NBA games could get a lot more technological and personalized for fans

The pervasion of smart phones has already considerably changed the experience of watching a sports game considerably. Now, it's easy to watch a game at a bar, or especially the venue itself, and pick up all sorts of new information on the fly. If you see a great play, you can check out more highlights from that player on YouTube or If a guy's having what seems like a career game, you can check his previous bests easily. And, if you happen to catch a terrible game and need to leave early, the traffic reports and train schedules are at your fingertips.

Teams and businessmen acknowledge these changes and are trying to take advantage. In fact, Vivek Ranadivé, CEO of the data analysis company Tibico and part owner of the Golden State Warriors, has a plan to make the NBA fan experience increasingly personalized. Ryan D'Agostino profiled Ranadivé in this month's Esquire (via PBT):

The rest of Ranadivé's team today, Wen Miao and Matt Quinn, set up a laptop so that they can translate the whole of Tibco's mission as it pertains to the business of the Golden State Warriors into a short PowerPoint presentation. Ranadivé believes the Warriors can be a model of how an organization can revolutionize its operations through the use of real-time data. His vision goes roughly like this:

When a ticket holder arrives at Oracle Arena for a game, he could flash a bar-coded pass to enter the parking garage, sending a signal that he has arrived and allowing him quick and easy entry to the game. The computer system would know that at last week's game, he bought two youth jerseys. It would also know that there's a surplus of youth hats at the team store at the moment, so it could send him a text message offering a 20 percent discount on hats. When he's in his seat, he'd be able to watch instant replays and other exclusive content on his phone. At the end of the third quarter, when the computer system showed that the concession stand near his seats had too many hot dogs, it could send him a buy-one-get-one-free offer — because it also knows that he sometimes buys hot dogs at games.

The right information to the right people at the right time in the right context. (Fans creeped out by this could opt out.)

Ranadivé goes on to explain how the fan experience at Oracle Arena would eventually serve as a powerful advertisement for Tibico as a whole. This article and the ideas are really about the world at large, not just the NBA, and it's worth thinking about them in that context first and foremost. There are important issues at stake here about the future of information.

Nevertheless, this is a basketball blog, so it's worth imagining exactly how this sort of system would affect someone's enjoyment of a game. The positive is that the advertisements that come across as background noise during most games would turn into something more focused and potentially helpful to fans. Giving a father the chance to buy cheaper hats for his kids is a nice gesture on the part of the team, and it wouldn't be possible without this massive computing and data-sifting enterprise.

On the other hand, if we conceive of sports games fundamentally as leisure activities, then it's easy to see how extremely focused advertising of this sort could become a little overwhelming. It's difficult to relax when a computer program offers regular consumer-specific deals, to the point where it might seem as if the computer is controlling the experience without allowing the fan to enjoy the game as he sees fit. And while fans would apparently have the chance to opt out of this service — which tends to be more difficult than opting in — promises of convenience can sometimes be too difficult to turn down. Is it actually preferable to turn watching a basketball game into part of a larger multimedia experience? At root, don't we just want to enjoy the sport?

These questions are difficult to answer, but they're important to the future of these leagues. At some point, we need to make these hard decisions about the extent to which we're willing to turn these sports into advertising delivery systems for corporations. Ranadivé has already said he sees Oracle Arena becoming an advertisement for his business. Do we want the NBA to become the same for its corporate partners?