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NBA Brings Games Home Through its Virtual Arena

The National Basketball Association has tipped off its regular season, welcoming Michael Jordan back by adding some new tweaks to its slate of broadband-content offerings.

The league will add a real-time fantasy game component to its NBA.com Web site that's synched with its TV broadcasts. That's in addition to the video highlights and audio play-by-play of each league contest already available on the Web.

NBA.com and its related NBA.com TV service "are our 24-by-7 touch points for our fans," said NBA Entertainment vice president of Internet services Brenda Spoonemore. "The job is to replicate [the in-person game] experience as much as we can."

NBA.com includes the league's official Web site, plus sites for the league's 29 teams, the Women's National Basketball Association and various international sites.

NBA.com TV is a 24-hour news-and-information channel available on the Internet and DirecTV Inc.'s direct-broadcast satellite service. Content includes game coverage, breaking news, photos and video. The channel — offered free to DirecTV subscribers — serves as a de facto barker channel for the "NBA League Pass" out-of-market pay-per-view package.

NBA.com features news, video and audio coverage of the league.

Additionally, for every game there is a two- to three-minute video highlights package that is posted on the Web site. The package is produced by NBA.com TV.

While games are in progress, NBA.com features a five-minute highlights segment that's updated every 15 minutes as the on-court action continues to unfold.

NBA fans can also hear streamed radio broadcasts from every team through either NBA.com or RealNetworks Inc.'s GoldPass service, to be renamed RealOne. The NBA sells the feature for $9.95 a month, or $29.95 for the season. The NBA games are also included as part of GoldPass' $9.95 a month subscription service, along with other content.

GoldPass counts more than 400,00 subscribers, and Spoonemore acknowledges that the majority of NBA Audio subscribers receive the service through GoldPass. This is the fifth year that NBA games have been available via the Internet, Spoonemore said.

"It's important to run it as a business," she said. "Our sites are doing very well as a business."

NBA.com also features exclusive video programs, coaches' press conferences and a weekly audio conference with an NBA player. A number of teams will stream post-game press conferences this year on the Web site.

INTERNATIONAL SPEED

The league has been working to improve the frame rate and settings for its broadband product to improve its quality, Spoonemore said.

"We're committed to having low-bandwidth and high-bandwidth content," she said.

Up to one-third of the NBA's online audience is from outside the U.S. and most of those users have broadband connections.

"We see a lot more activity on broadband [since last year]," she said.

The NBA, which is waiting for its new television deals to be completed, has not made any deals with U.S. broadband providers. NBA.com has signed a pact with South Korea's SportsLive, a Road Runner-type content and Internet service provider.

Spoonemore said the NBA is interested in broadband content deals because middlemen such as SportsLive can target NBA fans and provide potential advertising and sponsorship deals on a regional basis.

"We're very interested in getting content to our consumers to the widest possible distribution," Spoonemore said. "We have a particular wired fan base."

Broadband offers a number of tantalizing future opportunities for sports leagues like the NBA. For instance, games can be Web cast or delivered via video-on-demand after they have been completed. A condensed version of a game could also be made available after the contest ends, Spoonemore said. And archived videos or personalized highlight reels could also be made available.

"We believe there is a consumer demand for some of that," Spoonemore said.

Using broadband to offer archival material is another "fascinating" idea, added Spoonemore, but she sounded a note of caution.

"I'm not sure there is a business model to support that yet," she said. "It takes a tremendous amount of storage space to keep all that content, but we're well aware of the value of those assets."

The NBA offered a "My Highlights" package last year, where users could go and see every blocked shot or slam dunk from Shaquille O'Neal, for example. But Spoonemore said even with that level of control, users "gravitated to the produced video. We watched the numbers and realized they wanted to be told the story."

With respect to the experience of watching separate TV and PC screens in the same room, Spoonemore said: "That's something we're tracking very closely. We have a high percentage of fans who are watching the game and are online at the same time."

In the past, the NBA incorporated chat and factoids into game telecasts. Last year, it employed real-time polling during the slam dunk contest at the All-Star Game and some playoff games.