The National Basketball Association (NBA) has long been considered one of the most progressive sports organisations in the world. This reputation is partly founded on its enthusiastic attitude towards innovation.
The league works with giants of the industry like SAP and Microsoft to drive its digital transformation, uses social media and streaming to reach its youthful and digitally native audience, and incubates and invests in startups that can improve the sport on and off the court.
The new unified NBA app owes much to these developments, offering a one-stop shop for digital content and live streams, while allowing the NBA to collect valuable data, deepen its relationship with fans and, ultimately, increase revenues.
The league is very proud of what it has managed to achieve in partnership with Microsoft, but how does the app perform in the real world? In the first instalment of a new series of reviews, which will span everything from streaming platforms and technology services to major event experiences and marketing campaigns, SportsPro investigates the NBA app.
What’s on offer?
The NBA’s ambition is to combine virtually every piece of content that it, its teams, and its partners create for any digital channel into a single unified application.
The app serves up traditional fare like news, live scores, and highlights, while also aggregating content from first-party social channels, influencers, and broadcasters. The influence of social media is omnipresent, whether it be through Instagram-style ‘story’ posts or the emphasis on vertical video.
An enhanced ‘gameday’ experience offers behind-the-scenes peeks, press conferences, and pre and post-game shows and, as is increasingly common in the sports broadcast world, there is a National Football League (NFL) Redzone-style ‘whiparound’ show called ‘CrunchTime’.
There’s the customary array of original and archive content, tailored for both North American and international audiences, including action from French top-flight matches involving top draft prospect Victor Wembanyama, highlighting the flexibility that the new platform affords.
Most of this content is free and only requires users to sign up for a free NBA ID account that acts as a unifying identity across the NBA’s digital ecosystem. Premium content necessitates a subscription to the NBA League Pass direct-to-consumer (DTC) offering, which is fully integrated into the application.
League Pass allows fans in the US to watch out-of-market games and international users to access any game they want provided the NBA’s local deal doesn’t necessitate a blackout, alongside a 24/7 stream of NBA TV. The app will also be able to host individual team’s DTC services, including the Los Angeles Clippers’ ClipperVision, although this requires an additional subscription.
You can say what you like about the new service but there is a huge amount of content available on the new app, even without a subscription.
Ahead of the 2022-23 season, the league launched the new reimagined NBA App to be an all-in-one destination for fans of every team.— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) October 6, 2022
To celebrate the new app, the league released its campaign, “This is HAPPENING,” to get fans excited about all the NBA App has to offer. pic.twitter.com/4ImwtmPcz7
What’s the user experience like?
The platform is a hybrid of modern app design with social media conventions. The interface is clean and easy to navigate and there is more than a hint of Microsoft’s own UI influence – either by accident or design.
Hoping to replicate the success of TikTok’s algorithmic-driven experience, the NBA has placed personalisation at the heart of its new application. Users set their favourite teams and the app learns preferences over time, making the most of Microsoft’s cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities.
These insights power the ‘For You’ section, which acts as a homepage. Stories are displayed at the top of the screen as they would be on Instagram and Snapchat, towering over a visual-heavy feed of highlights, headlines and other videos. By tailoring the experience for each individual, the NBA hopes fans will spend more time on the platform and become more engaged.
There’s a lot of content without overwhelming the user, discovery is painless, and signing up for both an NBA ID and NBA League Pass was straightforward on iOS. League Pass integration negates the need to switch between applications and even the web-based elements like fantasy games and the NBA Store feel part of the application and not just a plug-in
Users can switch between a light mode and a dark mode and there is the option to switch off scores. The latter feature is incredibly important for international users who might be watching games on-demand rather than staying up until 3am to see them live.
The whole package has a consistency of design and just makes sense, which is not something you can say about every sports application. The combination of easy navigation and algorithm-driven curation means users can get as much or as little from the service as they desire.
It’s not without fault, though. The emphasis on visual content comes at the expense of the written word and banners promoting the NBA Store are distracting and disrupt the flow of information. The banners feel like a tacky relic from a previous era of the internet, and their use undermines the subtle references to merchandise, ticketing and other products elsewhere in the app.
Are there any unique features or innovations?
The NBA app’s real strengths are comprehensiveness, personalisation, and competency. Streams were reliable, high quality, and easily castable to a compatible smart TV. iOS’s ‘picture in picture’ feature is also supported – a must for any modern streaming app.
There are a notable absence of bells and whistles but given the NBA’s focus on digital and the involvement of Microsoft, which will be eager to use the league as a platform to promote its services, we’d expect to see much more in the future.
There are some early signs of how streaming can offer a more enhanced experience when compared to linear television. League Pass subscribers can choose from multiple broadcast feeds, overlay real-time player statistics on top of their stream (even when viewing on-demand) and there is the promise of multiple camera angles. Perhaps in the future, virtual reality (VR) streams and custom overlays will be part of the offering.
How much does it cost?
This is a really competitively priced product, costing US$14.99 a month or US$99.99 a year for a standard pass. It’s US$19.99 a month or US$129.99 a year for the premium pass, which lets you watch on multiple devices. An individual team pass costs US$89.99 a year and the prices are the same in pound sterling as they are in US dollars. There’s a seven-day free trial if you’re on the fence.
What’s the verdict?
At a time when rights holders are recognising the value of owned-and-operated channels, any league looking to overhaul its digital presence or direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategy could do much worse than use the new NBA app as a blueprint.
The sheer volume of content and ease-of-use deliver genuine value to fans and the platform is a prime example of how to maximise the value of first-party assets and serve multiple user groups with a single application.
If there’s one gripe, it’s that the app lacks some sort of interactivity or major digital innovation, but functionality trumps gimmickry and the in-built intelligence delivers real value for users.
For now, the priority of the NBA is to acquire as wide an audience as possible, deepening fans’ relationship with the league, its teams, and its players, and signing up users to its NBA ID ecosystem so that data can be used across the business.
Given the pricing structure, perhaps the NBA is keen to get as many subscribers as possible with a view to awarding a streaming package in its next rights cycle.