If you think of the National Basketball Association as simply a league of officials that organize and oversee professional basketball games, think again. The NBA is more than a bunch of referees and rule-makers, it’s an expansive, highly-organized production entity working to notate every statistic and broadcast every game.
To that end, the NBA was the first professional sports league to form its own television network. Originally designed as a complementary channel for the NBA’s subscription package, League Pass, NBA TV is now a 24-hour cable channel reaching 45 million households. Launched in 1999, it features original programming such as Ahmad Rashad: One-On-One, Basketball International, and NBA TV Insiders. But the network’s bread and butter is the game itself. NBA TV airs live NBA games four nights a week as well as exclusive behind-the-scenes coverage of special events, international competitions, and vintage NBA games.
The Heart Of The Operation
Ninety percent of the network’s content is produced by NBA Entertainment, which operates out of a newly revamped facility in Secaucus, NJ. Attached to the main facility, which is a four-floor, 100,000-square-foot affair, is a 10,000-square-foot facility that houses the production studio and control rooms. The network’s pre- and post-game shows originate from here as do a number of magazine-type programs.
The facility underwent a massive upgrade this past year as part of an effort to create a completely nonlinear exchange environment between the NBA’s on-air production branch and their archiving wing. The enormous NBA library contains footage stretching back to the league’s first game in 1946, but it was only with the launch of NBA Entertainment 15 years ago that the library really started to grow.
“We’re now HD capable,” said senior director of engineering Mike Rokosa. NBA TV began carrying regular games on its own network in December 2002. During the 2003 season they made their first foray into the world of high definition, broadcasting seven games in HD. 2004 is the first year the league will broadcast a full slate of games in HD.
Even without the advent of high definition, the NBA had already stretched the limits of its production facility due to changes in their business model. “It was originally designed to be a post facility,” said Rokosa. “We packed in the launch of NBA TV four years ago, but once it became more than just a barker channel and grew into a real programming entity, we reached the limits of what the facility could handle.”
The upgrade started in mid-August and finished in mid-October, though it’s only the initial phase of a much grander plan. NBA Entertainment is already planning further improvements down the road such as full HD production editing and the creation of a new archival system.
As part of this recent upgrade, NBA TV saw the installation of several new pieces of equipment, including the Sony MVS 8000 HD production switcher, the Solid State Logic C100 digital audio console, a large, super-wideband NVISION router, and several Leitch Opus master control switchers, the core of the production control facility.
All of this was overseen by Steve Hellmuth, senior vice president of operations and technology at NBA Entertainment. Hellmuth administers everything from TV systems, statistical systems and the way the databases are organized, to the technologies the NBA uses on its website. He also manages the broadcast distribution, both domestically and internationally, of all the NBA games that are delivered around the world.
Crunching Numbers, Sharing Resources
NBA TV has a close relationship with NBA.com. In addition to sharing information, realtime stats, scores, and highlight moments, the two entities have adjoining newsrooms that allow them to report on breaking news stories with complete synergy. NBA Entertainment is also responsible for providing accurate, up-to-the-minute scores of current games on the NBA.com website.
The front page of the league’s website features full box scores for all live games that are only 10 seconds behind realtime. Hoops fans can track a game’s progress via the Internet when they can’t or don’t want to watch it on television. For example, during a recent Toronto/Los Angeles match-up, Hellmuth’s 14-year-old son, who had been tracking the game on the web, came bursting in to tell him, “It’s tied and there’s only one minute left.” Father and son ran to their TV and watched the Lakers score a last-minute victory.
“The website’s been scaling enormously,” said Hellmuth. “We recently had to select a bunch of fundamental technologies to make this a reality.” One of these is the Akamai Content Distribution Network, which pushes all the scoring data to the edge of the NBA’s network, allowing users all over the world to immediately find out the status of any game.
The basis of this near-realtime scoring capability is statistics, something NBA Entertainment knows a little bit about. They have a realtime statistical feed that has been up and running since 1995. Two stat-inputers at each game handle the hustle boards and interface directly with the on-air graphics generators that are in the TV trucks. The video feed is then relayed back to the Secaucus headquarters, where the games are recorded on Grass Valley servers.
Loggers pin statistical events (like someone scoring a basket) to timecode, which then gets recorded in a database. The loggers also annotate shots for significant moments, such as a player pumping his fist in the air or high-fiving a coach. In the process, the shots are rated on a three-star basis, with three stars being the best (an incredible three-pointer at the buzzer to win a game).
“We use the stats as kind of a baseline to log all the media at the NBA,” said Hellmuth. “Statistics are essential to the website. Having timely scores is very important.”
Into The Future
Since 1995, NBA Entertainment has provided each local and national broadcaster with a Dell laptop for access to the stats system in the television truck. This laptop can interface with whatever system the broadcaster is using, giving them access to a vast database of NBA stats.
The NBA itself relies on Chyron Duet graphic generators that are customized with their own Stats TV interface. In a small backroom at each basketball arena in the country, the NBA has installed a rack-mounted Dell server that’s connected to the remote trucks. The server automatically updates the Chyrons as soon as new statistical events occur. Say Allen Iverson makes a basket and the local TV announcer wants his stat info; he or she can call it up via the Chyron. It’s all there and available to broadcasters for immediate display.
NBA Entertainment is already working on version 2, a digital TV interface that will perform many of these tasks on an automated basis. For example, when a player hits a three-point shot, the graphics generator will automatically show his stats instead of the operator having to call them up. “It is a network device, so it preloads all of the stat info of the current team,” said Hellmuth. “It will also send out messages from the league when someone hits a major milestone.” The NBA will preview the new digital TV interface for broadcasters this spring and plans to fully introduce it in summer 2004.
Ultimately, the NBA is working on a system that will cross-reference all this information with its historical data, allowing operators to compare the stats of current players to players from past seasons and eras. It’s an ambitious goal but one that NBA Entertainment will hopefully slam dunk.