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NBA, Microsoft team up to redefine the fan experience

Brian Martin, for NBA.com

From radio and newspapers, to television and digital, to streaming and social media, the way that fans consume and interact with basketball is constantly evolving as new technology and products arise.

As part of a multi-year partnership announced on Thursday, the NBA and Microsoft are teaming up to re-imagine the way that fans experience the NBA and to do so in a much more personalized way.

“This partnership with Microsoft will help us redefine the way our fans experience NBA basketball,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “Our goal, working with Microsoft, is to create customized content that allows fans — whether they are in an NBA arena or watching from anywhere around the world — to immerse themselves in all aspects of the game and engage directly with our teams and players.”

At the core of this partnership, Microsoft and NBA Digital — which is co-managed by the NBA and Turner Sports — will develop a new direct-to-consumer platform on the Microsoft Azure cloud service that will use machine learning and artificial intelligence to deliver personalized game broadcasts as well as other content offerings that will allow the NBA’s global fanbase to customize and localize their experience.

“First and foremost, we want to make it easy to be an NBA fan,” said Chris Benyarko, NBA Executive Vice President, Direct to Consumer. “By creating a new platform that brings together all the things that make up being an NBA fan — whether that’s watching games, buying a ticket, participating in fantasy or buying merchandise, we can use that platform to re-imagine and diversify what it means to be an NBA fan. One of our key focus areas will be to innovate and rethink how we present NBA games to fans and to really leverage technology to personalize and deepen those experiences and make them more engaging.”

Through its current League Pass offering, the NBA has experimented with different camera angles; multiple game audio options, whether that was in the form of an influencer calling the game or listening to the game in a different language; and interactive trivia and questions during game telecasts.

“Imagine all of those features now being on a platform that’s able to use deep machine learning artificial intelligence capabilities to serve those up to a user; so instead of the fan having to pick and choose and turn them on or off one by one, the platform is now starting to behave like a game producer, automatically selecting and presenting the game in a different way,” Benyarko said.

In addition to delivering live and on-demand game broadcasts through the Microsoft Azure platform, the NBA’s vast offering of statistics, data and historical video archive will be curated and presented to fans through state-of-the-art machine learning, cognitive search and advanced data solutions. This will create a more personalized fan experience that tailors the content to the preferences of the fan, rewards participation, and provides more insights and analysis than ever before.

Deb Cupp, Corporate Vice President of Enterprise and Commercial Industries at Microsoft, gave an example of a fan frequently searching for statistics while watching games on the platform and how the new platform’s artificial intelligence would use that behavior to enhance the fan experience.

“The AI eventually learns that I like to learn about stats, so it’s going to start presenting me more information about stats as I go into the game,” Cupp said. “It’s this experience where instead of just watching a game, it actually has the opportunity to interact in a way that matters to me as that fan; it’s enriching the experience and frankly just makes it more valuable to me.”

Fans will be able to set up an account and enter their preferences — whether it is favorite team, favorite players, interest in statistics, history, trivia, gaming and more — in order to provide some direction to the content the platform provides, while it also learns from your viewing habits.

“It allows you to tell the platform what you like and also the platform will learn what you like by what you do,” Cupp said.

If a fan is traveling or unable to follow the games on a particular night in real time, the platform will quickly catch up the fan on games and information that mean the most to that fan, without having to search through all of the scores, headlines and highlights available.

“Things like that, to me, is what describes the fan engagement,” Cupp said. “It allows me to interact the way I want to interact, at the time I want to interact.”

This is especially important for the NBA’s global fanbase that consumes the game differently than fans in America due to distance and time zone differences. A fan in London or Australia may have a much different type of fandom than a fan in New York or California. Even fans that live next door to one another could have different interests and thus want a different experience. By personalizing their content, the NBA looks to serve all of its fans equally.

“If we’re able to solve the needs for all different people with varying interests, then we’ve done a great job,” Benyarko said.

The visible efforts for the 2020-21 season will be the league’s collaboration with Microsoft around the creation and presentation of NBA stats in the league’s telecasts. Also beginning next season, Microsoft will become the Official Artificial Intelligence Partner and an Official Cloud and Laptop Partner for the NBA, WNBA, NBA G League, and USA Basketball.

“We are thrilled to serve as the official AI partner of the NBA,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement. “Together, we’ll bring fans closer to the game and players they love with new personalized experiences powered by Microsoft Azure.”

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