In an era where sports are competing not just with each other for new and existing fans’ attention, but also with other forms of entertainment, mobile is a key battleground.
For many competitions, television ratings are falling as younger fans move away from linear television to smartphones and on-demand services. There are even fears that sport isn’t as popular as it once was.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) is acutely aware of these trends, but rather than fear them, it is embracing them as it seeks to build its fanbase not only in the US but globally too. The NBA has a diverse following, but it is more youthful than its local rivals and has a reputation for being a more progressive league that reflects this.
For example, in 2014, Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers, was forced to sell the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer because of alleged racist remarks and the league has expressed a more permissive stance to those who wish to protest the national anthem than the NFL, which has an older, more conservative fanbase.
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These days, its possible to watch every NBA game live on your smartphone via the official application, which is also awash with video highlights and content, while the league, its teams and its players are active on social media – including more youthful platforms like Snapchat.
The NBA’s official view is that there is nothing like attending a game in person, but the fact of the matter is many fans will never attend a match. The focus is therefore on making the remote viewing experience as similar to the one in the arena.
A 10Gbps network collected 12 camera feeds from every game to the NBA Replay Center in New Jersey, giving referees additional help that speeds up the game, but also gives the NBA multiple camera angles to sent to the mobile app. A video highlights system sees clips tagged so they can be distributed within 30 seconds and there are plans for automation.
The next step is virtual reality (VR) and 4K transmissions. Both of these will place significant stress on the network.
Cisco has been an NBA partner for a decade and has witnessed this transformation first hand. Over the past ten years, the focus has shifted to mobile and to global expansion.
“It’s a multi-faceted partnership,” Cisco’s Chinan Patel tells TechRadar Pro. “As well as being the core technology provider for the NBA as an organization, supporting its employees and the wor kthey do, we help with events like the All Star Games and how they extend the global game. We also work with the teams, who are heavily investing in stadium tech and elsewhere to grow the fanbase.
“If you think 10 years ago, mobile phones weren’t prevalent. You might see scores, but now the NBA tells us that large percentage of fans watch games on their mobile device and never consume it on anything else. A lot of investment is in how to make that better and how you can ensure people can access it on other networks, secure it and watch it offline.
“The NBA are probably the leaders in terms of technology adoption. If you look at football and [Video Assistant Referees], then some of the sports are quite behind. There’s a lot what other sports can learn from the NBA are doing.”
However he doesn’t necessarily agree with the assumption that the NBA has an advantage because its followers are younger. Instead, he argues its because the fast-paced nature of basketball is what makes it so appealing.
“We were with the NBA at South by South West [SXSW] and the audience that came was very diverse,” he says. “A lot of age groups, a lot of demographics. It has a diverse spectrum of audience. There is a youthful base, but equally but there is a broad appeal to the game and it does span all spectrums.
“The pace at which [basketball] is played and the way the NBA engages the audience … is something they’ve cracked.”
Indeed, the NBA is one of the partners for a new Bleacher Report Live streaming application from Turner and will allow fans to pay for portions of matches. For example, if a game in the fourth quarter is heating up, fans can log on and pay 99 cents for five minutes of live action. This will extend to the official NBA application, which is essential for the league’s international expansion.
The NBA holds a number of games outside North America each season, including one at London’s O2 – which will become a 5G testbed later this year. These are important to reach out to new fans but mobile is still the main way of reaching out to the international fanbase that can be thousands of miles away from any NBA arena. But can this ever be as good as seeing a game live?
Patel concedes this might be one step too far for mobile technology but says Cisco and the NBA are committed to replicating as much as possible.
“A lot of the work we do with them is to take the best elements of what makes going to a game so great and …the app experience, different views give you some kind of insight into what it’s like,” he says.
Mobile can enhance the at-game experience too. Many fans now want instant replays on their mobile devices, while teams want to be able to offer in-game seat upgrades, merchandise and catering. Meanwhile, sensors and in-arena Wi-Fi can help improve security and fan behaviour.
Mobile ticketing is also changing the way fans attend matches, with 60 per cent of all tickets sold by the Boston Celtics sent to a mobile device.
“The phone has become ubiquitous,” Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca tells the Leaders in Sport conference. “The closer you get to the fans, the closer they want to get to the club."
Free Wi-Fi networks have been deployed in many venues to try and facilitate all these applications, and Cisco itself provides connectivity in 350 stadiums around the world. But will these network deployments be able to keep up with demand?
“Things like 5G will be welcomed because they will offer increased bandwidth,” Patel suggests. “New technologies will have to come along to deal with growth. New applications like AR and VR will require new types of capacity.”
Cisco is taking a keen interest in 5G, participating in UK trials of the technology in rural areas, and announcing a slew of ‘5G Now’ services and products at Mobile World Congress (MWC). The company’s traditional strength has been in networking, but it is eyeing up more of the telecoms market.
A perfect match?
So what’s in it for Cisco? Is it a marketing agreement or a technology partnership? Patel says it touches on a number of areas, not least attracting young talent to its Network Academy.
“As an advanced technology company, we want to make sure we want to work with organisations that are at the leading edge of their industry and the NBA is that,” he says. “We want to be able to scale something that touches a lot of people. The things we do in the NBA at the stadiums, are applicable around the world- football, cricket stadiums. It helps us engage in different countries around the world.
“As a B2B company, not a B2C company it helps us scale up like that. There’s also a big aspect for the Network academy [which is] about inspiring new generations and sport is a great way of doing that.”
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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.