NBA Courts Technology’s Possibilities

Times Staff Writer

With two dozen premier basketball players gathered in Los Angeles for tonight’s All-Star game at Staples Center, NBA Commissioner David Stern would seem to have plenty of VIPs at his disposal.

But it wasn’t enough for the commish. On Friday, he gathered with luminaries such as Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Terry Semel and America Online Inc. CEO Jonathan Miller for a Technology Summit to discuss the impact of technology on sports and entertainment.

The NBA itself is stocked with tech-savvy moguls -- Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen owns the Portland Trail Blazers; Internet broadcasting pioneer Mark Cuban used some of his dot-com windfall to buy the Dallas Mavericks. And the Philadelphia 76ers belong to Comcast Corp., the cable TV giant run by Brian L. Roberts that is trying to buy Walt Disney Co.

Perhaps that’s why the NBA has raced ahead of other professional leagues in embracing new technology to promote its sport. The NBA was the first to broadcast live video of a professional sports match-up over the Internet, and the first to deploy a 360-degree camera to capture the action. The league was also the first to let viewers control the camera on an Internet video feed. Fans can tune into to listen to many games live and watch highlight videos.


Innovations like these are changing the economics of the game, and Stern spoke with The Times last week about what else may be in store.

Question: Pro basketball games are widely available on the radio and on TV. Why did you decide to broadcast them over the Internet?

Answer: This is just another step in our evolution. We have been doggedly determined to put our games in front of our fans wherever we find them and however they can access them. This is just a whole other way to reach our subscribers, our fans, our consumers. It’s just a step, not an end unto itself.

Q: You’ve done some experiments with video on the Internet. What have they told you so far?


A: That if we stream a game in Mandarin, lots of Chinese viewers will tune into it.

The preferred methodology is still TV. If we have a game that is not available in any other modality, then people will watch grainy video [over the Internet]. It’s hit and miss. We’re willing to try it.

Q: How do your TV broadcasting partners see your activities on the Internet?

A: They see it as completely supportive. Each of our TV partners promotes the other. Now we promote ESPN, TNT, ABC. It’s a circle. There’s not really a choice here: You either move along the promotional road, or you wither.

Q: Other professional sports leagues don’t seem to be as aggressive in embracing new technologies. What’s different about the NBA?

A: We knew [technological change] was going to happen, we just weren’t exactly sure what or when. So we’re just trying everything.

You want to see Allen Iverson’s highlights? You’ll be able to see Allen Iverson’s highlights. You want to go back and compare him to Bob Cousy? We’ll get the Cousy footage from the archives. That’s coming. Whether we can exactly do it today is irrelevant to me. We’re always looking to push the envelope, because it’s fun.

Q: Digital video recorders like TiVo let you pause and fast-forward while you’re watching TV, and they’re becoming increasingly popular. What effect will they have on the economics of broadcasting?


A: It’s definitely going to become prevalent for commercial-skipping. That’s not to suggest that the sky is falling, because it’s not. But if you don’t play out the various scenarios then you’re not going to be in the game.

Q: What about other new technologies for TV?

A: I think one of the great, great boons to televised sports is going to be the widespread adoption of wide-screen television and Dolby surround sound. The better the courtside seat in a sport, the better the high-def experience. I’m partial, but we have the best courtside seat in all of sports. It’s close and it’s unadorned by sleeves and long pants.

Q: As the Internet business models get hammered out, what do you think will remain free and what will be paid for?

A: It’s the razors and blades theory. Some people will be giving away the razors to sell the blades. Someone will say, “You can have video-on-demand to your heart’s content, you can see high-definition to your heart’s content. Oh, by the way, you’ve got to become a digital subscriber and let us put a box in for X dollars a month.” Is it free? Did we charge for it?

It’s all going to be paid for in some way, but some of it’s going to be called free.

Q: How will basketball fans watch NBA games in the future?

A: I surprised Bill [Gates]. I said I was more worried that in 20 years, kids growing up watching video games would rather watch a good video game. They’ll program the game. They’ll dress the players in the uniform and shoes of their choice. They’ll give them the long shorts. They’ll give them the hairdo. Then they’ll play the game. And I’m not sure they’ll be able to distinguish between real and not. Then they’ll get their video-on-demand to see what really happened. I think that’s sort of in the world beyond, but there are those changes coming.


Q: And where will those changes take us?

A: I don’t think that anyone could know. But the analogy I use is that in the “days of old,” you could wait at the corner for the light to change. And now there’s just no lights. You’ve got to just start moving across the roadway, because if you don’t you’ll be locked at the corner.