NBA Finds Ways to Get Fans (Virtually) Courtside With Microsoft and Michelob Ultra

Through the magic of videoconferencing, fans will feel like they're in the arena together

The NBA and Microsoft's virtual fan experience will make the arena feel as if it's full of fans. NBA

Despite living and playing inside The Bubble—the now ubiquitous term for the NBA’s socially distanced campus on Disney property in Orlando, Fla.—the National Basketball Association is finding new ways to put fans courtside.

Virtually, at least.

The NBA announced today a partnership with Microsoft and its Teams videoconferencing platform to welcome at least 300 fans— split by team—to cheer, jeer and appear on the league’s 17-foot sideline video board. Using the platform’s “Together Mode,” fans will be seated in a virtual arena and able to interact with each other. Think Zoom, but without the squares. Audio mixed from the feeds will be incorporated into the game broadcast.

“As we were thinking about this, we were focused on creating the most genuine experience for our fans at home and for our players in the arena,” said Sara Zuckert, senior director of experiential and DTC marketing at the NBA. “There’s nothing that can replicate the feel of an NBA arena. … We look at all of this as testing for the future.”

Teams will be tasked with selecting fans for each game, and the video board will be sponsored by the league’s new partner, Michelob Ultra, which also has seats available for giveaways and prizes. Each “section” of fans will have a moderator.

The league will also incorporate at least 30 cameras, some robotic, to get closer to the court than ever before to showcase new angles and shots, such as a huddle camera and a below-the-rim camera for fans watching at home. Other angles will replicate the view of a fan sitting 10 rows from the court.

Fans watching on the NBA app and will have access to the alternative feeds. During the broadcast, the experimentation will likely be limited to when the ball isn’t in play.

“The most important thing is what happens on the court. We’re going to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” said Craig Barryevp and chief content officer for Turner Sports, which operates NBA TV. He noted that for the first time, the NBA is a “made-for-television event.”

For fans not included in the Microsoft experience, a virtual cheering experience will be available on the NBA app and Twitter, which will be reflected on the in-game video board.

Earlier this week, Major League Baseball announced its partnership with Google Cloud to run the league’s stat-tracking system, as well as Sony on stadium sound design.

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.