NBA Ralph Rivera

“The Restart Has Presented Us With An Opportunity To Look At New Ways Of Imagining Our Games”

July 31, 2020

With the NBA season restarting last night with two dramatic, close games, iSportconnect talked to Ralph Rivera, EME Managing Director at the NBA, about how the league is working to bring fans closer to the action in spectator-less halls and some of the steps implemented to ensure the safety of players and that the season is completed.

How delighted is the league to be in a position where a restart is possible when that seemed like a very difficult proposition 2 months ago?

We’re thrilled to be able to restart the 2019-20 NBA season. Lots of planning, logistics and negotiations have gone into our campus at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, and all against a backdrop of tremendous social unrest in the U.S. and a worldwide pandemic that has impacted all of us.

That said, people are eager for live sports to return, it provides a sense of community during this difficult time so it’s great that we’re in a position to complete the season and ultimately crown a champion. You can sense the level of excitement amongst the players, our fans and partners, with so many compelling storylines including how our games will look on broadcast and the immersive fan experience.

Our games will reach fans in 215 countries and territories and in 47 languages, including some 90 countries and territories in EME, on their televisions, computers, mobile phones and tablets with a never-before-seen virtual fan experience. The uniqueness of the Orlando ‘Campus’ also means that fans in Europe will be able to watch up to 40 games in primetime as part of the 88 seeding games, across the NBA’s broadcast partners and on NBA League Pass, the most-ever games to air in primetime internationally in a two-week period.

Can you take us through some of the measures that have been put in place to ensure the safety of all the players and team representatives? 

First and foremost, the health and safety of our players, teams, staff and everyone associated with the game is our primary concern. In an unprecedented situation we’ve worked alongside the relevant medical and government experts to develop extensive health and safety protocols that will allow us to resume the season at a single, controlled site.

The restart has presented us with an opportunity to look at new ways of imagining our games in terms of both what the players experience, but also from a broadcast perspective and from a fan engagement point of view.

Upon arriving at the NBA Campus at Disney, to minimise risk of transmission as teams traveled to Orlando, all team staff and players went through an in-room quarantine of approximately 36-48 hours (while two coronavirus tests taken at least 24 hours apart were processed), with daily testing at the NBA Campus. Of the 344 players tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus since test results were last announced on July 20, zero have returned confirmed positive tests, so we really feel that the measures that we have in place are working.

Without fans in attendance, how important is it for the league to try and bring the sport closer to the fans and how much have you taken from watching the return of other leagues around the world?

We often say 99% of fans will never actually experience a game live, and with the current situation that has of course increased to 100%. The restart has presented us with an opportunity to look at new ways of imagining our games in terms of both what the players experience, but also from a broadcast perspective and from a fan engagement point of view. 

It was a chance to bring fans even closer to the action in a truly immersive experience and provide that sense of community, no matter where you might be watching the game or on what device or timezone. Fans in Europe we will be able to watch up to three games per day in primetime which will bring fans closer to the teams and players that they love.

In the UK for example, 33 games are scheduled prior to midnight in the first two weeks on Sky which is unprecedented. We paid very close attention to other leagues both domestically in the US and around the world in terms of the ‘return to play’, there was some shared learnings and protocols be it with the English Premier League or the German Bundesliga for example. In these unprecedented times, we were not competing with one another but were very much in a spirit of sharing so that we could create healthy environments for athletes within our respective sports.

What technology and innovations will you be providing to benefit the fan experience, are they brand new ideas or things that were in the plans that have been accelerated due to necessity? 

Given the unprecedented nature of the season restart, it has enabled us to get creative and innovate around the way the game is presented to create a truly immersive fan experience. We worked closely with our broadcast and technology partners to enhance our game telecasts and also listened to our players, our ultimate goal is to deliver an enjoyable experience that feels genuine.

We will have fan video boards, where up to 300 fans can digitally interact with each other throughout the game using Microsoft’s “Together mode” to create a virtual experience by removing fans from their individual backgrounds and bringing them together in a shared visual space that will be seen through the broadcast and in the venue. We hope the players experience their energy and support in-venue.

All viewers will have the ability to impact visual effects in the venue through a virtual cheering experience. Fans can digitally cheer for their team through the NBA App, and on Twitter using team hashtags throughout the game, with virtual cheering reflected on the video boards in-venue. Snapchat’s “ground segmentation” augmented reality technology will also give fans an opportunity to explore a virtual rendering of the official court in Orlando via a lens wherever they are.

Given the unprecedented nature of the season restart, it has enabled us to get creative and innovate around the way the game is presented to create a truly immersive fan experience.

Outside the USA, on League Pass the coverage of the seeding games will include alternate feeds with new camera angles, enhanced graphics, in-language streams and influencer commentary with a focus on areas such as pop culture and music.

The NBA has traditionally been arguably the best major sports league in the world at giving its players freedom to speak up on social issues, in the last week we’ve seen many discussing justice for Breonna Taylor. How is the league supporting players and these movements during these times? 

We know this is bigger than basketball, and together with the NBPA, the central goal of our season restart will be take collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice. The players have created jersey messages to promote social justice and the jerseys from the opening games will be auctioned off to support a newly created social justice fund run by the Players Association Foundation. 

The money raised will help ensure that these statements go hand in hand with action as part of the NBA family’s broader, long-term commitment to use the collective resources of the NBA and all 30 teams to drive social justice and economic empowerment in our communities. Throughout their time on campus, players, coaches, referees and staff have opportunities to participate in programming on social justice, and access to educational resources and expert speakers to help sustain momentum in addressing systemic inequities and creating meaningful change. “Conversations for the Culture” is a series of weekly, themed virtual conversations available to players in Orlando to discuss ways to address root causes of inequality and further understand social, economic, educational and health equity disparities impacting Black and Brown communities, among other issues, led by NBA Player Development, the NBPA and the National Basketball Coaches Association.

We’ve also partnered with Magic Johnson, the National Urban League and UnidosUS to raise awareness around issues like economic and social inequity, with the coronavirus impacting communities of color the most. Talks are also at an “intense” stage with the NBPA to form a foundation with a pledge from the league in which players “get an opportunity to determine where it goes.” A formal ownership vote to approve the foundation is expected soon.

NBA Ralph Rivera