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How Technology and AI Made Empty NBA Games Among the Best Broadcasts in Pro Sports

One of the most interesting things about working in tech is all the effort that goes into just making things work. The more I learn, the more I think that science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic might be wrong. The reality is that any sufficiently advanced technology becomes invisible. The simpler, easier and more obvious it appears, the greater the intellectual and financial investment that went into making it disappear. Take the Apple iPod + music ecosystem, or Google Maps, or Amazon’s Alexa; life seemed fine without them, but now it seems inconceivable we would give them up.

A great example of this kind of invisible innovation happened behind the scenes of the 2020 NBA Finals. The season was paused due to COVID back in March, and initially I was only loosely aware of “the bubble” — a cordoned off chunk of Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in which whole basketball teams and their support staffs quarantined together and played to empty arenas. When I heard they’d restarted in late July, I expected the pandemic to halt it again like it had so much else.

Then my friend Bryan burst in to tell me how much he’d been enjoying the games. 

Of course, he didn’t literally burst in. He said it on a group Zoom call, and my screen was set to speaker view, so his excitement seemed very much directed toward me. In the COVID era, what we see, how it makes us feel, how we share it, and how we receive it — all of that is funneled into and out of laptops and phone screens, which after so many months of lockdowns seems to have dulled our reactions. But Bryan was ecstatic, and he’s not easily impressed.

“If you are not watching the NBA Finals,” Bryan grinned at the grid of employees, “you’re missing out on something really special.”

So that night, I did. He was right.

“For the last 50 years, you’ve had cameramen on the court,” says Danny Meiseles, President and Executive Producer of Content for the NBA. “But you can’t do that anymore, because we’re not just saying six feet distance, we’re saying 20 feet distance. No one’s coming on the court. No one’s getting near our players, even with a mask. So now everything was, ‘How many different robotic cameras can we set up? How can we do this differently?’ Yes. Fans are going to be very excited for us to come back, but what sort of innovations can we bring to the table?”  

Meiseles ultimately helped build an entirely new and unique production workflow, coordinating hundreds of people across multiple locations, including a replica basketball court in a Brooklyn studio. In Florida, they worked out the kinks during dozens of scrimmages before the first official game July 30. 

Athletes were the priority — fans a very close second. 

“Players on the court wanted to hear fan prompts, home court cheers, music, and a lot more,” Meiseles says, and they wanted instantaneous fan reaction so they could feed off the virtual crowd. Fans needed a different spin. “There’s a balance,” Meiseles says. “At home, you want to hear the announcers. You want to hear prompts (and) what players are saying.”

I’ve been into racing my whole life, and if there’s one thing race car fans agree on, it’s that the quality of coverage can be sub-optimal, at least in the United States. If you want great commentary, you’ve got to stream foreign feeds, sacrificing video and sound quality to get the fan service.

But the NBA Finals knocked things like racing coverage back to the Stone Age. The crowd noise was awesome. The camera angles and tracking shots were crazy. The speed of the camera cuts, the video quality, the sound quality — it was all shockingly good. And by season’s end, some of that was even being automated, and they have big plans for 2021.

It’s refreshing to see that the realities of the pandemic didn’t knock the NBA off its perch. Yes, there were risks involved, but there was also opportunity. Not just to replicate pre-COVID broadcast coverage, but to elevate it by redefining the experience for players and remote fans alike. 

If real innovation is when technology and business intersect and scale in the real world, the NBA bubble ranks up there with the most innovative media projects of all time.

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