NBA commissioner Adam Silver on the tech transformation of basketball

From tracking a player’s every movement, to providing fans watching at home or in the arena with the best possible experience, the NBA has been at the forefront of technical innovation in sport

In a session at the Leaders Meet Innovation event, the NBA’s Adam Silver explained how digital technology has changed the way basketball is played, coached, watched and marketed. “Years ago, “ he said, “we saw [the potential of tech] coming and said let’s embrace it.” As a result, the NBA is often cited as the most innovative professional sport when it comes to the use of technology. Silver explained its impact in the following areas:

From the NBA website Stats section
From the NBA website Stats section
NBA website Stats section
NBA website Stats section shows the micro level of data gathered on player performance

Player data and analytics
Analysing the huge amount of player data gathered by the NBA (via it partner STATS) has turned performance analysis into “a bit of an arms race’ with each team competing for that small advantage, Silver said.. The ever-increasing teams of analysts employed by each side break down data into more and more complex categories, including which foot a player likes to step off, their exertion levels and much more. “Before, they would record assists, now it’s the pass before the assist,” Silver said.

Overhead cameras are now present in all NBA arenas to record player data. Image: SportVU
Overhead cameras are now present in all NBA arenas to record player data. Image: SportVU
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How the NBA’s SportVU arena cameras track player movements. Image: NBA
Data analysis software created by STATS
Data analysis software created by STATS
nba_touchchart
Player Touch Chart by STATS
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STATS in-game analysis using the overhead cameras installed at every NBA arena

Many other professional sports now employ such techniques but perhaps none do so to the level of detail used in the NBA, which installed player tracking systems in all 29 of its arenas in 2013. But, Silver said, this hasn’t been a wholly positive development. “I think there’s a sense in the league, really just in the last few years, that in the sort of balance between analytics and judgment, that in certain cases teams have tilted too far towards the analytic side,” Silver said. Ex players such as Charles Barkley have criticised what they see as teams’ over-reliance on data, turning players into robots and eliminating the inspired moments of brilliance that light up any sport. “Players are human beings and their behaviours aren’t always predictable or rational. In a way, intuition is back in. It has to be a combination of these things”

Shotchart
Shotchart for LeBron James. Image: NBA
New York Knicks mobile app
New York Knicks mobile app

Apps and the arena
Teams in the NBA were among the first to introduce dedicated apps for fans attending matches. The reasoning, Silver said, “was that if you watched a game at home you would have access to a lot of information that you wouldn’t have while sitting at the game – that struck us as getting things backwards. The people who were paying the most money and who are the most devoted fans didn’t have the same access to information as those at home.” Typical NBA apps now allow fans not just to watch video replays, but to change camera angles, rewind and replay action and so on. They now also provide the same level of data to fans that teams were once only supplying to the media at the games.

Apps, Silver said, have become key to providing what he called the “driveway to driveway” experience of attending a game. They can be used to provide information on the best route to the arena, where to park (and access to discounted rates) and what entrance to use. They can take the place of a paper ticket, and “because we know where that fan is in the arena and their prior habits, we know if somebody likes to buy a hotdog before the game, so there’s a discount for them. We know if they are fan of a particular player, they might want to buy a jersey, so a promotion comes up for that jersey and it can be delivered to their seat. The opportunities are endless.”

https://youtu.be/Pfq8hvelAJw

VR
Silver explained that the NBA had a longstanding relationship with Facebook, through which he has been kept up to date with the latest developments by Facebook-owned Oculus Rift. “Our games last around two and a half hours – are our consumers going to sit for that long with these headsets on? No, not yet,” he said. But, headsets will become lighter and less cumbersome and VR, Silver predicted “is going to be a gamechanger. 99% of our fans are never going to have the opportunity of going to a game so the notion that by putting on these glasses, you can sit down courtside is amazing. We used to say that the courtside seat is the best experience you can have but with this you can be on the court, or in the locker room, or anywhere.”

Fans will also be able to interact with players beyond the game experience – as demonstrated by LeBron James’ recent tie-up with Samsung Gear VR. Striving for Greatness (released in December, ad above) was “an immersive 360° virtual reality film that invites you to follow LeBron as he trains”.

Streaming/OTT
“It’s hard to imagine that ten years from now fans are not going to insist on being able to watch whatever game they want on whatever device they have,” Silver said of the challenges of so-called over-the-top (OTT) content, where video can be delivered over the internet without going through a broadcaster. “We have to begin there, with what the consumer wants. There are a lot of obstacles to getting there, in terms of how our rights carved up, for example, but one way or another we are going to have to get there. We have an app where, depending on the jurisdiction where you live, you can buy games a la carte – that’s increasingly what the world is going to look like. It might not be the best news for our television partners but it just seems inevitable. It’s very positive for us because fans can live outside a [media company] ecosystem – they don’t need to be a subscriber to bundle of products.”

More on the Leaders Meet Innovation event here.

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