ORLANDO, Fla. — Phoenix is 2,000 miles and two time zones away from here, although for one brief and glorious moment, dozens of people made the cross-country trip in seconds and announced their arrival very vividly.
This happened last week when Devin Booker, the young star of the Suns, elevated for a jump shot while being distracted by the LA Clippers’ ace defender, Paul George, just before time expired. As Booker released and fell to the floor while he watched the ball fall softly through the net, humans shown on the three video screens surrounding the court completely lost it.
These were Suns fans, and they were inside the building at Disney’s Wide World Of Sports both vivaciously and virtually. To put it simply, Booker and his Suns teammates didn’t celebrate alone. The game wasn’t won in Talking Stick Resort Arena, their normal home in Phoenix. It only felt that way when the buzzer sounded and the fans erupted.
And that’s the purpose behind the NBA’s idea to use virtual fans at every restart game on the Disney campus. Without actual fans due to the coronavirus, the league created the next best optic: Invite fans to watch the game, in real time, through livestream and show their reactions inside the Disney arenas.
The virtual fan experience has suddenly become a thing on social media. Not only are basketball-starved die-hards getting arena face time, the technology hasn’t escaped the notice of famous faces who are angling for their close-up. Was that really Lil Wayne at the Lakers’ game giving the fan “next” to him a cyber hi-five? Somewhere in New York, Spike Lee, hard-core Knicks fan, might feel compelled to adopt a playoff team just this one time.
👋 @BillWalton, @BonziWells & @iam_sheed take in the @trailblazers early action! #ULTRACourtside #WholeNewGame pic.twitter.com/q4vkPYzAC7
— NBA (@NBA) August 8, 2020
The league collaborated with Microsoft on the technology, and partnered with Michelob Ultra to promote and roust the demand, although as the playoffs approach, getting fans into their virtual seats will be the least of the NBA’s worries on this restart.
Not only are the fans shown inside the arenas, but the national networks often cut away from the game to reveal who and what’s on the video screens, which extend along each baseline and the sideline behind the team benches.
The fans are selected multiple ways. They register on ultracourtside.com through Michelob and are also selected by each of the 22 participating teams, who favor their most loyal followers and also families of the players. It’s a digital stay-at-home meeting, the only difference is basketball’s version is a lot more exciting than your office’s.
“With the unfortunate situation involving the pandemic that we’re in, we began to focus how to bring our fans closer to the game in different kinds of ways,” said Sara Zuckert, the league’s head of next generation telecasts. “We’re in such a different scenario now, with the way everyone is consuming media and watching sports. We knew this would be something different. I don’t think we could’ve predicted the response. I’m just thrilled to see how popular it is.”
At each game, it’s easy to tell the fans apart from the team attire which apparently is mandatory. Almost everyone’s wearing a logo cap or T-shirt. Sometimes there are empty “seats” although that’s misleading; the fan simply left view of the computer camera, either to answer the call of nature or fetch a refill on the bowl of chips.
Also, with increasing frequency, seats are occupied by … pets. In that sense, the game has truly gone to the dogs; creative fans even share their seats with stuffed animals.
“Those are slightly surprising additions,” said Zuckert. “Been very funny to see. We liked it.”
The lords of the project do police the audience to make sure the visuals and behavior are up to professional standards, and anyway, the NBA hasn’t had issues. Folks are keeping it clean.
“We’ve had such great participation so far and we’re optimistic about that continuing,” Zuckert said.
The most heartfelt fan sightings involve personal connections to the teams and players. It’s common to see family members of the players, which is welcome because they’ve been kept from the campus and the players have been here over a month now.
We’re just looking forward to having more fans, more names and expanding on this. Being able to have cheers and fans reacting is so much a part of our sport.”
Sara Zuckert, the NBA’s Head of Next Gen Telecasts
Chris Paul’s son was shown, same for the young sons of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum, which the Celtics forward said was “pretty cool” and was thrilled to see during timeouts.
“That’s a way to get families closer together with players since they can’t be there,” Zuckert said.
Spotted: Giannis’ son in attendance as a virtual fan 🤗 pic.twitter.com/hGR83LnOAc
— NBA TV (@NBATV) August 4, 2020
Teams are also getting former players into the act. Bill Walton and Rasheed Wallace watched the Trail Blazers, Paul Pierce took in a Celtics game, Chris Bosh had a front-row seat for the Heat and Dirk Nowitzki was on hand for the Mavericks. Somehow, there was a Stephen Curry sighting even though his Warriors are at home. Curry’s brother, Seth, does play for the Mavericks and besides, Steph’s a gym rat.
Even more remarkable is how, or why, Shaquille O’Neal crashed a full day’s worth of games and did so in his usual comical way.
Teams are also reaching out to community groups to seek their involvement. One example was when the I Promise students appeared during a Lakers game to root for LeBron James, the player who created the Akron charter school. Also, the anthem singers are chosen from communities of that game’s home team.
There’s room on the video boards for fans occupying 32 seats, with most awarded to the home team for that game. Whenever players from visiting team are at the free throw line, home fans behind the basket wave frantically as they normally would during normal times and do their best to distract.
The goal is to make the atmosphere at the games as flavorful as technology can possibly allow.
The NBA has the advantage of being indoors, which separates its games from those in Major League Baseball parks. During this pandemic, MLB must settle for fan cutouts behind home plate and in the outfield. Those cutouts don’t move any arms or legs unless there’s a stiff breeze or a well-placed home run ball. The NFL will likely resort to the same … if there is a football season.
The NBA’s creative efforts didn’t stop with virtual fans. The player introductions were pre-recorded by the regular team public-address announcers and the hype video is the same used all season. The on-site announcers will favor the home team by being more vocal for that team’s baskets and plays than the visitors.
The league also took suggestions from home teams to bring normalcy. The Thunder requested the piped-in crowd noise turned up to replicate the volume at Chesapeake Energy Arena in OKC. On the flip side, some teams want little to no music played while they have the ball for home games.
With no real home-court advantage for teams with superior records, these are the concessions. It’s all about providing the right visuals for TV, since these games minus fans are now being constructed and prepared for that medium only.
“We’re just looking forward to having more fans, more names and expanding on this,” Zuckert said. “Being able to have cheers and fans reacting is so much a part of our sport. There’s really nothing we can do to replace being in an NBA arena, but we want to replicate as much as possible given the current situation. We understand the hurdles that many sports have during this time and we were focused on having as much real-time reaction as possible. We were all coming into this new scenario with so many things being different — camera angles, streams, and this was one more element we had to add.”
The virtual fan appeal should only grow when the playoffs start, and as it attracts more famous people, who are contacted by teams whenever they show interest in being part of the game.
Devin Booker said he didn’t notice fan reaction to his buzzer-beater — “I was on the floor getting mobbed,” he said — and he wasn’t the only person whose view was blocked.
Even before he released the shot, a number of Clippers fans in their digital seats were shown covering their eyes.
* * *
Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.