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The NBA made it via their pandemic season, now it seems to be like 5G and VR in a post-Covid world

Anthony Davis # 3 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots the ball against the Miami Heat during game four of the NBA Finals on October 6, 2020 at AdventHealth Arena in Orlando, Florida.

Nathaniel S. Butler | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

Mark Tatum couldn't do it.

The National Basketball Association's Deputy Commissioner was asked to describe the league's 2019-20 season in one word and found it too difficult.

Remember, before the pandemic and social unrest plagued the world, the NBA lost two of its icons in former commissioners David Stern and Kobe Bryant. And around this time last year, a rift began with its international business partner China. The NBA has said feuds could cost $ 400 million.

"I would say it was a challenging year," Tatum said in an interview with CNBC. "It was our longest season in NBA history and so much was done to us as a league."

After the Covid-19 hiatus on March 11, the NBA was able to resume its season on a bubble campus in Orlando. Early estimates suggest that the NBA protected $ 1.5 billion by resuming its season instead of canceling it, according to the Sports Business Journal.

Now comes the hard part – figuring out the finances and setting a salary cap for the next year.

Tatum said the NBA is still working on the exam with the National Basketball Players Association. The parties must also agree on a start date for the next season.

Tatum said the league learned a lot from its bubble environment and envisioned new features that wireless carriers have installed in sports arenas and stadiums across the country due to the availability of 5G.

The NBA has partnered with AT&T to create hologram interviews during television shows on Turner Sports and ESPN. This could open the door to more marketing revenue as companies could use the NBA's teams and players to activate sponsorship and get fan engagement.

Tatum said, "In general, 99% of our fans never enter an NBA arena." Therefore, the league needs to continue researching how to make its content available to fans outside of television.

Spike Lee celebrates during a basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center on March 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.

Noel Vasquez | GC Images | Getty Images

The future seat at the court

Facebook continues to work behind the scenes to improve its seated seating in virtual reality. The social media company worked with the NBA on its "rail cam" during the bubble. Without a spectator, the side camera could select NBA action at game speed.

Facebook can use the content to better authenticate the court experience and integrate it into its Oculus virtual reality headsets. The company released a cheaper version of the headset, the Oculus Quest 2, for $ 299 on October 13.

The expansion of 5G should help Facebook improve its presentation in court, said Stuart Burden, senior software engineer at digital enterprise consultancy Nerdery.

"That was the problem with (virtual reality) NBA games," said Burden of problem solving. "You can hardly tell the face of the players. It was a bit blurry, but the exciting thing was that you felt a little deeper from that point of view."

Rob Shaw, Facebook's head of Global Sports Media and League Partnerships, said the company will build in better camera lenses to improve video quality.

"If you want to watch a game from the front row, you have to feel like you are watching it from the front row," said Shaw. He used filmmaker Spike Lee's seat in Madison Square Garden, where he is watching the New York Knicks, as an example of what is to come.

"What to see, what to hear, to be on par with the best athletes in the world," said Shaw. "I hope this experience is brought to the platform in three to five years – so that people around the world can have the same experience as Spike Lee watching a Knicks game."

Once Facebook has figured out how to monetize the court seat, this will be another advertising opportunity – one aimed personally at the NBA fan who is participating in a game via a virtual reality seat.

Shaw says the NBA teams have been looking to add the VR seats for season ticket holders as clubs prepare to start the season with no spectators or attendance and proximity are restricted due to Covid-19.

"I think that's one of those ways we're scratching the surface right now," said Tatum. "As bandwidth speeds get faster and 5G gets faster, that experience becomes more intense, and I think the opportunities for people to experience this and adapt to virtual reality will grow."

The NBA is also planning to further develop virtual signage. Both the NBA and the National Hockey League are monitoring the technology regarding interchangeable virtual ads that can be used to open advertisements.

A Chinese flag is placed on goods in the NBA flagship retail store on October 9, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Kevin Frayer | Getty Images

Back online in China

After a year-long absence, China was back online on October 9 for games five and six of the NBA finals with the Lakers and Miami Heat.

NBA manager Daryl Morey started a rift with the NBA's foremost international partner when he supported protesters in Hong Kong on Twitter last October. China responded by discontinuing NBA games that were broadcast on CCTV. The NBA's streaming partner, Chinese tech giant Tencent, also temporarily blocked games.

The Lakers' popularity in China also helped the NBA games return. In addition to China's admiration for Bryant, the team has expanded its social media by more than 800,000, according to sports and digital consultancy Mailman.

Morey resigned from his role as the Houston Rockets GM on October 15, six days after the CCTV games resumed. The concern, however, is whether the NBA has fully recovered from the fallout in China. The NBA did not respond to a request for audience numbers for the two finals broadcast in China.

The league can't afford to further damage a $ 4 billion operation in the world's second largest economy, especially since it has just opened international marketing for its teams and its eyes on live streaming e-commerce – has addressed opportunities.

The shopping model enables businesses and influencers to stream with consumers about potential purchases. According to Bloomberg, the shopping experience generated $ 60 billion in global sales.

Through its Tencent partnership, the NBA is present on WeChat (400 million active users per day) and was recently launched on the short video and live streaming platform Kuaishou. The TikTok rival is a live streaming ecommerce giant in China. In September, he announced that orders placed through his platform hit 500 million in August and have 300 million active users per day.

Mark Tatum, Assistant Commissioner of the NBA, speaks during the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 20, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York.

Sarah bull | Getty Images

Don't worry at home

Back in the US, the NBA ratings weren't that strong.

A drop in viewership in the sport has hurt the Lakers Heat final, which the NBA has had no attendance at since 1994. The league's stance on social injustice issues may also play a minor role.

Tatum said the league was not concerned about the drop in attendance. He offered additional social media metrics to prove the "huge interest" in the league, mentioning the billions of video views and more than 300 million YouTube views during the playoffs, up 63% year over year , he said.

The NBA defends the drop in ratings due to changes in the way people consume exercise.

"These are things that affect not only us, but every other sports league," said Tatum. "But we understand that the numbers are what they are."

Tatum said the season was a "total anomaly," but if so, NBA viewers need a sharp comeback. Networking experts believe the demand for content from the NBA won't suffer, especially as sports gambling increases.

Also, the NBA wants to look into adding play-in games over the next season as the model has done well during its bubble, attracting positive viewership for a Saturday game between two small market teams – the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies.

But with the longest season in NBA history, Tatum saw the challenges ahead. When asked to sum up the future of the league in one word, the difficulty disappeared.

"Excited," said Tatum.

"We have incredible potential for the future," he said. "I think the growth we see in our business is only going to get bigger."

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