Monday, 10 Dec 2018

David Stern built the modern NBA. Now he wants to change the way we consume sport.

David Stern, Commissioner Emeritus of the National Basketball Association, smiles in an interview with Bloomberg Television at the Milken Institute's Annual Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California (Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg News)

NEW YORK – Stars are turning around, uniform designs are coming to the point, even franchises are changing cities.

But for most of the modern era, the sports fandom remained basically the same, evolving only gradually. Fans can have different relationships with athletes today through social media. But watching, consuming and rooting teams is not so different from 25 years ago.

David Stern has ideas for changing all that.

The former NBA commissioner said that if virtual reality and augmented reality could allow viewers to change the camera's point of view as they please, we suddenly find ourselves in front of a bunch of weapons bouncing back or forth. to hang out next to a quarter. four-pound line players are getting closer.

Or if the statistics on the screen could display biometric information such as heart rate and lactic acid levels, as well as the percentage of free throws, transforming the human body into a state-of-the-art sports dataset allowing fans to argue.

Perhaps only one group of broadcasters recruited by network will also belong to the past. Hundreds of citizen commentators, with their own styles and interests, could call the games at a glance, a sort of podcast trick in the game.

Or other changes (it is impossible to talk about the future of sport without talking about the game, for example) that will quickly improve the experience of the fans, personalizing, socializing, immersing and trivializing games frantically.

"We first watched the broadcast, then we got the cable, then the satellite, and then the social media," Stern said. "Now technology will make us evolve and improve far beyond that."

Since leaving the NBA five years ago, Stern, 76, has been amazingly re-imagined as a digital visionary – a providential investor, a godfather and a kingminder in a radical sporting future. Rather than sinking into a golf-worthy retreat, as many of his counterparts have done, he sits behind the sports curtain to aggressively shape the years ahead.

The second act of Stern suggests a new potential day for sports consumption, a day that will scare everyone as well as others.

It will certainly not be easy or simple. But if Stern succeeds, the coming years of sports consumption will also be different from those of today's Americans in a contemporary sports bar, according to fans of the depression era who huddle around a radio .

OT career

A recent afternoon, Stern was at his office in downtown Manhattan, a cozy place to live near Central Park. The walls were memories of sports life and beyond: basketballs of championship games, photos of Nelson Mandela.

As a commissioner who has helped to pave the way for the modern era of the sporting world, Stern knows something about the anticipation of the future. Stern turned the NBA from a niche league into a global powerhouse in a three-decade term, which ended in 2014.

His summary of the NBA, although not without controversy, was profound. With talents such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James, he has contributed to the construction of modern sports entertainment architecture: its global reach, its omnipresence on national television, its inextricability with Madison Avenue.

His new law, however, is a totally different issue. The challenge is no longer to manage a vast empire but to look into a crystal ball to determine where the next could be built; it's more a search for leather shoes than shoe approval agreements.

Stern has put millions of his own fortune in more than a dozen start-ups. He regularly attends meetings of these companies, advises their contractors on navigating the network and the minefields of the league and often searches his own Rolodex to make calls on their behalf – all this to better understand how the sport should to be lived in the years to come.

"You have to look to the future," he said, succinctly summarizing his personal philosophy, "where you die".

Although on the verge of knee replacement surgery, Stern continued to travel from his home in Westchester County to the office, a few blocks from his home for years at NBA headquarters.

The NBA concert came with a quality of maintenance in its last years – ensuring that a billion-dollar brand was on track, either by serving the television rights holders or, more controversial, by preventing players from dressing informally. (The dress code was announced in 2005.) Basketball was largely a legacy business. there was not much room for innovation.

Its current role takes a different form, offering the possibility of thinking about what the future would be like. (Stern refuses to offer dollar figures but says its holdings are mostly single-digit and many are doing well and it was nominated last week for Outstanding Investor by influential publication SportTechie.)

Stern says he did not intend to move in this futuristic direction. He began his post-NBA career simply by seeking to broaden his knowledge base. He first invested money in Fubo, a live sports service for consumers, which is one of the most traditional assets in his portfolio. He quickly snowballed into a much deeper engagement.

"My initial point of view was that I wanted to understand where the sport was going," said Stern. "Then I just wanted to see what is virtual reality, artificial intelligence, wearable technology. And when you have this knowledge, you begin to see the means to bring them together. He quickly invested in 13 companies, many of which are closely held, serving as advisor and board member for many of them.

A portable, customizable future

With their implied promise that sports performances can be more perfect and that the fan experience is more immersive, the Stern companies are proposing radical proposals.

Sportscastr is one of the most interesting. It allows everyone to call a sporting event and then broadcast it around the world. Kevin April, CEO of the company, believes that "there is a market for what is basically the sports equivalent of the targeted broadcast: a German who can call a game of the Dallas Mavericks from a point from Dirk Nowitzki for a Teutonic diaspora, for example, or a three-point tactician who can comment on a Warriors game focusing exclusively on form.

Basically, it takes a conversation that is already happening randomly and parallel to the game on social media, and makes it a more integrated audio commentary. (According to April, Sportscastr's app exists primarily on a second screen at the moment, but the company is negotiating with networks to integrate the options into a show.)

Stern said that despite the fact that networks paying billions of sports leagues are interested in professional broadcasters; all of this could change when they realize that their young audience does not give broadcasters the same value.

"I'm entering a room and I hear Marv [Albert] call a game, and I think God is in his heaven, "said Stern. "But that's not what worries people who would otherwise play video games. They want a personal experience. "

Whoop is also present in Stern's portfolio. It is a portable device company that takes countless measurements of the human body. 100 times a second, every second of the day, these Fitbits seem to be a lazy annual trip for a physique.

The idea is to have the players wear them all the time, the Whoop then spitting information for coaches and coaches.

Whoop, with the wearable business in the game and his compatriot investment Stern, ShotTracker, also has a major application for fans: in a future world, players, fans and fantasy players can also access the information and then use them to improve their own decision-making.

If this sounds like an information overload, the company's leaders would like to talk to you. "People also did not think fans wanted fancy news, and see how common it is now," said Mark van Deusen, Whoop's CEO. "Imagine that you can evaluate a kicker's heartbeat when he commits himself for a winning shot. who would not want that? "

At the same time, virtual reality is an extremely promising medium that allows viewers to become familiar with a game in a totally new way.

It is also, unfortunately, a largely theoretical medium, as discovered by anyone looking for evidence of mass adoption or attempting to catch fire by arming a device resembling a brick.

Stern has found his way with LiveLike, a New York-based company that allows viewers to communicate with friends in a virtual luxury box and change the viewing angle of the action. (The company has made an agreement with Fox to fuel its virtual reality efforts.) During the World Cup broadcast by the network, LiveLike allowed viewers to hang out behind the goal and watch the penalty shots to the Guardian.

Stern remains skeptical about heavy hardware technology, but says his ability to immerse viewers can be very helpful.

And of more literal value: the money games, which offer in the future the possibility of economic incentives. With the decision of the Supreme Court earlier this year, which invalidated a federal law banning sports, many layers of start-ups were feverishly preparing for states to legalize it.

According to Stern, this goes far beyond the results, but in the game, what the industry calls "betting on bidding," so that every game, every goal, and every power play is watched carefully across the board. country by viewers with a keen interest. their result.

Among these companies is the Stern RotoQL investment, a data-processing and crowdsourcing platform that, although created to give information to fantastic players, can easily be converted into games of chance.

Justin Park, CEO of the company, said that RotoQL provided data that anyone interested in the outcome of a game would like to obtain.

"The speed of our software generates 100 optimal queues in a fraction of a second," he said. "You can not get this in too many places." Among its other uses, subscribers are asked how a given player could behave in a future match, thus offering a player – a fantastic player – the opportunity to instantly know how hundreds of other people feel before making a choice.

Bet the sub?

Yet, despite all the enticing opportunities these companies offer, there is reason to believe that they could take years to come to fruition if they were successful.

That's right, because many fans may not want the fundamental experience of the sports world to change. it's not for nothing that the experience has remained so similar to a time of tumultuous upheavals in other parts of the entertainment landscape

And that's true because of a dizzying number of questions regarding each of these applications.

For example, many professional leagues have been reluctant to allow wearable devices during games. In the NBA, the players' union has opposed – so far successfully – fearing that such information can not be used against free agents in contract negotiations. Building the future is much easier to achieve in the field of venture capital than on a basketball court.

During this time, some purists will probably object to the idea that the game is widespread and contrary to the spirit of the fandom. (Stern says that he and the other entrepreneurs just do it at the time: "I'm not worried or excited, I'm realistic.")

The idea of ​​podcasting games is also heavy, not only because the question of whether fans will want an army of amateurs, but also because the networks themselves have financial reasons to fight against this change. They have invested years of relationships and hundreds of millions of fees for professional broadcasters; encouraging competition may not be at the top of their list.

Stern called for networks to reassure them, saying that he thought that Sportscastr's citizen broadcaster could strengthen their ratings and increase the visibility of their games, not limit or undermine them,

(Miheer Walavalkar, Managing Director of LiveLike, explains that the former commissioner has ensured that society is taken seriously in more tedious traditionalist neighborhoods, where an established business model and relatively strong TV ratings could prevent networks to innovate.)

Experts say that as a result of many of these initiatives, sports consumption will undoubtedly change. It may not be as spectacular as Stern and other dreamers hope.

"Some of these start-ups will certainly see their ideas making their way," said Patrick Rishe, head of the sport and business program at Washington University in St. Louis. "And some may find that the public will judge them fanciful and will go away."

Of course, for some fans, the biggest fear is massive success. Is it too much to ask that the purity of the game be preserved, away from those with too large camera angles, instinctive feelings about betting on props and information up to the latest sweat gland? ?

Stern says he hears these concerns but still thinks he's asking the wrong questions.

"There will be a range of interests and I think sport can serve them all," he said. In addition, he added that younger fans should be served that way if they want to stay in the group.

"We have so many new ways for people, especially younger ones, to interact with the sport." If it sounds too fanciful to today's society, we must wait for it, he said.

"Sport is always the engine in the mine for the improvements and developments of the company." If it means that some wings are cut off, it does not bother Stern. Enough people will always want to bet on them. Or watch them fly in VR.

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