LeBron James hands an iPhone back to a fan after checking his email (Isaac Baldizon/ Getty).
The smartphone has become a relative necessity to the lives of American adults with comfortable incomes, a marker of status and an important tool for checking up on work, taking care of various responsibilities, and playing Candy Crush. Activities that were once thought to require full attention are now governed by different cultural norms, to the point where it's not shocking to see someone argue for the right to use Twitter in a movie theater. It's a new landscape with new rules, and various businesses are accommodating their customers accordingly.
That includes the world of sports, where fans may no longer feel the need or desire to pay full attention to the in-game action even while in attendance. The problem for these fans, of course, is that using their phones for activities both related (e.g. looking up Kobe Bryant's career stats in advance of a milestone) and unrelated to the contest (e.g. checking email to see if the babysitter blew up their house) requires internet access. The easiest way to do that is with an in-arena wireless connection.
However, many arenas are not equipped for such services. Inspired by a recent piece by Don Muret of SportsBusiness Journal on the technical and business challenges of such a venture, Steve Aschburner of NBA.com spoke with Steve Hellmuth, the league's executive vice president of communications and technology, about how the NBA intends to give fans access while still keeping them focused on their product (via PBT):
“You have to set that table and provide them with everything they’re accustomed to,” Hellmuth said. “It’s not just about Facebook and Instagram – it’s the fact that they have a babysitter at home. They have a business that they’re operating. And we’re all expected to be connected and to be available these days.” [...]
“When you walk into the [Brooklyn Nets'] Barclays Center and you see that WiFi wide open and you’re pegged, it’s just like being in a nice warm bath,” he said. “Same thing when you walk into a Starbucks. It’s a real amenity for fans , to say, ‘Hey, we care enough to get this right for you.’ “
Once the systems are in place, with sufficient bandwidth, the next frontier is optimizing the in-game experience. It can be as simple, for example, as tipping hungry fans to the concession stands with the shortest lines. Or offering thank-you discount codes on the phones of repeat customers, whose previous attendance has been tracked wirelessly as well.
Then there are the NBA-specific possibilities, such as streaming video, stats, premium content and more. If the accessibility to social media – and simple phone calls and texts – are what might keep fans tethered to their worlds, the opportunities of in-arena wireless can bring them together the way the peak moments of great games do. [...]
“We don’t want to create more ‘heads down’ experiences around video. It’s nice to have but when you look at the investments our teams have made in HD video screens, for me, I want to look up and enjoy a replay with the person I came to the game with, right?”
The majority of Hellmuth's comments indicate that the NBA hasn't yet settled on a specific strategy (or at least one that they're willing to explain in detail to the public). That's fine, because this technology is new enough that getting it right will require experimentation and adjusting plans on the fly. Being too certain of how the in-game smartphone experience would be a sign of hubris.
Although this a new frontier for the league, it's possible that there's not much to worry about. Elsewhere in the article, Hellmuth points out that fans at playoff games rarely struggle to focus on the games and cheer loudly when the outcome is in doubt. Foolish Miami Heat fans aside, attending fans care about basketball enough to stay at their seats and pay attention. Those who don't want to do so already have plenty of in-arena activities to serve as distractions, and increased smartphone access will only change things so much.
All of which is to say that, no matter how many new elements are introduced into the NBA experience, the sport itself has proven remarkably resilient to these sorts of shifts in culture. Fans have figured out ways to juggle watching a replay on the video board while live action continues, to remember the game situation during increasingly distracting timeout entertainment, etc. Unless they stop liking basketball, they'll watch the game.
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