Basketball in the bubble was shaping up to be an entirely new viewing experience. No hecklers in the crowd to get ejected. No broadcast booths for the players to tumble into. No precariously placed photographers getting trampled. No dance teams and circus acts to catch at the tail end of after a commercial break. And tragically, no Gino Time video for when the Celtics are comfortably ahead late in games.
So what’s left? Ah, yes. Basketball. It looks the same as before. Not only that, but it looks better than a typical no-crowd basketball game.
I’ve been to countless ball games at the University of Massachusetts where a “good” crowd constitutes filling up 25% of the Mullins Center. Make no mistake, 2,500 people spread out over 9,500 seats is not a lively crowd. There were often so few people in attendance that I was once able to wave to then-head coach Derek Kellogg from 30 rows up after a win and he was easily able to spot me and wave back.
Thinking back on these experiences made me realize that it’s not the lack of a crowd that would make a basketball game uncomfortable, but the continuation of commercial-break distractions in a crowdless arena. Being the only person seated in an entire section while the cheerleaders performed in front of Sam the Minuteman heaving backwards shots from half court and outdated party music played at maximum volume is, to put it lightly, doing too much.
The entire in-arena experience in the NBA bubble seems to have been boiled down to two things: music playing during game action and giant video boards surrounding the court with team logos on them. And you know what? Watching the games is still fun without crowd noise! I was dreading the idea of playoff Celtics basketball without the best home crowd in professional sports surrounding them, but I’m already over it. Basketball is still just as enjoyable in these unfamiliar circumstances.
However, the peripheral stuff is still a work in progress. The NBA is still tinkering with the idea of having a crowd on the video boards--which I’m not convinced is something people wanted--but we’ll see how it plays out. The Celtics have reached out to season ticket holders and friends and family members to fill out their virtual home games, but it’s hard not to think that the league is trying to maximize their dollar in such efforts. This quote from ESPN is pretty dubious:
“Working with our broadcast and technology partners, we are excited to unveil a series of enhancements that will bring fans closer to the game and allow them to personalize their viewing experience,” Sara Zuckert, the NBA’s head of next gen telecast, said in a statement announcing the innovations. “Our goal is to create an enjoyable and immersive experience where fans can engage with each other and maintain a sense of community as we restart the season under these unique and challenging circumstances.”
I’m pretty sure this is all corporate-speak for “we’re finding new ways to monetize the fan experience since we can’t sell tickets.” Never in my life have I heard anyone express that their NBA viewing experience isn’t personalized enough. There’s certainly no lack of fan engagement on social media and I have no idea what “sense of community” even means in this context. I feel like I’m drowning in buzzword soup.
Those fans will appear live on Michelob Ultra-sponsored 17-foot video boards surrounding the court. They will also be able to interact with each other digitally throughout the game by using Microsoft’s “Together Mode.” That will entail removing fans from their individual backgrounds and creating a shared visual space that will be visible both in the venue and through and the broadcast.
The NBA has not featured this setup for scrimmages. But the Los Angeles Lakers occasionally featured “virtual Laker girls” during Thursday’s scrimmage against the Dallas Mavericks. Each designated home team features video boards of the team’s logo and sponsors. After a player makes a basket, the video board shows a profile shot of that respective person.
So, here’s one video of virtual fans in “attendance”:
Ah, the refreshing sense of community exuding from this lifeless wall of faces. I’m sure the fans feel adequately immersed and engaged.
Overall, I don’t think the NBA’s desire to reintegrate all the bells and whistles will negatively impact the viewing experience. I’ll miss the roaring crowd noise, but I wouldn’t worry about it being replaced. The MLB has been piping crowd noise into their games and it sounds as artificial as you’d expect. I still have some concerns about the integrity of the bubble, but the product on the court is fantastic. For the first time in months, I feel like we might get some closure on this season.