Elevating NBA fan experience through the power of technology

It goes without saying that the Indian sports industry is booming. A 2022 study by Anand Rathi Investment Banking found that by 2027, the India sports industry is expected to grow five times to USD 100 billion. Fundamental to that projected growth is the continued evolution of technology, which has transformed how we consume and engage with sports, including in India.

In the 1990s, the fan experience was limited to the in-arena experience and in-person interaction with players. Today, it has completely changed. From livestreaming to virtual reality (VR), the globalization of basketball continues to create new opportunities for fans to connect with their favourite leagues, teams and athletes on digital platforms.

In 2020, the pandemic forced the entire sports industry to reimagine the viewing experience for the fans. During the 2019-20 NBA season restart in Orlando, an immersive virtual experience was created, where more than 300 fans were invited to appear live on 17-foot LED video boards surrounding the court for each game.

Those fans had the opportunity to digitally interact with each other throughout the game using Microsoft’s “Together Mode,” which removed fans from their individual backgrounds and brought them together in a shared visual space that could be seen throughout the restart on broadcast and in the venue.

This year, the much-awaited official rollout of 5G in India provides an incredible opportunity for us to leverage these new technologies through faster internet speeds, lower latency, and wider connectivity. And India is expected to quickly adopt 5G. A recent study by Nokia projects that by 2024, the number of 5G subscribers in India will grow from 20 million to more than 150 million.

Where every seat is the best seat in the house

Augmented reality (AR) and VR have proven to be some of the most compelling new-age technologies in the sports industry, putting fans right in the middle of the action in a way that was never possible before and further bridging the gap between the in-arena and at-home experience.

We are not just talking about the present, through AR and VR, every era can come alive – past, present and future. At the NBA All-Star Tech Summit in February, Commissioner Adam Silver introduced a slate of new personalized options that could be part of the future live game streaming experience using AR technology.

This includes a potential feature that would allow fans to scan themselves via the NBA App into a live NBA game, replacing an NBA player with their own virtual avatar. The potential enhancements this technology could bring to fan engagement are truly revolutionary.

In addition to improving the live game experience, VR technology can provide fans with behind-the-scenes access that was previously impossible, including inviting them into the locker room, travel with the team, and to experience life as a professional athlete.

PORTLAND, OREGON - JANUARY 22: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA game.

PORTLAND, OREGON – JANUARY 22: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA game.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images via AFP


PORTLAND, OREGON – JANUARY 22: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA game.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images via AFP

Fans in India will have the opportunity to be one step closer to the game – whether it’s watching the 2022-23 NBA season finals between the Denver Nuggets and the Miami Heat or witnessing LeBron James creating history by becoming the new all-time scoring champion. We are looking at a future where every seat will be the best seat in the house.

Personalization more important than ever

As technology continues to evolve, fans expect more communal, customized and personalized experiences that cater to their individual preferences and interests. Artificial intelligence (AI) is critical to delivering that personalized experience, and the increasing adoption of 5G technology in India will significantly expand the use cases for AI in the country.

With faster speeds, AI algorithms can quickly analyze vast amounts of data about fan preferences, behaviors, and interactions with leagues, teams and players. That data can then be used to create tailored recommendations for live game viewing, off-court content, merchandise, and much more, especially in diverse markets like India

This personalization was the driving force of reimagining the new NBA App at the start of the last season. Ninety-nine percent of our fans, many of those from India, will never step foot in an NBA arena. So a lot of our focus is on how we can use technology to engage them and tell stories about our players and teams in ways we never could before. Using Microsoft’s Azure AI Cloud, content featured within our app is personalized based on each fan’s preference, including alerts, player and team highlights, and curated programming with a sleek redesigned interface.

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This has resulted in NBA App generating more than one billion video views this season globally, more than triple last year’s total. The league’s global membership programme called ‘NBA ID’ drove a 40 per cent increase in NBA App downloads as it provided fans with more options to engage with the league.

As AI technology continues to advance, we can expect more sophisticated personalization strategies that will provide an even deeper and more targeted connection between fans and their favorite teams and players.

Making strides towards a zero-latency world

Technology and social media have made real-time interaction a core part of the fan experience. The low latency of 5G networks expands the variety of data that can be communicated to fans watching at home or on the go. For example, we now have statistical overlays that can predict a player’s shooting percentage during a live game based on where they are on the floor, where their teammates are around them, and other player tendencies.

This provides a whole new prism through which fans can understand the game. It is also applicable in-stadium, where fans can use AR technology to see statistical overlays simply by pointing their phones at specific players.

Microsoft Azure has allowed us to reduce stream latency within NBA League Pass so that it is more in line with the traditional broadcast. For fans, this enables seamless, instantaneous interactions on social media with others watching the game. Which has resulted in a 50 per cent growth globally in subscribers and a 48 per cent increase in viewership globally.

Casting the gaming net wide

Gaming is a natural extension of the overall fan experience, and this sector is no stranger to the impact of newer and smarter technologies. With faster speeds comes faster and more reliable connections, more online gaming services, and improved VR and AR experiences, among other benefits like seamless streaming through new age online platforms.

In fact, advent of 5G specifically can accelerate cloud-based computing, which could allow for more players who otherwise may not have had access to gaming given the entry costs of gaming hardware. NBA has partnered in India with Loco to broadcast the NBA 2K League to fans across the country and has seen tremendous growth in year-on year numbers as the 2K League broadcast achieved a 200%+ growth in unique live viewers for NBA2KL by mid-season.

All in all, we are still in the discovery phase of what 5G technology and VR engagement can mean for sports fans everywhere. 5G technology has provided us with the opportunity to completely redefine the fan experience in new and exciting ways – from gamification and immersive viewing to real-time stats and analytics. As 5G technology continues to evolve and gain widespread adoption in India, the NBA will play a leading role in developing the future of fandom in India.

The writer is the Head of Strategy, NBA Asia & Country Head, NBA India

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