NBA plans to transition away from holding virtual fans for 2020-21 season

The NBA does not have clarity on if and when all of its 30 teams can host games with fans in their home arenas. But with the NBA slated to begin the 2020-21 season on Dec. 22, the league will transition away from hosting virtual fans as it did during the season restart on a quarantined campus last summer.

"What we’re more focused on is having the fans back and being present and creating opportunities for flexibility," Sara Zuckert, the NBA’s head of next-generation telecasts, told USA TODAY Sports. "So it’ll vary city to city. But those LED boards are certainly not conducive in many ways to have fans present. So you will see some variation from team-to-team based on different capabilities in different markets."

During the restart, the league hosted 300 "virtual" fans on 17-foot video boards surrounding the courts at Advent Health Arena, HP Field House and Visa Athletic Center at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Then, each team was given the freedom to host fans on the virtual board, which included family members, season ticket holders and celebrities among others. Those fans became virtual fans by logging onto Microsoft Teams' "Together Mode" through their computer or phone. Then, fans could interacted digitally while watching the game on the broadcast feed.

Virtual fans appeared on video boards behind team benches during the Orlando bubble. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

As for this season?

Every NBA team can still resume the setup, but it would depend on that each team’s logistical capabilities and preferences. A handful of teams plan to open their seasons with a small number of fans, including the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic, Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors, who are temporarily playing in Tampa, Fla. Most teams, however, will begin the season without any fans in their home venues. The NBA eventually could invite fans into arenas this season depending on the COVID-19 infection rate, the wide-spread distribution of a vaccine, as well as each local government’s ordinances for large indoor gatherings.

"We were looking at different opportunities and different markets that had flexibility for when fans do return," Zuckert said. "It was more of what that would look like in a way that could adapt to the team’s needs between now and next summer. That was the primary consideration. But as it relates to virtual fans, we’ve certainly heard how popular it was. We’re so thrilled at that, and we’re looking at new ways for future development that could allow fans to watch together even if they’re not necessarily visible on the telecast."

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Zuckert did not divulge specifics of that setup, saying, "we’ll have more to share on that in the future." But Zuckert said teams that have videoboards will be able to show graphics and fan videos throughout games as well as feature music and a public address announcer. The NBA also has provided teams with pre-recorded crowd noise. The league used all of these features in the games on the quarantined Disney campus.

"We’re now allowing the teams themselves to control it and run with it," Zuckert said, "to best replicate what their home arenas sound like."

With most NBA teams beginning the season without any fans, however, the league plans to build on how it enhanced its broadcast and digital platforms during the restart.

NBA League Pass and NBA TV subscribers can watch games through alternative streams on NBA.com and the NBA app, including betting-focused telecasts, sideline streams with closer views of the court and international telecasts in Spanish, Portuguese or Korean. Fans can also download games to watch at a later time, condensed highlights and participate in interactive trivia and pools during a telecast.

"Orlando gave us the opportunity to innovate in a way that we never had before, and really to expedite a lot of the different testing we had already planned to do," Zuckert said. "Normally, we would’ve used summer league and some of our other testing grounds to do these things as one-offs. But this was just a way to bring a lot of this to light."

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