Behind the NBA’s futuristic plans to replace in-person fans with virtual technology for Orlando restart
When the National Basketball Association restarts its season next week in Orlando, “virtual cheering” will replace in-person fans, while courts will be surrounded by robotic cameras and microphones to deliver what the league promises to be “never-before-seen camera angles and enhanced audio” for TV viewers.
The high-tech upgrades, unveiled Friday by league officials, come as the league tries to add some excitement to what would otherwise be a dead in-game atmosphere at the fanless courts at ESPN’s Wide World Sports Complex at Walt Disney World—part of the the Orlando “bubble” that the NBA established to minimize COVID-19 exposure risk.
Officials also provided more details of the “Michelob Ultra Courtside” experience—first teased on Thursday—that will ring the court with 17-foot video boards featuring live images of 300 fans watching from home. Using the “together mode” function from Microsoft Teams, participating fans appear as if they are sitting together in arena-style seats. They can even talk to each other or give virtual high-fives. There will even be a special section for players families to virtually sit together.
Audio from the virtual fans will be heard by players as well as TV viewers. This raises the possibility that inappropriate fan behavior might be seen or heard on games, which are carried by TNT, ESPN, ABC and NBA TV. To limit that possibility, the NBA will have moderators in each virtual section. “In the arena itself, the fan audio will be mixed, so individual voices won’t be as clear—it will be more about a collective experience,” Sara Zuckert, the NBA’s Head of Next Gen Telecast, told reporters on Friday during a demo of the new technology held using Microsoft Teams.
Fancy tech aside, TV ratings should not be a problem with sports-starved viewers flocking to anything that resembles live action. Sports TV ratings will hit “record levels” in the second half of the year, as seven pro sports leagues resume play in July and August, with the National Football League scheduled to return in September, according to a report from Needham & Co. analyst Laura Martin. “In an environment where only news or library content (i.e., reruns) have been viewable for months during lock-downs, we expect game-day TV ratings to surprise to the upside,” she wrote.
While plenty of questions remain—including what happens if large numbers of players test COVID-positive—the return of live sports bodes well for advertisers. Because, as Martin notes, it is “one of the few forms of content watched live, meaning consumers generally don't record and fast-forward through commercials, so the ads have more impact.”
But the NBA and other leagues must still find ways to satisfy sponsors used to wringing value from expensive contracts with at-game fan experiences that are not currently possible. The league’s solution in Orlando includes the courtside screens, which include branding from Michelob Ultra and Microsoft Teams. The brew is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a longtime NBA sponsor. Ultra will be heavily involved in sweepstakes offers and other programs used to select fans to participate in the virtual courtside experience. Even though the games are played at a neutral site in Orlando, the NBA is trying to recreate home-court advantages by allowing the designated “home” team for each game to select the virtual fans.
Microsoft inked a multiyear deal with the league in April that called for the NBA to adopt its cloud computing and artificial intelligence services to help personalize games. The courtside screens will give Teams exposure as Microsoft battles competitors such as Zoom for videoconferencing users during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a surge in popularity in such offerings.
The technology will also burnish the NBA’s reputation as the most sophisticated pro sports league in the U.S. Martin, the Needham analyst, in an interview said the single-site Orlando venue gives the NBA an edge over other leagues, at least when it comes to deploying tech. “It’s a much better return-on-investment—you can use them on every single game they play at that facility, as opposed to baseball because they are moving around the country,” she said. “It’s not just [for] viewers,” she added. “I think the players are used to playing to fan noise, so it makes them feel more realistic, so they are not just playing an exhibition game.”
The NBA’s broadcast partners ESPN and Turner Sports plan to use more than 30 cameras for each game, including a “courtside cam” stationed about 10 rows up from the court, as well as a “rail cam” along the sideline that will move with the action. Most of them will be operated via robotics, in a move officials positioned as a health and safety precaution.
The league is also touting a “virtual cheering” experience in which fans can use the NBA app or Twitter to register support for their favorite teams, with results shown on in-venue video boards. Also planned are TikTok challenges. Snapchat, too, is involved via augmented reality technology that, according to the NBA, will “give fans an opportunity to explore a virtual rendering of the official court in Orlando via a Lens wherever they are.”