NBA seeks to ‘redefine’ the fan experience with Microsoft

The National Basketball Association (NBA) has struck a multi-year partnership with US technology giant Microsoft, a move the league says will “redefine” the fan experience, both in-arena and at home.

Microsoft will become the official artificial intelligence partner and an official cloud and laptop partner for the NBA, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), NBA G League, and USA Basketball, beginning with the 2020-21 NBA season.

Microsoft and NBA Digital will create a new, innovative, direct-to-consumer platform on Microsoft Azure that will use machine learning and AI to deliver next-generation, personalised game broadcasts and other content offerings, as well as integrate the NBA’s various products and services from across its business.

The league said the platform will “reimagine” how fans engage with the NBA from their devices by customising and localising experiences for the global fanbase, which includes the 1.8 billion social media followers across all league, team and player accounts.

Beyond delivering live and on-demand game broadcasts through Microsoft Azure, the NBA’s vast array of data sources and extensive historical video archive will be promoted to fans through state-of-the-art machine learning, cognitive search and advanced data analytics solutions. This is designed to create a more personalised fan experience that tailors the content to the preferences of the fan, rewards participation, and provides more insights and analysis.

Additionally, the NBA said this platform will enable it to uncover unique insights and add new dimensions to the game for fans, coaches and broadcasters. The companies will also explore additional ways technology can be used to enhance the NBA’s business and game operations.

As part of the partnership, Microsoft will become the entitlement partner of the NBA Draft Combine beginning next season and an associate partner of future marquee events, including NBA All-Star, NBA Summer League and WNBA All-Star.

“This partnership with Microsoft will help us redefine the way our fans experience NBA basketball,” said Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, in a statement. “Our goal, working with Microsoft, is to create customised content that allows fans – whether they are in an NBA arena or watching from anywhere around the world – to immerse themselves in all aspects of the game and engage directly with our teams and players.”

The agreement represents one of the largest commercial deals signed by a US major sports league during COVID-19. The NBA suspended its current season on March 11, and Silver told CNBC that the Microsoft deal is timely with leagues planning for a future playing out games in empty arenas.

“I think the fact that we are announcing it in the middle of this pandemic is a testament to how important it is that we move forward with this deal,” said Silver. “Time is of the essence here.”

Silver admitted that fans still prefer courtside seats over any other option to watch games, but added the league’s venture with Microsoft will bring fans who cannot access this experience as close to the action as possible. He said: “How can you replace that experience? Maybe we can come close to it.”

For Microsoft, the NBA deal adds another major league to its business portfolio. Microsoft has been in partnership with the National Football League (NFL) since 2013, expanding this relationship through a multi-year extension signed last month.