The NBA’s 68th glorious season is off to a roaring start and the storylines are coming faster than John Wall in transition.
Will LeBron James and the Miami Heat (the reigning MVP and NBA champions) continue their march to dynasty status? How long will it take for injured stars Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant to return to their former powers?
And will anyone get dunked on in a more vicious manner than the way DeAndre Jordan dunked on Brandon Knight? There is plenty of hype around the 2013-14 session, which promises to keep us on the edge of our seats from now until the NBA Finals in June.
However, one of the more subtle headlines is how technology is changing almost every facet of the game.
While basketball is no longer bound to the 13 original rules conceived when Dr James Naismith invented the game in 1891, the digital transformation of the NBA over the last few years has significantly impacted how the game is played, consumed, advertised and much more.
With the aid of social media, online streaming and stats, lets have a look at how digital has changed the NBA experience.
The impact of social media
The sport that thrives on furious flurries of activity and game winning buzzer beaters is seemingly built for the social media driven world we live in.
On any given night, the NBA can and will take over the timeline with its array of updates, highlights and comments from the sporting blogosphere.
And just like that the momentum swings back in LA's favor. They lead the Thunder 104-96 with 2:23 left in the 4th on ESPN.— NBA (@NBA) November 14, 2013
Jame Anderson was unreal tonight going off for a career-high 36pts including the clutch 3 to send it to OT. @Sixers defeat Houston 123-117.— NBA (@NBA) November 14, 2013
This allows fans to keep up to date with all the games being played, enticing consumers to tune in to as many pivotal moments as possible. Particularly useful when 12 games are being played in a six-hour window as was the case Wednesday night.
The ability to use social to draw users into a particular game at the most important times is crucial for the NBA… and Twitter. While the sports league and the social network working together has been for the good of the fans, there are commercial benefits too.
The NBA was one of the first to partner with Twitter on the Amplify programme, which amplifies social TV conversations with real-time dual-screen sponsorships and in-Tweet clips from broadcasters. Here is an example from last season’s NBA Finals featuring arguably one of the biggest shots in NBA History:
And that is just Twitter. Behind every sports team are communities of fans who are eager to demonstrate their loyalty in social settings. Leveraging this has helped the NBA gain almost 36 million likes and follows on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google + and YouTube. And that is not including individual teams, regional or sponsored accounts or accounts of subsidiary leagues.
Addressing changing consumer habits
The NBA has done extensive work to globalise its brand. This season, there are 92 non-American players from 39 countries in the league and only three out of the 30 teams do not have a foreign player on their roster.
In addition to that, NBA hosts many events in the off-season and post-season in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America to plant and fly flags internationally. But what happens during the regular season, when attention and activity is fixed firmly on US timezones?
Allow me to introduce NBA League Pass:
The league pass allows fans from all across the world to watch the entire season on desktops or via the NBA Game Time App for tablets and smartphones. This helps fans to actively keep up with the season and follow their favourite teams and players on a nightly basis.
The benefits of being able to stream games online are just as valuable to domestic audiences. Traditionally, fans were restricted to watching the games that were broadcast on national television, plus the teams that are covered in their regional television package.
However, with NBA League Pass, fans are free to watch any one of 1,230 regular season games of their choice, irrespective of location.
The app also acts as a second screen companion. With many consumers likely using a second screen while watching television, according to Econsultancy’s Multi-Screen Marketer report, the app can be used to complement TV coverage, showing viewers in-depth stats for the game they are watching. Or if they choose to, they can watch up to four games at once, providing consumers with more than enough content to keep them engaged with NBA programming.
Who says big data was just for marketers?
Speaking of stats, the NBA is using a lot of data in a lot of different ways. The traditional statistics used to measure players and teams are being replaced by more advanced stats that give greater context.
Many fans are using the new data sets to argue the case for their favourite players and teams. Kirk Goldsberry, from Grantland.com along with Ashton Shortridge used NBA data to create a new scoring metric called ShotScore, which takes into account court space and NBA shooting averages to explore who are the most effective scorers in the game.
The result? LeBron James is the best scorer in the world:
The NBA has also invested in technology to gather new kinds of data. The summer saw a league-wide rollout of player tracking technology that will give insight into speed, distance and player separation, among other variables.
While some of this data will be used to bolster the statistical offerings provided to fans, how the data will be used by teams appears to be largely kept under wraps to maintain a competitive edge.
The impact of analytics on people
With NBA franchises venturing into the advanced stats era with varying levels of excitement and expectations, the impact is felt just as much off the court, as it is on the court.
The modern basketball coach is expected to be comfortable enough and/or willing to incorporate more numbers into what can be seen as an intuitive role. This shift in expectations is part of the reason a record 13 teams (nearly half the league) started this season with new coaches.
In addition, players are finding there are new ways to evaluate their value. By traditional stats, Rudy Gay is an All Star, but advanced stats values his game as an “Analytic Nightmare”. So who is right? And more importantly, who is right when the time comes to negotiate contracts?
While analytics can provide an insight into the performance of a player, that information should not exist in a vacuum. According to ShotScore, Monta Ellis was the least efficient scorer in the league last season:
However this season, his first playing within a decent offensive system, has seen him become a much more efficient player. Although this could be simply a hot streak, a sustained performance could demonstrate that as insightful as statistics can be, they do not account for the ecosystems in which basketball players are in.
The digital transformation of the NBA has been eventful to say the least. The league and its teams appear to be taking positive steps in creating a digital culture.
While many may raise eyebrows at the effect technology has had on the business of basketball, it has created a more immersive and engaging experience for its fans worldwide.