The Miami Heat doesn’t often find itself unprepared for situations that allow sufficient time for planning.
The coaching staff, front office, and ownership get most of the outside credit for that reputation. But it extends much further than that, and the past four months have turned the spotlight on other parts of the organization.
When the 2019-20 NBA season was suspended on March 11 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the on-court product disappeared. But the off-court product delivered through platforms like Twitter, Instagram, television, radio and the Heat’s website had to somehow keep going with the help of a lot of conference calls and Microsoft Teams virtual meetings to discuss strategy.
“Those first days of COVID-19, obviously we had no new things happening,” said Jennifer Alvarez, the Heat’s vice president of creative and digital marketing. “We have no new highlights. We have no new player imagery.”
It’s hard for an NBA team to plan for a pandemic. But the organization did find itself somewhat prepared for the four-month shutdown after a series of meetings last August set a clear agenda for what those inside the organization refer to as “culture-vating” the Heat brand, providing staff with a guide on how to react to the sudden stoppage.
“We have built it mostly on the concept that was made up that day of ‘culture-vating’ our fan bases,” Alvarez said, “and kind of continuing to listen and engage with them. Deliver what they want to see and really speak on behalf of the fan.
“What we can do is lean on our fans to tell us what they want to see. From that, we built out a pretty solid content calendar fulfilling those really personal requests from fans to be able to deliver exactly what they wanted to see. That’s what got us started in this post-pandemic world from a content perspective.”
It began March 21 — 10 days after the season was suspended — with a tweet from the Heat’s account that read: “Talk to us #HEATTwitter... we’re right here with ya. Let us attempt to keep you entertained during this time. What do YOU want to see from us?”
The answers ranged from re-airing classic Heat games to new wallpapers to highlights from the current season to catch-up videos with players on quarantine life.
“The pandemic happens and we didn’t panic,” Heat chief marketing officer Michael McCullough said. “We knew, ‘OK, we got to stick with who we are.’ So the first thing that we did, we asked our fans: ‘What do you want to see from us?’ Instead of us starting to flood your timeline and your feed with stuff, we went right back to where we had come from, which is listen to your audience, ask them what they want. What they told us is what we started doing.”
There were even answers that surprised the Heat’s content team, like an overwhelming request for photos of forward Duncan Robinson.
“If you go back and look at that thing, we posted like three or four photos of Duncan and it had like over 600 comments, close to 80,000 likes and it was like ‘wow,’” Heat director of digital programs Cedric Brown said. “That’s not something we would have posted, just Duncan Robinson playing basketball.”
Then there were Instagram Live interviews with current players such as Goran Dragic, Udonis Haslem and Meyers Leonard, and even former players such as Chris Bosh, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. The Heat’s sports media relations staff assisted in securing players for interviews.
A taped discussion with Heat president Pat Riley posted onto the team’s social media platforms in April also created a buzz. Topics covered during the interview included Riley’s thoughts on the NBA stoppage and the state of the current roster.
The digital content team even captured a virtual reunion of the Heat’s 2006 championship team, which was recently released on social media. Wade was behind the idea and got his former teammates onboard, with the reunion producing funny moments like O’Neal finally telling Riley how he, James Posey and Antoine Walker rigged the team’s body fat checks.
“When we started hearing fan ideas, obviously the most popular ones, that cream rose to the top,” Heat senior director of interactive media Lauren Cochran said. “That’s kind of how we started to select the things that we did. Our resources were a little limited, when we weren’t allowed in the building and we weren’t filming new content and stuff. So digging into the archives and figuring out innovative ways to bring that content to life is a real testament to the entire team. And our fans, too, they had us working in really innovative ways.”
The most successful piece of Heat content during quarantine — based on engagement — was a math equation the team posted onto its social media platforms on April 25. With Wade, team mascot Burnie and the organization’s championship trophies representing different values, the numeric riddle “excelled anybody’s expectations.”
As of Sunday afternoon, the math problem had drawn 1,200 likes and 365 retweets on Twitter and 61,247 likes and 28,187 comments on Instagram. The equation was so challenging that some of the brightest minds in the Heat organization couldn’t come up with the correct answer.
“I didn’t get it at first. Nobody got it,” Brown said. “I was hesitant about posting it for that reason. I kept sending it around and nobody got it, and then I found one person who doesn’t work for the Heat — a friend of mine who got it. And I felt better.
“When we posted the final answer, people were still fighting and debating it. ... That was awesome. That was easily our best piece of content, even for the entire year in general. The engagement on that was sky high.”
WHAT ABOUT TV AND RADIO?
When the NBA season was suspended, the Heat’s broadcast partners lost a lot of its programming. No more games meant no more live Heat content for television partner Fox Sports Sun and radio partner 790 The Ticket.
So less than 48 hours after the season was suspended in March, the Heat’s broadcasting team devised a content plan that would carry Fox Sports Sun until the middle of June.
Over the past four months, Fox Sports Sun has re-aired Heat NBA Finals victories, 10 of Wade’s best non-Finals games, each game of the Heat’s historic 27-game win streak from 2013, important Heat victories from the current season and NBA 2K simulations of Heat games postponed because of the pandemic to fill holes in the television schedule.
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And 790 The Ticket has replayed classic Heat games during the league shutdown.
“We looked at it as, what are the things that our fans would want and what are the things we may never have a chance to show them again?” Heat executive director of broadcasting Ted Ballard said. “So we were able to buy ourselves time with the greatest wins of the season. That gave us a little time, that got us through early April. Then we said, we know fans are going to want to see the championships. They probably are going to want to see stuff on Wade.
“But like the 27-game win streak, we said: ‘Hey, we’ve never really celebrated that in a way that paid homage to really what an amazing run that was.’ So, we came up with a strategy within 48 hours for how we were going to do the next three months of programming.”
When asked about the success of the re-airs, Ballard said he’s pleased with the results.
“It was the opportunity, in many ways, to reflect on things that a lot of people had not yet,” he said.
‘A COMMUNITY ASSET’
When the country’s attention turned to the battle against systemic racism, social injustice and police brutality following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, the Heat again worked to use its platform as a voice for the community.
After the organization issued a statement and made clear it stands with the Black Lives Matter movement, it asked fans for advice on how to handle the situation with a tweet that read: “We’re listening, Miami. We want to hear from you and what you’re feeling. And while we don’t have all the answers, we want to be part of the solution. Tell us how you think we can get involved.”
We're listening and ready to act. Talk to us... pic.twitter.com/RsLnjPnnjs— x - Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) June 3, 2020
“We pride ourselves on what the fans say,” Cochran said. “Social media is a listening tool for us to create things that people want to consume from us. So, I think it was important for us to really level set with our fans and say that we don’t have all the answers. We’re a representative of the community for them and with them. So when we asked them what they wanted to see our organization do, we really took that feedback seriously.”
What followed was a social media campaign that included a powerful five-minute video offering perspectives from Heat players regarding racial injustice and another video posted hours later that detailed the organization’s social justice pledge.
Heat owner Micky Arison, CEO Nick Arison, Riley, general manager Andy Elisburg, vice president of basketball development and analytics Shane Battier, vice president of player programs Alonzo Mourning, coach Erik Spoelstra and various team employees from other departments made appearances in the pledge video.
The Heat pledged to donate to organizations that are working to eradicate racial inequality, support education initiatives that serve the Black community and help more Black students attend college, provide opportunities to Black students with its company mentoring and internship programs, support voter registration initiatives that make it easier for more people to vote, give all Heat staff paid time off on Election Day to vote, designate Juneteenth as a permanent paid holiday for employees of the organization and partner with Black-owned businesses in the community.
“We’ve always looked at ourselves as a community asset,” McCullough said. “Micky Arison and the Arison family, they don’t take money out of the Heat. They put it right back into the arena or the operation of the team or the things we’re trying to do in the community. We’re a community asset. That’s how we represent ourselves. That’s how we look at ourselves. So when we have an opportunity to be a platform or a voice or a vehicle for listening and engaging and reacting to whatever it is that’s happening — if it’s hurricanes, if it’s social unrest and social injustice, if it’s LGBTQ issues, whatever it is — we’re using that platform that we’ve been given to speak on those things.
“That pledge that we put out, I can tell you that Micky Arison was incredibly involved in the writing and the approving of that pledge. That’s where he wanted his organization to be. Clearly, not everybody is going to be in favor of everything that we said. But it wasn’t going to stop us from saying what needed to be said and how we were going to represent ourselves in this position.”
The Heat also held a virtual town hall to discuss systemic racism and social injustice on Juneteenth — a June 19 holiday that recognizes and celebrates the ending of slavery in the United States. The town hall featured Spoelstra, members of the coaching staff and nearly every player on the roster, with about 1,100 registrants watching on.
“Our fans said over and over, we want to hear from coach Spo. We want to hear what the players are saying, how they feel,” McCullough said. “That’s how we ended up at the town hall. The fans were saying, ‘I want to know how the players feel about this.’ ... Our fans wanted to hear that. They needed to hear that. Our employees needed to hear that this was impacting these guys.”
A NEW CHALLENGE
The NBA season is set to resume on July 30, and the Heat is now facing a new challenge.
Basketball games will return, but the workflow will be different with the remainder of the season being played in a quarantine bubble at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista. Even the Heat’s playoff games will all be held more than 200 miles away from AmericanAirlines Arena.
“It’s going to be weird,” McCullough said. “It’s not going to be the same.”
With each team allowed to initially bring up to 37 people inside the NBA bubble, the league has allotted one spot for a member of the team’s social media staff. The basketball operations group (players, coaches, security, trainers, equipment managers and executives) account for 35 of the spots and the other is for a member of the media relations staff.
The Heat is scheduled to travel Wednesday, via bus, to the Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, when it will enter the NBA’s quarantine bubble.
“We won’t have the resources that we’re used to,” McCullough said. “We’re only going to be sending one business content person to the bubble. Our machine is not going to be firing on all cylinders because we just don’t have the bodies on hand and the people on site to do all those things that we’re used to doing.”
For the broadcast team, the Heat’s television and radio announcers will not be on-site to call games.
Heat television play-by-play announcer Eric Reid, television color analyst John Crotty, radio play-by-play announcer Mike Inglis, television studio and radio analyst Ruth Riley Hunter, television studio analyst and radio analyst Ron Rothstein, television host and courtside reporter Jason Jackson and Spanish radio announcer Jose Paneda are expected to work games from AmericanAirlines Arena.
“I think to some degree, we have a sense of what we’re in for,” Ballard said. “But it’s definitely going to be unlike anything we’ve ever really done as broadcasters. Even the broadcasters being basically not on site and trying to still deliver to fans a Heat type broadcast, knowing that you don’t control a lot of it.
“Not wanting to make excuses or having to explain to fans, but also trying to be transparent with them to say, ‘Hey, yeah here’s Jason and Ruth or John and Eric sitting in AmericanAirlines Arena while the game is happening in the bubble.’ I think fans will understand that. I think in the end, the main thing remains the main thing. So in the end, you’re still going to get basketball. But it will take some getting used to, with the presentation of it and how we will do that in a very non-traditional environment with new technical challenges.”
New challenges across the board that NBA teams have never faced before.
“It’s going to force us to think differently, to react differently,” McCullough said. “I think it’s all going to be weird until it starts happening. Once we see how the flow happens, then we’ll figure it out. But I think there’s a lot of unknown there. We’re just used to doing basketball games in a certain way. And we’re just not going to be able to react to them that way anymore. ... We’ll adjust to it, we’ll figure it out.”
Just like the Heat did when the season was suspended in March.
“This whole thing is going to be very, very strange,” McCullough added. “It’s going to be really weird. But I’m enthused by the challenge because I think it’s going to bring that out of us again.”