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Volume 22 No. 12

In Depth

Photo: Getty images

As the NBA prepares to tip off its 2018-19 season, its reputation as a progressive league willing to address new ways to present and market the game is at its zenith. From leading the industry’s support of legalizing gambling, to putting ads on jerseys or supporting social issues, the NBA embraces change with owners such as Steve Ballmer of the Los Angeles Clippers and Ted Leonsis of the Washington Wizards spending as much time plotting the future of the league as they do preparing for the start of the regular season on Oct. 16.

 

Whether it’s ushering in the latest wave in technology or pondering new interactive ways to watch the game in the arena or at home, we explore the ideas of these owners and other forward-thinking NBA executives of what the league will look like a decade down the road in 2028.

So grab your virtual reality headsets and engage your imagination as insiders put forth a futuristic narrative of the NBA related to key areas such as in-game experience, media, ticketing, new events, ownership, diversity and more.

Tech-based strategies to reshape experience

More ex-players likely to be owners

Ticket of '28 will deliver tailored message, view

How long can Adam Silver lead?

Stoke fans' fire with international event, play-in for playoff

Insiders see women taking leading role

Fans will find the game any way they want

Rule changes expected to favor fast-paced game

Owners see overseas events as path to growth

Cashless transactions could be the norm in arenas around the league.
Photo: Dennis McCoy / Sacramento Business Journal

Picture Las Vegas-style cabana suites and a variety of clubs with augmented reality technology available at your fingertips.

 

Ponder the possibility of climate-controlled seats that offer you customized video and audio options.

Imagine that, for a fee, virtual reality options will abound, giving you glimpses into team huddles and a seat on the bench.

And leave your cash at home as arena transactions will be mostly digital. Ticketing, food and drink ordering and all other transactions will be conducted through your mobile device or via credit card.

Welcome to the NBA’s in-arena fan experience in 2028.

Smaller, more intimate suite experiences are expected as venues offer more flexible premium-seating options.
Photo: Minnesota Timberwolves

“We will see a lot of reimagined spaces in the buildings,” said Amy Brooks, president of the NBA’s team marketing and business operations division and chief innovation officer. “We can provide more flexibility and drive revenue for the future.”

Premium seating will be a far more flexible offer, with a shift away from the traditional multitude of large suites ringing the inside of arenas to smaller, customized areas.

“I’m not saying suites will be obsolete, but venues will move toward very premium intimate clubs,” said Brett Yormark, CEO of BSE Global, the parent company of the Brooklyn Nets.

Future NBA arena capacities aren’t expected to change much from the 18,000-seat venues built today, but bandwidth inside all arenas will be far greater to allow for faster connectivity.

Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis sees a scenario allowing premium pricing in accordance with the connectivity speed inside specific areas of an arena. The faster the speed, the higher the premium. If you’re a gambler or a gamer, you might be willing to pay more for high-speed real-time data than a casual fan, he said.

Keeping fans engaged with the action on the court will continue to be the goal inside the arena, according to Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who by 2028 hopes to be in his fourth season in a new arena in Inglewood.

“My sense is it will become more about the basketball because there are so many other experiences outside the arena,” Ballmer said. “As an owner, do you want people with their heads down in their phones?”

Use of virtual and augmented reality headsets could allow NBA fans in other countries and ticket holders in the upper reaches of arenas to experience courtside views or tour other areas of the venue without leaving their seats.
Photo: Getty Images

But the way fans watch that action on the court is likely to see radical change. Imagine donning a headset to watch the game with a screen of your choosing, whether to follow a favorite player or from other alternative angles. Even from the nosebleed seats, virtual courtside viewing could be available, Brooks said.

“There will be a different level of access in and around the team,” said Scott O’Neil, CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Philadelphia 76ers. “There will be virtual tours using cameras to walk around during the game. Technology and connectivity will completely transform how we experience it.”

State-regulated gambling will also become a major staple inside the buildings, whether it’s betting on the next basket, blocked shot or any other in-play wagers. Mobile betting apps will be used to drive in-game wagering. “Mobile sport betting will be ubiquitous,” Yormark said.

Seating high above the court could offer fans an overhead view of action on the floor.
Photo: Getty Images

Even the hardwood could become a more interactive aspect of the in-game experience. 

“The floors will be interactive and dynamic — picture an LED screen on the court,” O’Neil said. “At your seat, it is everything with regard to a completely immersive experience.”

Leonsis even envisions the possibility of cameras built into the playing floor to allow for more camera angles. He also suggests viewing areas could be built high above the floor near center court, calling it “the aspirational seat of the future” that gives fans a bird’s-eye view.

LeBron James’ profile off the court grows each year. Will he lead from the owner’s box instead of on the court by 2028?
Photo: getty images

The 2028 NBA ownership group may look more like a retired NBA roster as players continue to hone their business acumen and become interested in moving from the court to the owner’s box.

 

Today, Michael Jordan stands as the pro sports template for NBA stars such as LeBron James who have amassed great wealth and may be interested in taking ownership stakes after their playing careers end. Other former NBA stars such as Grant Hill and Shaquille O’Neal also have minority stakes in the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings, respectively.

Expect the number of former players investing in NBA teams to increase over the next decade, but given the run-up in franchise values, outright or majority ownership may be limited to a very select few.

“Will 10 percent of teams be owned by players or at least have a piece? That’s not out of the question,” said one NBA team executive. “No one can follow the same path as M.J., but there are investment opportunities out there and a lot of interest across all sports.”

“It will no longer be ceremonial to have an ex-player [as part of ownership]. They want an active role and they have the capital to invest,” Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin said.

The definition of an NBA season ticket in 2028? Consider a broad season ticket that could include virtual reality that  the league can sell globally, said Amy Brooks, NBA president of team marketing and business operations and chief innovation officer.

 

Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis envisions an opportunity to offer virtual or augmented reality technology to season-ticket holders that delivers the same seat view of their team’s road games as they have in their actual season-ticket packages.

Another major shift will be the ability for fans to sell their seats or buy seat upgrades for specific periods in the game, whether it’s the first quarter or the end of the game.

“We will have the flexibility to truly optimize seating in the arena,” Brooks said.

Team sponsors already personalize their outreach to fans in the arena, with tailored offers directly and instantly to fans through their phones. For example, fans who live near car dealerships may be offered test drives through the team’s auto sponsor. Fast-food sponsors also could offer specific coupons and offers to fans targeted for their culinary preferences.

“Partners will be able to connect with fans in richer ways when it’s targeted to the right type of person,” Brooks said. “There is a lot we can do for partners.” 

League leadership is one area where no one within the NBA expects — or seemingly wants — a change in 10 years.

 

Adam Silver will be 66 in 2028 and would begin his 14th year as NBA commissioner. It would be his 36th year in the league.

The NBA’s official basketball is likely to carry Commissioner Adam Silver’s signature into 2028 and beyond.
Photo: getty images

“I hope he’s in the job until he’s 100,” Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment CEO Scott O’Neil said.

Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins added, “There is no doubt in my mind that he will continue as commissioner 10 years from now.”

Silver’s impressive leadership has led to skyrocketing franchise values, increased league revenue and progressive business strategies, making him an attractive CEO candidate outside the NBA. But his status among his bosses — the NBA owners — is as strong as it has ever been given that this year he received a new contract with the league through 2024.

“He has the right mindset,” Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said. “He is innately curious and a great listener. … We have adapted best to culture and demography and a big part of that is leadership, and Adam is the right kind of person.”

One change in leadership could include a larger international executive team. “The general structure of leadership will be the same,” Martins said. “But as our international presence continues to grow, there could be more leadership in that area.” 

Come 2028, events like an International Cup that pits NBA teams against top international clubs or a playoff play-in tournament that adds more interest and excitement to the end of the season could be part of the league’s calendar.

“Look at how successful the summer league has become,” said one NBA team executive. “There has been unlimited appetite for product, and there are ways to expand without diluting the core game.”

Adding a midseason tournament is another possible new event that could break up the monotony of the current 82-game format.

Amy Brooks, president of team marketing and business operations and chief innovation officer, leads the league’s business and basketball committee that looks to create new opportunities in the game. “They’re in the realm of possibility,” she said of those ideas. “Many [of those events] are ways we can enhance the game and make it much more interesting and create new business opportunities. Many of those things are complicated, but we think it’s worth studying the advantages and disadvantages.”

A playoff play-in tournament seems particularly relevant as the league tries to eliminate teams tanking and add more fan interest in teams that don’t qualify in the current playoff format.

“It’s feasible that there would be a play-in for the playoff with [seeds] 7 to 10 to play for the final two spots,” said Brett Yormark, CEO of BSE Global.

Digital media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube could join the league’s traditional media partners.
Photo: getty images

“Personalization is the key,” said the NBA’s Bill Koenig in describing the viewing experience of the future. “We want to provide our fans with the ability to watch the game the way they want, whether it’s … full of enhancements or watching traditional telecasts. We have learned that it’s important to provide a shared experience. People will watch more if they are interacting with the telecast itself.”

 

The NBA’s expected customized streams and telecasts in 2028 will give viewers the option to watch isolated coverage of their favorite player, offer real-time fantasy team stats and provide the opportunity to share a customized broadcasts with friends as each watch and comment on the game remotely.

Steve Ballmer’s Los Angeles Clippers this upcoming season will test customized technology through Second Spectrum, of which the team owner is an investor.

The technology uses high-definition cameras inside the arenas that allow for customized streaming at home. The stream would be available through an OTT service, which in the Clippers’ case will be Fox Sports Go.

“This is where we are going,” Ballmer said. “The software keeps getting better and better.”

Ballmer and Koenig, president of global content and media distribution for the NBA, presented emerging TV technology to owners at the recent board of governors meeting as the league plans for the next generation of NBA broadcasts.

Customized audio and camera angles will be offered and so will the option of viewers paying a premium to watch games commercial free. Instead of seeing a commercial, viewers could watch the in-arena entertainment during breaks in the game. 

Expect the league’s 2028 media deal to include an internet agreement along with a broadcast deal as the league looks to change the traditional linear viewing format.

The NBA is now testing interactive viewership telecasts in the G League with Twitch, the livestreaming video platform owned by Amazon, and it is likely to implement a similar approach in a new media deal.

“Traditional TV will still be around but it will be enhanced by a streaming experience,” Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “You can create your own broadcast experience on a streaming service where you are providing the commentary from your perspective.”

The structure of the next generation of league TV deals also could shift to likely include digital and social media outlets as the distribution of NBA content widens. 

“We have a very strong relationships with our current partners [ESPN/ABC and Turner] and have every reason to grow those relationships,” Koenig said. “At the same time, we have very meaningful  relationships with a lot of the new digital and social media distribution outlets whether its Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon. We’ve done a lot with each and we will be doing even more this season.”

“We think we will have choices,” Koenig said. “We have strong relationships with our current partners [ESPN/ABC and Turner] and have every reason to grow those relationships. At the same time, we have very meaningful relationships with a lot of new digital and social media outlets, and we will be doing more.”

“I’d like to introduce our new head coach, Becky Hammon.”

 

Those are words that some say could be spoken by an NBA general manager in 2028, if not sooner.

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon is mentioned often as a likely first female head coach.
Photo: getty images

Regardless of whether Hammon, currently a well-regarded assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, or another woman breaks the league’s head coaching gender barrier or ascends to a general manager’s post, NBA diversity will mushroom over the next decade as the league builds on its recent inclusion efforts.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “Diversity will expand and I can foresee a female head coach in the league.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently emphasized the need to put more women in supervisory positions as a way to prevent workplace harassment that came to light during the recent exposé and investigation of the Dallas Mavericks. The NBA this year will hold a number of workshops to help expand the list of women candidates for league and team leadership roles.

So during draft day 2028 press conferences, female GMs and team presidents welcoming new players into the fold will not be a surprise.

“Now you can see the pipeline and the vision that there certainly will be multiple female head coaches and GMs,” said Peter Feigin, president of the Milwaukee Bucks, which interviewed Hammon this year for their head coaching position and last year for their GM post. “It’s the way the innovators in the league think.”

Expect rules in 2028 that will benefit an up-tempo game, similar to the change the NBA made starting with this season to shorten the shot clock to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound.

A precursor to future rules changes can be seen in the G League, the testing ground for the NBA.

One rule that has been tested since the 2016-17 season in the G League that could make its way into the NBA would give each team a reset timeout in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and final two minutes of any overtime period. The reset timeouts do not allow teams to huddle, but otherwise mirror standard timeouts. If either team huddles or prevents the ball from immediately being put back into play, it will result in a delay-of-game being issued to the offending team.

Moving the three-point line back and changing the size of the lane are among changes to rules that the NBA could consider.
Photo: getty images

While there isn’t current talk about other specific future rules changes, ideas from some insiders range from moving back the current three-point line more toward the half-court line and following another FIBA rule by adopting the same size lane.

“I don’t think we would have imagined that the big men would be shooting with the accuracy from the distance they do today,” Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “The game is played away from the basket.”

Other possible rules changes: Adding a coach’s challenge to officiating and cutting down the number of timeouts at the end of the game to speed up play and hold fan interest.

“It will continue to be a faster-paced game,” said Scott O’Neil, CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. “The game will get quicker.” 

Expansion teams in Seattle, Las Vegas, London, and Mexico City by 2028? It’s not a current priority, league insiders say.

 

Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer said expansion is not a topic of major discussion and likened expansion to a company’s decision to dilute its stock. “You only do that when it’s overvalued, and the NBA is not overvalued,” said Ballmer, who in 2014 paid $2 billion for the Clippers.

If the league’s expansion strategy changes, Seattle and Vegas are often listed as likely landing places. Louisville, Ky., also is making a pitch to eventually land a team. But adding teams is not a lock.

Yes, the Golden Knights’ smashing success in the NHL and the Raiders’ relocation point to a strong sports future in Sin City. Each summer Las Vegas already plays host to the NBA’s wildly popular and growing MGM Summer League, which makes the city the epicenter of basketball in July. For some, that gives the NBA a big enough Vegas presence. Seattle, which already has proved itself as a viable NBA market with the former Sonics, is focused on rebuilding KeyArena to attract an expansion NHL team.

Relocation could be an option, except that the league frowns heavily on uprooting teams. Just ask Ballmer, who before landing the Clippers wanted to buy the Sacramento Kings and move the team to Seattle.

“It didn’t happen because the league did not want the team to move,” he said. “I learned it firsthand. Since the Sonics, it is not a good thing to upset the fan base by moving teams.”

Which leads the league to ponder a global expansion strategy over the next decade.

Some league insiders point to Mexico City, where the NBA began playing regular-season games in 1992 and where there is talk of adding a G League franchise. In addition, the NBA this year opened a training academy in Mexico to develop young players and grow the game in Latin America. 

Then there is London, long talked about as a future NBA city, given that the NBA has played an annual regular-season game at The O2 arena since 2011.

But for owners like the Washington Wizards’ Ted Leonsis, growing the game globally will take place by playing more preseason games or holding a preseason tournament in different areas of the world, such as Africa and India. Adding to the current seven overseas NBA training academies is seen as another way to expand the league’s global brand. International expansion of the NBA 2K League, currently at 21 teams, also is possible.

Geography aside, Ballmer said it will take a massive investment to convince team owners to expand.

“From an economic perspective, it would have to be some hell of a deal in order to really make our math better as owners,” he said.

The Warriors, Cavaliers and Lakers sit atop the NBA’s social media rankings, while the Grizzlies have replaced the Nets at the bottom, according to data from MVPindex measured through Sept. 27. MVPindex is a social media valuation for the sports and entertainment industries, offering real-time analytics on more than 90,000 athletes, entertainers, teams, leagues and brands across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+ and YouTube.

Dwyane Wade (with Udonis Haslem) promotes his restaurant opening via Twitter.
Photo: getty images
Kyle Kuzma vaults into the top five delivering the most value, while Joel Embiid (below) touts his cover status.

With tipoff just around the corner, Executive Editor Abe Madkour and writers Bill King and John Lombardo discuss all things NBA, including some predictions for the league in 2028.