscape

By Carl Lindemann

For dedicated fans that live and breathe for all things NBA, some near and dear to them may wish that they get a life. Instead, NBA fans hungry for more may now get a Second Life – to live and breathe all things NBA.

Second Life is the 3-D online virtual reality phenom where over 6 million people worldwide gather online. The site came to prominence last year, and now the NBA has constructed its own headquarters there to provide residents the ability to carry their interest into this Virtual World. For Steve Grimes, NBA Senior Director of Interactive Services, this is a foothold in important new realm.

Second Life is an Internet-based virtual world developed by Linden Lab. Users create an “avatar,” a 3D graphics character that represents themself and roams the world and interacts with others. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, create and trade items (virtual property) and services from one another.

“We are looking as learning experience,” says Grimes. “The Second Life environment has changed the way people look at the Web. The question is whether people will migrate from old-fashioned social environments like MySpace into this 3-D setting.”

Calling MySpace “old-fashioned” only points to how quickly things are changing online. The NBA’s play here is worth watching because they have taken on the challenge of meeting fans wherever, however the evolving media landscape goes.

Where services like Second Life and other online “worlds” go in the future remains to be seen.this is going is anyone’s guess. But participating in the various ventures that gain currency along the way helps give the NBA a wealth of experience that will reap rewards as the reality of virtual reality becomes clearer.

“This is not about reaching an audience of millions,” explains Grimes. “We’re engaged in a learning process finding out how people use virtual worlds to gain information for what’s next.”

The decision for the initiative was informed by feedback from a core group of fans as well as in-house aficionados. Not surprising is how those drawn towards Second Life skew towards a younger 18-30 demographic. This is the same age group immersed in computer gaming and so are already acculturated to such environments. For those concerned about losing eyeballs from traditional sports broadcast to computer gaming, this is an obvious and essential area of exploration.

The NBA presence at the site is extensive with all the amenities of the actual NBA carried over from a virtual arena on down. Commissioner David Stearn has also taken up residence with his “avatar” (his Second Life representation) leading the virtual press event opening the doors. And the league’s real-life sponsors are there, too, carrying over an advertising revenue model.

The question of business models is likely to be the determining factor as to what sites and experiences become dominant as the reality of all this takes hold. The challenge is how to stay on top of proprietary content as it becomes widely dispersed. Think of this as the same issue faced by the music licensing companies trying to make sure they receive royalties for content played in bars, restaurants and the like.

But the task is many times more involved than checking up on such brick-and-mortar establishments that aren’t on ASCAP and BMI’s lists. Also, unlike this traditional model, the ability to reach out and update content wherever it is located will add value.

“As Web 2.0 technology disseminates assets off of core sites, we’ll be tracking who’s looked at what on someone’s blog or Web site. This world of distributed media brings with it many opportunities and challenges,” says Grimes.

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