On Monday, when the NBA’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City opens its doors on World Autism Awareness Day, it will be as the first sensory-inclusive retail store in the world.
The NBA and KultureCity have teamed up to make the NBA Store more accommodating and accessible to guests with sensory sensitivities. The store will offer bags with noise-cancelling headphones, fidget spinners, weighted lap bands and more to families and individuals who may need them.
In addition, all NBA Store employees have gone through in-person and online certified training, led by KultureCity, to learn how to better interact, communicate and help those guests that may need assistance during their shopping experience.
“This is a 24/7/365 initiative of the store,” said Todd Jacobson, the NBA’s Senior VP of Social Responsibility. “Regardless of when you go into the store, at any time during the year, you can feel comfortable that the experience will be a positive one. If something arises, the staff is trained to provide support, they understand it, and they have a plan in place to make sure that they can help in any way there is possible.”
Sensory sensitivities or challenges with sensory regulation are often experienced by individuals with autism, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other similar conditions. One of the major barriers for these individuals is sensitivity to noise and over stimulation, which is a part of the environment at a large retail space. With its new certification, the NBA Store is now better prepared to assist guests with these challenges to have the most comfortable experience possible when visiting.
The launch of the sensory-inclusive NBA Store is the latest in the league’s partnership with KultureCity -- a non-profit organization dedicated to rethinking accessibility to create acceptance and inclusion for all individuals. The NBA and KultureCity first partnered in 2017 to reconsider accessibility in NBA arenas and promote a positive and accommodating experience for fans and guests with sensory needs.
The NBA in-game presentation can be a sensory overload with loud music, bright flashing lights, screaming fans and occasional pyrotechnics. While that is part of the show and part of the enjoyment for many fans, it could potentially be overwhelming for children and adults with sensory sensitivities.
“It’s a significant challenge and I think that’s why a lot of these families, and also individuals, decide not to partake in the NBA experience,” said Dr. Julian Maha, the founder of KultureCity. “I think that’s the sadness of the whole thing. Because we are one of those families; I have a non-speaking son who is on the autism spectrum, and he loves basketball and because of all of this it was very tough to take him to a game. And that’s why a lot of our families end up withdrawing from the community and isolating ourselves.”
It was Maha’s experience with his son that led him to found KultureCity and it was a relationship he built with the Cleveland Cavaliers when helping make Quicken Loans Arena the first sensory-inclusive arena in the world back in 2016 that led to the partnership between KultureCity and the NBA.
“They made a really wonderful relationship there in Cleveland and from their relationship we got introduced and met with KultureCity and were just very impressed,” said Jacobson. “We met with them and literally after a half hour we decided that we were going to explore this with all teams.”
To date, 14 NBA arenas have implemented features to make their venues accessible to families with sensory needs, with that number set to climb to 18 by the start of the 2018-19 season. Four of the arenas -- Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Sacramento and Utah -- currently have dedicated quiet sensory rooms to further accommodate their guests.
The goal here is to help raise awareness and to make sure that we -- as an NBA community -- continue to look at every touch point we have with a fan as well as with our employees and talk through ways in which we can make our sport more inclusive."
“We get on average at least two to three emails per week from families that are so appreciative that this is in existence,” said Maha of KultureCity’s sensory inclusion program. “It’s the most amazing thing. The stories are amazing: I was never able to go to an NBA game, now I was able to take my whole family and we had a family outing.”
Those are the type of stories that make you want to do more, which is exactly what the NBA and KultureCity did in transforming the NBA Store.
“We sat down with KultureCity and started talking about why does this just have to be arenas?” said Jacobson. “Can we look at our entire business and see ways in which we can use this? With any large-scale events we’re doing, the store, and really kind of looking at things holistically.”
Beyond the NYC store, the NBA celebrates Autism Awareness Week from March 30 - April 3 to raise awareness for children and families living with autism and promote equality and inclusion. For the ninth consecutive year, the NBA has partnered with Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization to build awareness. The league is celebrating the week by “lighting it up blue” – part of Autism Speaks’ campaign to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism – illuminating the Fifth Avenue storefront. Additionally the NBA Store will sell wristbands on World Autism Awareness Day, with all proceeds going to KultureCity and their mission to cultivate inclusive environments for all, and several teams have held clinics and invited organizations that work in the space to enjoy their games as well.
“The goal here is to help raise awareness and to make sure that we – as an NBA community – continue to look at every touch point we have with a fan as well as with our employees and talk through ways in which we can make our sport more inclusive,” said Jacobson.
On Jan. 21, Philadelphia 76ers Head Coach Brett Brown hosted the second annual 76ers Bounce Out the Stigma Autism Awareness Clinic at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex. Coach Brown was joined by Bounce Out the Stigma Co-Founder and Director Mike Simmel, who led more than 50 children with an autism spectrum disorder in passing, shooting and dribbling drills.
On March 10, the Sacramento Kings participated in a Free Movement Clinic specifically for kids on the Autism Spectrum. The clinic was supported by Junior Kings Basketball and included yoga and dance with local autism support groups. Two weeks later, the Kings hosted their Autism Awareness In-Arena Night on March 25.
“Our ultimate objective is to make sure that everything we’re doing at the NBA is fully inclusive and accessible to all,” said Jacobson. “That’s one of the values by which we live, it’s one of the innovations to our business and we’re going to continue to make sure that the best experience possible for every fan, every game, every day is there.”
“Our goal is to really make the NBA the first sensory-inclusive sports league in the world,” added Maha, “and really create that level of inclusion where when someone sees the NBA they are identified not only as being inclusive, but accepting, accommodating and inviting.”