Earlier this month, during the NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta’s State Farm Theatre, Joseph Graziano got to enjoy an experience that has become all too unusual over the past year: the sight of fans in seats, cheering on their favourite players.
Though the maximum capacity was limited to 1,500 people, the All-Star Game represented a milestone of sorts for the NBA, and live sports in general, since COVID-19 forced most leagues to suspend play and then resume without spectators.
“One of the things we have become more clear on is that there is a way to safety host live events in the building,” Graziano, the NBA’s senior vice-president of business operations and global events, said during the Reimagine Experience virtual summit hosted by Bizzabo on Thursday.
Those present included students affiliated with historically Black colleagues and universities (HBCUs), as well as frontline medical workers, Graziano added. “It was such a great opportunity to thank them,” he said. “It brought a different energy into the building.”
Safety protocols at the game included separate entrances and exists, but Graziano said the NBA is exploring how other measures, such as improved HVAC and air circulation systems, could make it possible to increase the capacity for more fans to come back to live basketball. That said, the NBA is clearing thinking outside the arena.
“Technology has changed the total addressable market of our events,” he said. “We used to focus solely on the location of a physical event. Now our addressable market is the entire world. In many ways it’s been new breath of fresh air, and we’ve got to capitalize on it.”
Graziano suggested the pandemic proved fans are open to experiencing basketball through a variety of ways, including digital channels. Through he didn’t go into specifics, he said the NBA wants to look at how it can do a better job of capturing data at scale to personalize how those digital experiences are delivered.
Beyond simply providing access to gameplay, Graziano said it is also looking at how it could create “quick strike” merchandise that related to the viral moments that often happen in live sports. This could be a way to generate new or additional revenue.
“Those events are moment-generating machines. Those machines need to be monetized,” he said.
Inside The NBA Bubble
Of course, the NBA is coming off a year in which it developed an entirely unprecedented experience for a different sort of customer besides its fans: the players.
For the final eight games of the 2019-2020 season, teams were isolated in a zone that became known as the NBA Bubble within Walt Disney World in Bay Lake, Florida, near Orlando.
Graziano called it the largest and most complex event in the NBA’s history.
“We looked it lie we had to build an entire city, and we had one month to do it,” he said.
This included booking five separate hotels for the equivalent of 140,0000 room nights, and customizing them to the needs of its occupants.
“Disney is made for families, not for 7’2” centers,” he said. That means building 8,000 extra long king-sized beds, and setting up practice courts for 22 teams that needed to use them for three hour windows, followed by an hour to disinfect them. “We would have these cleaning teams swarm in immediately after a practice. Orchestrating that was one of the most complex math problems you could imagine.”
Connecting players to the outside world was only possibly by setting up a ten-person team to manage a warehouse that received nearly 1,000 packages from Amazon or FedEx every week. These items all had to be processed, disinfected and then delivered to the players and their families.
Among the things that got overlooked was the fact that some players might need to be quarantined on a different schedule from the rest of their team due to a family event — like when one of their wives had a baby. Graziano said the NBA wound up setting backyard courts for players to continue practicing as a result.
Of course, all that playing works up a sweat. That’s why the NBA had to set up a special laundry facility with 70 washers and dryers. Through the process of developing the Bubble, though, Graziano said he used a specific motto to a guiding principle: If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.
“It wasn’t just a case of, ‘Let’s get this done.’ It was, ‘Let’s build the best laundry facility they’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was a true testament to years of relationship-building. We think of our league and the teams as true partners. The players and their leaders are incredible ambassadors for our league at every turn.”
While fans no doubt appreciated the effort that was taken to allow the season to continue, Graziano said the NBA wasn’t taking their loyalty for granted. If anything, it was a good reminder of how high the calibre of experience needs to be.
“It’s a completely irrational decision to get off our couches,” he said. “When we can do it, they become a fan for life, and you can monetize that and derive value from it. We’ve got to fully embrace that — that we’re in the irrational decision business.”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.