NBA Summer League: Annual Innovation Lab Offers Glimpse Into Future of NBA Broadcasts, League Ops
Microsoft Azure, Sony Hawk-Eye, COSM’s C360, seven NBA Launchpad startups are key partners
The NBA Summer League has long served as an unparalleled vehicle for experimentation, providing an opportunity for the NBA and its broadcast partners to test out the latest technologies that will drive the future of the broadcast and in-venue fan experience, basketball strategy and analytics, officiating and in-game operations, and more. This year’s edition, which tips off today at the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, will continue that tradition of innovation with a slew of technology demos and serve as a coming-out party of sorts for the seven startups participating in the NBA Launchpad emerging-technology initiative.
“Summer League continues to be the best forum for this innovation lab because of the quantity of games that we have in one city, and the environment itself here in Las Vegas is just perfect for innovation,” says Barney Carleton, director, broadcast operations and events, NBA. “The relationships that we’ve cultivated with not only our broadcast partners but also the basketball-strategy and operations teams, as well as the individual teams and coaches, make this all possible.”
Onsite in Vegas: Breeding Ground for Technological Innovation
ESPN and NBA TV, who are broadcasting the Summer League games, have teamed up with the league at this year’s Innovation Lab. The production compound features three trucks — NEP EN3 (A and B units) and NEP Supershooter32 — and seven trailers housing equipment, personnel, and vendors. ESPN reconfigured the compound this year to maximize shade, with Filmwerks Power providing power and HVAC.
The league is focusing on a handful of key pillars this year: enhancing referee communications, boosting virtual signage for national and international distribution, further leveraging the Microsoft Azure cloud platform on which the NBA App was built, testing out Sony’s Hawk-Eye player- and ball-tracking data, and enhancing the viewing experience with next-gen cameras and microphones.
“The overall level of effort that goes into covering all of these games at Summer League from both courts is just amazing,” says Carleton. “Along with all of our innovation efforts, our compound continues to grow every year. It’s an unbelievable effort, and we’re looking forward to continuing to grow it in the future.”
All About the Cloud: NBA Taps Microsoft Azure for Live Production
Since signing a deal with the NBA in 2020, Microsoft Azure has become a key partner and played an integral role in building the backend infrastructure for the NBA App unveiled last year. At Summer League, the two are working together on a wide spectrum of tests, including cloud live-production workflows.
“The NBA is looking to improve our flexibility and ability to scale as events that we are covering for the NBA app continue to pop up,” says Carleton. “The NBA and Microsoft are leveraging a lot of great vendors and partners to architect cloud-based workflows that will enable us to better spin up and down resources to create better content.”
Last month, the NBA announced that premier pro-am basketball from various leagues — including Drew League, Miami Pro League, and AEBL — will stream globally on the NBA App and NBA.com. Currently, the league is deploying mobile units or other onsite production facilities for the bulk of these events. However, Carleton sees an opportunity for live cloud-based production workflows to streamline these operations in the future.
“What we’re looking to do is solve for scale,” he explains. “At the moment, the model for those pro-am leagues is to produce them onsite and then stream the games to the app in traditional fashion. We have an appliance that we are testing here that is on-ramping [camera/audio] feeds into the Microsoft Azure cloud, where the game would be produced. We see these as a potential solution for the abundance of content that we currently use significant resources to cover.”
In recent years, the NBA App has become home to several alternative game presentations, including NBA HooperVision, NBABet Stream, NBA Strategy Stream, and Throw It Down With Bill Walton. Carleton sees the cloud-based live-production model as a valuable asset for these shows as well.
“Alternative feeds definitely factor into our Microsoft Azure experimentation,” he says. “We’re continuing to work with new [alternative presentation formats] and see what resonates with fans, and we’ve had a lot of success. Now we’re looking to increase the technology tool set we have available for future opportunities.”
Hawk-Eye Joins the Party: More Data for Broadcasters, Fans, Officials, Teams
The NBA made waves in March in announcing a multi-year deal to deploy Sony’s Hawk-Eye Innovations optical tracking. The technology will, for the first time, enable data to be captured in real time in three dimensions, including movement of each player and the ball, all at sub-second latency.
“This is the first year we’re going to have tracking capability for every Summer League game at both venues, which is going to give us a lot more data and video to work with,” says Tom Ryan, VP, basketball strategy and analytics, NBA. “We’re very excited to be doing a test with Hawk-Eye’s smart replay system. We’re going to have an onset replay center — which we typically don’t have — for all games.”
Hawk-Eye technology enhances officiating by increasing the accuracy of calls and the speed of play. Future seasons promise automated calls on such plays as out-of-bounds and goaltending.
“In addition to the standard video replay,” says Ryan, “we will be able to start pulling up automated calls for the first time. For example, was this a goaltend or not? You’re going to know right away within that Hawk-Eye UI, which will help tremendously on close calls or challenges.”
Although Hawk-Eye has been tested at Summer League for four years, this is its first appearance since the partnership was announced.
“At its core,” notes Ryan, “this is a dry run for the preseason and the regular season, to work through any kinks or issues with the core tracking data. This is the first time we’re tracking everything, we’re getting live data, and our internal teams are using that data for a variety of applications. We’re not going to have live fan-facing stats yet from Hawk-Eye, but you can expect that soon. We’re also excited at the prospect of giving the raw data to partners like Second Spectrum to create products for the teams.”
Carleton adds that his team is looking to see how Hawk-Eye data could serve a consumer-facing experience from both the broadcast and the direct-to-consumer streaming perspective.
“We’ve seen great success from ESPN in the past with our player-tracking data,” he points out. “We’re hoping to continue to increase that, especially with ESPN debuting the shot-distance graphic for last season. We’re looking to create new opportunities like that with this new data set.”
Virtual Signage: Creating New Opportunities for Advertising, Content
Another big focal point this year in Vegas is virtual signage for both domestic and internationally distributed game broadcasts. The league is working with several virtual-signage vendors in an effort to find the most robust solution for both virtual advertising and in-game content.
“The biggest thing that we’re looking to improve is the overall quality of the virtual signage,” Carleton says. “We’re hoping to streamline the overall process as well as improve the fidelity of the virtual signage on the floor to reduce tearing or distortion. That will create new opportunities not only for advertising and sales but to leverage this for more content opportunities in future.”
Covering the Court: Cosm’s C360 Cameras, New Ref Mics Get Test Runs
Cosm, which inked a multi-year deal with the league in February to create 8K shared-reality experiences for fans, is in Vegas testing its C360 camera systems. Cosm will deploy four cameras for offline testing to prepare for the upcoming NBA season. As part of its deal, the company will produce and present selected games from NBA League Pass in immersive 8K on large-scale LED-dome systems at its forthcoming venues.
On the audio side, the NBA continues to work to improve its audio capture with different microphone arrays and player mics. In Vegas, Carleton and company will be looking at new microphones and new transmitters to enhance and increase the ability to capture audio on the floor. In addition, the league aims to improve the audio for referee announcements during game broadcasts and will be testing multiple ref mics in Vegas.
“We’re looking at different microphones in that area, as well as different changes to the potential process to ensure that the audio is disseminated clearly,” says Carleton. “As with other sports, a lot goes into that with coordination between the in-arena presentation, the broadcasters, and the referees and coaches on the floor. It’s a complex process, but we want to make it as simple as possible for fans.”
The league will also be testing new earpieces that provide live communication between the officiating-crew chief and the replay-center operators to streamline in-game reviews. Refs will also test – watches that provide alerts similar to those used in global soccer. Currently, a blue light flashes when there is a potential scoring change (for example, a player had his toe on the three-point line when he shot), but Ryan hopes the watch-based system will improve efficiency.
“We learned over the past year that, in the heat of the moment with 20,000 people in an arena, it can be hard to see the blue light,” he says. “We are taking a [lesson from] what many other sports have done with the watches for a long time. It’s a narrow use case at this time, but you can envision a future at Summer League 2026 when we’re doing a lot more automation and that information could be fed to those watches, such as an instant goaltending or ball-possession call.”
NBA Launchpad: Six-Month R&D Project Crescendos at Demo Day in Vegas
Over the past six months, seven companies have participated in the league’s NBA Launchpad R&D project. As part of NBA Launchpad, companies and entrepreneurs have access to NBA resources, hands-on support, and other incentives to develop future technologies. That program concludes next week with Launchpad companies’ presentations to NBA executives, strategic partners, and investors during NBA Launchpad Demo Day at Summer League.
This year’s Launchpad participants are Tagboard, Action Audio, EDGE Sound Research, nVenue, SkillCorner, Springbok Analytics, and Supersapiens.
“We use Launchpad Demo Day to look at the future of both the on-court product and the fan experience,” says Ryan. “These companies will get a chance to showcase the work they’ve done and, hopefully, graduate to being used on the court in a major way by the league or by teams.”
Following Demo Day in Vegas, Tagboard launched its new App Marketplace – a centralized ecosystem where producers can shop, select, and integrate new production tools into their workflows – with no code or engineering support required. This release comes off the heels of recent integrations with Adobe, AWS, and The Famous Group – integrations that support next-gen cloud graphics workflows. Tagboard believes the new App Marketplace will address what the company sees as biggest barrier facing media companies looking to up their content output: producer-friendly workflows.
“Coming off the heels of recent integrations with Adobe and Amazon Web Services (AWS), we’ve been quickly changing the game for media producers through cloud graphics workflows,” says Nathan Peterson, CEO, Tagboard. “Now we’re introducing another solution to what we see as the biggest barrier facing media companies who want to supercharge their content output: no-code real-time data graphics“our user experience is essentially democratizing broadcast and game day production, which enables enterprise content creation from the creator, to the influencer, to the most experienced executive producer”
The NBA Summer League runs July 7-18 and will be broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, NBA TV, and the NBA App.