With the Lakers back in the NBA Finals, courtside at Staples Center is as star-studded as an Oscar bash.
But hidden from the celebs, tucked into the cement underbelly of Staples Center, throbs the nerve center of the NBA’s worldwide video distribution network.
The NBA’s world market comprises 215 countries and 41 languages, with viewers watching via terrestrial, cable, satellite and Internet.
During the league’s regular season, distribution for those worldwide viewers is handled out of a broadcast center in Secaucus, N.J. But interest peaks at Finals time, so every June a good portion of the NBA’s broadcasting team finds itself on the road.
Among those who are shuttling between Los Angeles and Boston is Tim Kane, senior director of broadcasting for the NBA, the man charged with managing that high-definition world feed.
Two hours before tipoff we found him near the back of a Cross Creek mobile unit tucked away in a cavernous loading dock, sitting in front of a bank of video displays capable of showing as many as 100 images at once.
At 6’7″, he can barely stand up in the mobile unit without bumping the ceiling. “Trucks are not my friend,” he admits a little sheepishly.
A former JV player at Princeton and vet of ESPN’s formative years, Kane uses ABC’s 25 cameras to assemble a very different video feed from what Americans see on the Alphabet.
“We want to send a clean show to the world that any telecaster can take into their own facility, be here on site and be able to do a quality telecast.”
When Kane says “clean,” he means free of ABC’s graphics and other local or English-language elements.
For example, when ABC drops in a sound bite, Kane’s team usually skips it; “too hard to translate on the fly,” he says. But world viewers want to get close to NBA players, so Kane will grab ABC’s live interviews with players and coaches at breaks in the action.
“The one thing to remember about the world feed is a lot of countries never go to commercial; they’re like HBO. So while ABC goes to commercial, we’re working.” The Laker Girls, he says, are popular, so they are a regular part of the world feed.
An increasing number of worldwide viewers see Kane’s work via the NBA’s streaming service via localized websites.
“Our broadband distribution globally is more than two times from last year,” says Steve Hellmuth, executive VP, technology and operations for the NBA.
“We’re able to deliver pictures of high-enough quality that fans all over the world gather around their TV sets and plug their computers into their TV monitors.”
Broadband access hasn’t come to rival broadcast/satellite/cable as a distribution channel, Hellmuth says, but it lets fans anywhere in the world follow their favorite teams, which has helped build a passionate global fan base.
China, in particular, is a hotbed of NBA fandom — so much so that the NBA is using technology not even ABC has to feed China’s hoop cravings.
For China’s CCTV 5, presenter Ya Chin Chang and producer Annette Ricciuti roam the arena with a “LiveU” mobile unit (a standard-def TV camera attached to a backpack that sends video via a cellular connection).
That gives them the freedom to shoot from pretty much anywhere there’s a cell connection — most of the time. Like many Angelenos with advanced cellular tech, they found trouble connecting at the most frustrating moment possible: just before player introductions for Game 1.
Ricciuti, who is senior producer for the NBA’s international group, said the LiveU system is to help bring the fans closer to the players. “We get arrivals, pre and postgame sound bites, any access elements.” Chang, a Hong Kong native and Northwestern grad, asks questions of the players in English and interprets in real time for Mandarin speakers back home.
While Ricciuti and Chang are courtside during warm-ups, Kane is in the truck watching a parade of reporters from around the world do their pregame standups.
Kane’s game day typically starts at 9 a.m. and isn’t over until 90 minutes or more after the game ends, when the mobile unit is locked up for the night.
After Sunday night’s Game 2, he was skedded to jet across country and settle into an identical mobile unit already in place in Boston. “When you walk in, it feels the same, and you can do your job,” he says.
All of this is just for traditional 2D. Will 3D be in the mix for next year’s Finals?
Says Hellmuth: “I would think so, yes.”