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How NBA, Hulu are using tech-enhanced broadcasts to lure sports fans

Thomas Barrabi

AUSTIN, Texas -- The rise of social media and streaming services have given modern sports fan more entertainment options than ever before and changed the way they interact with live games. In this crowded media landscape, sports executives are using tech-based solutions to keep fans engaged.

Like all traditional sports leagues, the NBA is grappling with the cord-cutting trend and dwindling television ratings, while Hulu is contending with streaming juggernaut Netflix and a growing field of rivals. Speaking at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, officials from the NBA and Hulu said they are leaning on social media and tech-enhanced broadcasts to lure viewers.

“The fan today is in control,” said Dan Rossomondo, the NBA’s head of media and business development. “They can individualize and personalize their viewing habits.”

With more viewers opting for cheaper “a la carte” streaming services over pricey cable packages, customizable, interactive game broadcasts have emerged as a powerful tool for sports brands. Social media has allowed the NBA to help offset a drop in television ratings, which were down 8 percent year-over-year at the All-Star break in February.

The league is especially dominant on Twitter, where NBA teams use real-time highlights to drive discussion and encourage players to interact with fans. The NBA became the first U.S. sports league to surpass one billion overall followers on social media back in 2016, and has maintained a sizable lead over other leagues ever since.

“There is this mix of people that are fans of players, and then there’s a mix of people who are fans of teams,” Rossomondo added. “Our fans have a connection with our players and teams that I think is unmatched in sports.”

Starting earlier this season, the NBA began permitting fans to purchase the fourth-quarter of in-progress games through its digital “League Pass” app, allowing viewers to tune in during the broadcast’s most critical moments. Rossomondo said the league’s eventual goal is to allow fans to access games through social media at any moment with a single click.

The NBA wants fans to “feel like they’re courtside at the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden,” whether they live in Los Angeles or Beijing, Rossomondo added.

Customized viewing is the linchpin of Hulu’s sports strategy. Unlike Netflix, which has relied on investments in original content, Hulu offers a package that allows subscribers to watch live programming, including sports.

Subscribers can record games, receive customized recommendations based on their favorite sports teams and watch broadcasts on mobile devices. Gene Miller, Hulu’s head of sports experience, said the platform plans to allow sports fans to choose between stats-heavy broadcast overlays or a stripped-down display, based on their preferences.

“Traditional fans don’t really exist anymore,” Miller said. “All of us are connected fans.”

An array of on-demand entertainment options has made it harder than ever for brands, even decades-old institutions like the NBA – to maintain their audiences. Netflix estimated in January that it earns 10 percent of all available screen time among U.S. consumers, or about 100 million hours per day out of a possible 1 billion hours. At the time, the streaming giant identified the video game Fortnite, not Hulu or any other streaming service, as its top rival for audience.

Rossomondo said the NBA is aware that the length of its broadcasts, which run more than 2 hours per game, is an obstacle in the age of distraction, noting that league officials have “sat in a room for hours on end just trying to knock two minutes” off the runtime.

However, the executive downplayed the NBA’s recent ratings decline, arguing the traditional television ratings system is an “antiquated” way of determining audience.

“A lot of money transfers hands in the advertising market based on 25,000 metered homes,” Rossomondo said.

The Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down a longstanding federal ban on sports betting marked a major opportunity for brands in the fight for viewer attention. The NBA has embraced legalization and its potential as a revenue source, naming MGM Resorts as its official gaming partner and pushing state and federal legislators to require betting operators to pay for official league data.

Miller said Hulu is taking a wait-and-see approach on how to implement sports betting, noting that it has the potential to convert casual fans into more active fans.

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Rossomondo and the NBA are even more bullish on betting’s implications for its fan base.

“Someone who’s wagering on a game is going to be a little bit more invested in the game,” he said. “That’s probably the most obvious thing I’ll say all day.”

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