Fans won’t be able to watch NBA games court-side thanks to the coronavirus, but the league hopes to fill their absence with everything from the sounds of sneaker squeaks to the sight of fans beaming on the sidelines on big screens thanks to partnerships with Anheuser-Busch InBev and Microsoft.
More than 300 fans will be invited to appear live on 17-foot video boards surrounding the court at NBA games taking place in Orlando at Walt Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Their antics, sponsored by Anheuser’s Michelob and coordinated with technology from Microsoft, will no doubt turn up in some fashion on games televised by the NBA’s two main media partners, ESPN and WarnerMedia’s TNT.
The sideline escapades are just the latest in a series of experiments being tested by sports leagues and TV networks as the industry tries to resume play despite the challenges of the pandemic. Major League Baseball is allowing TV networks to augment games with recorded sounds and, in one case, with computer-generated fans in stadium stands. Baseball, however, offers a far more languid viewing experience, while basketball requires a faster pace.
Keeping up appearances is of great importance to the league and its media partners. Standard Media Index estimates the absence of NBA events in April alone prompted a decline of $240 million in advertising. Both media companies are in the midst of a nine-year rights deal with a value that is estimated to be more than $2 billion over the course of its term.
“Our goal is to create an enjoyable and immersive experience where fans can engage with each other and maintain a sense of community as we restart the season under these unique and challenging circumstances,”says Sara Zuckert, head of the NBA’s next-gen telecast technology, in a statement.
Fans on the big screens will get to use”Together mode,” a new feature of Microsoft’s Teams videoconferencing technology., to interact with each other virtually. Viewers will see these fans in a shared space that approximates an experience of sitting next to each other at a live game. Players may also see some of the fans actions, recreating some sense of the energy generated by a live crowd.
The TV networks will try some new techniques as well. ESPN and Turner Sports will reposition more than 30 cameras so they are closer to the court and able to reveal new angles on the action that would not be possible with actual fans in the stands. And microphones around the court will help capture enhanced sounds of sneaker soles on the court and the bounce of a basketball.
The league will try to replicate the cheering of live fans with digital approximations, using the video boards to reflect fan response generated by interaction with the NBA App and on NBA.com, and via Twitter users employing team hashtags.