Growing up more than 1,000 miles from New Orleans up in New Jersey, I was never sure I’d ever have the chance to take in a live Pelicans game and not be surrounded by Knicks, Sixers, or Nets fans. This season, I finally got my shot. With my city edition Jrue Holiday jersey on my back and my fraying team-themed socks on my feet, the getup I had worn to many a contest in the Northeast had finally made it down south. I was finally surrounded by a group committed to cheering on the same team, chanting “Let’s Go Pels!” and complaining about shot selection in unison: just how I’d envisioned it.
What I never could have foreseen was that this experience would come not at the Smoothie King Center, but at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for a Sacramento Kings home game.
The NBA’s March 11 announcement that they were suspending the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic was followed quickly by prospects of forming a bubble to complete the 2019-20 season. Would it have been preferable for some of the world’s wealthiest people to direct resources to battling the pandemic other instead of one of their various cash cows? Certainly! But by the first week of June, the plan to put a bubble in place was officially approved. Players, coaches, and a smattering of other team personnel would make their way to Orlando, finish an abbreviated regular season, and play through the postseason until a champion was crowned. It seemed as if the fans would be the only group not to make the trip.
That wound up only being partially true. While fans were not to be allowed to attend games in person, they continue to show up virtually thanks to a partnership between the NBA and Microsoft that began earlier this year. Every team in Orlando was enabled by Microsoft teams to have properly-equipped fans appear around the court for every game with the hope of creating an atmosphere that felt similar to the typical NBA experience, if not quite the same.
Tracy Singian, the director of product marketing for the New Orleans Pelicans, helped the team embrace the league’s vision for this unique engagement experience. Getting fans to games and providing them with the products best suited to help them enjoy it came with the job from the jump when she began in December, but how she has gone about doing so has changed rapidly over the course of the last nine months.
“Everything is fluid,” she said. “The NBA is looking to push the limit of what they can do, and fans are coming around to it.”
I was in the “crowd” on Thursday, August 6, to watch the Pelicans get trounced by the Kings 140-125, In order to be situated in time for tip-off, the Pelicans support staff asked that all participants, most of whom had taken advantage of a free sign-up opportunity (I was selected on behalf of The Bird Writes), were logged into Microsoft Teams about 45 minutes prior to the 1:30pm EST starting time. As Pelicans director of game presentation Kyle Huber notes, getting fans to the right digital location can often be one of the more challenging hurdles.
“[Microsoft Teams] is something new, a login that they’re not familiar with, a platform that a lot of people are probably not familiar with,” he said after the Pelicans stretch of games in the bubble had come to an end. “That’s the hardest part with anything new and technology-based.”
To say that Microsoft Teams is something new is an understatement, especially when it comes to the Together Mode functionality that makes the experience possible. The former has been on the market for about three years, but Together Mode launched this July, mere weeks before it would be implemented in real time for millions of viewers around the world.
The NBA’s partnership with Microsoft extended to the waiting rooms that I and the other participating fans found ourselves in during the run-up to the game. Singian praised the efforts of Microsoft employees who were present for troubleshooting that Pelicans and Kings employees couldn’t realistically have been trained to provide in such a small window of time. In fact, that anything resembling a fan experience was able to happen at all is a small miracle in and of itself since, according to Singian, teams were given the information on what they would be able to do on July 17 — less than two weeks from the July 30 Pelicans-Jazz matchup that would kickoff the Orlando restart.
I hadn’t spoken to Singian before my personal fan experience, but I recognized her among the few dozen people accompanying me in our virtual section. There were many viewing options within the Microsoft Teams app for all participants, which most conveniently included the same screen that television viewers saw on the video boards surrounding the court:
Really enjoyed getting to interact with our fans and bring a new POV of the game.— Tracy Almeda-Singian (@TracySingian) August 14, 2020
BIG THANKS to ALL who went on this ride with us the last few weeks and see ya for the 20-21 season! @PelicansNBA FANS RULE! pic.twitter.com/mt0pFV02Zl
It was also possible to view my peers in the same group- or speaker-centric ways made available by platforms like Zoom or Skype. Balancing this with the game feed from NBA TV, which included the Sacramento Kings announcing crew (since it was a Sacramento home game), got a bit chaotic at times, especially because the app’s functionality has not been optimized for the Linux-based laptop I used to participate. In retrospect, it makes an abundance of sense that a Windows setup would allow for the smoothest experience, but that a wide array of devices were at least usable made accessibility less of an issue than it otherwise may have been.
Fans were joined by a select few hosts from the Pelicans, who ranged from cheerleaders to a magically-inclined T-Bob Hebert to team staff, who led the way in terms of maintaining engagement from the group. The scripts and prompts that guided these efforts evolved as more games were played, said Singian, who lauded the enthusiasm of those she was working alongside to make it happen.
“It was important for us to have the fans know how important they are to us and it was great to have our Pelicans Dance and Hype Teams bring some of that in-game stadium flavor and feel to the Virtual Fan Experience,” she told me. “Initial results from the NBA told us that from we had one of the highest show rates in the league, so I think that is a positive to show New Orleans’ hunger for the return of basketball, the love for the team and being together.”
An attempt to capture that coveted atmosphere in this new context was also at the fore for Huber, whose primary responsibilities typically involves scripting out everything that happens in the arena that isn’t the actual basketball being played. This includes everything from the video and audio from the starting lineups, sound effects during opponent free throws and halftime entertainment. The bubble setup was not kind to any aspiring halftime entertainers, but these other aspects of the fan experience were welcomed by the league in order to make the “home” games feel more like home.
“They would tell us, ‘You can put up four logos, you can do this amount of player music,’ gave us some parameters there,” Huber said of the specifics they were provided early on in the preparation process. “And all of the teams are doing this, so you can imagine somebody getting all of this information and then having to put it together for all these teams.”
For everything to work as it should, collaboration between teams was necessary. Huber, whose seat during games at the Smoothie King Center is right beside the PA announcer, did not make the trip to Orlando. Instead, he worked with a combination of NBA employees and those who filled a similar role for other teams, such as the Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets, and Los Angeles Lakers, to organize the most New Orleans-esque game experience possible. Just how much of an impact these in-arena elements have may be understated by the casual fan, and they were certainly underappreciated by me until Huber explained it.
“There are numerous stakeholders when it comes to the fan experience, and it’s not just the fans. It is the coaches, administrators, my bosses, the fans, the players, all those things. And they’ll all tell you when you’re not doing a good job. As the season was kind of going on, as we’re trying to create and really embrace this Won’t Bow Down and embracing the New Orleans mantra in our game experience, we are asking ourselves those same questions of ‘what do we know success looks like?’”
Often, a successful fan engagement effort is as simple as one that spreads rapidly through social media. Dominique Hammons’ epic violin performance during a halftime in March was among this season’s biggest hits. In the bubble, perhaps no effort reached more eyes than the Phoenix Suns’ use of friends and family to introduce their starting lineup. Huber wants residents and visitors of New Orleans alike to view Pelicans games as a must-see event in a city that is full of such things, and that means doing whatever they can to convince fans that a ticket will be worth their time.
On an individual level, judging the success of the evening was quite easy. My family was able to see me on national television, which is not something I may ever get to say again. The stream of the game was not of very sharp quality, but hearing the other fans around me chatting constantly and often randomly about what we were collectively observing was more reminiscent of an actual in-person experience than I expected. Sure, it would have helped if the Pelicans didn’t allow 140 points, but spending that stretch of a few hours with these fans was a welcome return to at least a semblance of normalcy.
What the immediate future of NBA basketball looks like remains to be seen. The postseason has begun without any COVID-19 issues sprouting up inside the bubble, but the disease continues to disrupt communities in the United States and abroad.
“Everybody’s kind of in the same boat,” said Huber. “I think the NBA right now is just trying to get through this season, and then once this season’s over, we’ll try to kind of figure out where we are as a society.”