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Nothing But Net

As broadband and wireless take over, is scoring in traffic.

Nothing But Net

Athousand things are happening on the basketball court at the Toyota Center, Houston's 18,000-seat arena: Technicians are scrambling. Radio announcers are practicing their game-voice baritones. The pitter-patter of balls on hardwood sounds like a quickening heartbeat. Sitting two rows back, on the second night of the NBA's All-Star Weekend, Brenda Spoonemore takes it all in with ice-blue eyes and a wide grin. Long before she began working for the NBA six years ago, she was the kind of kid who named her pet gerbils after Seattle SuperSonics stars. Now she's the kind of grown-up who spends her vacations in skyboxes, catching games with her family. "How cool is this?" she asks.

As the NBA's senior vice president of interactive services, Spoonemore must get a whole new generation of fans hooked on hoops. Ironically, that means changing how the sport she fell in love with is presented. Showing two-and-a-half-hour games helped the NBA grow into a $3 billion-a-year monster. But the majority of that growth came before most Internet connections went broadband, and before wireless networks got beefy enough for video. Now, many fans don't want to watch a whole game, especially on a PC or a 2-inch cell screen. So it's up to a team of dozens at the NBA to digitally repackage the league's offerings around individual plays and players. "Full games, that's this much of what we do," Spoonemore says, her fingers half an inch apart.

The strategy at most entertainment companies looking to capitalize on the new networked gadgets has been to just peddle the same old stuff in new places: Stream your TV shows online, and offer your movies up for download on iTunes. The NBA is thinking bigger, adopting what Radar Research cofounder Aram Sinnreich calls the "remix model." In Sinnreich's view, "there's a primary entertainment moment, like a game. It's chopped into pieces, and consumers are given the ability to reassemble the bits." For the NBA, the remix model will eventually mean beaming customized highlight reels to fans' handheld gadgets, based on their favorite players and teams. Even now, hoop fiends can graze on a staggering array of digital offerings: video clips on their cell phones, downloads from Google or for their PlayStation Portables, or highlights from six different angles on "The NBA is out ahead" of the other leagues, says David Levy, president of Turner Sports. "It's in all of the leagues' interest. But [NBA commissioner David] Stern is focusing on it the most."

In fact, Stern has been preparing for this shift for a decade, however inadvertently. Back in 1996, hoping to simplify the process of assembling the day's highlights, the NBA started building a database to catalog every possession of every game. Turns out it was the perfect system for slicing and dicing games into formats that work for cell phones and the Internet, too. Now, at every game, a team of "loggers" enters rebounds, steals, and other stats into the system. A second bunch, back at NBA Entertainment's headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, writes short descriptions of the kind of shot, the expression on the shooter's face, and rates each play, from no stars to three. Editors cut a half-dozen highlight reels for every game: two-and-a-half-minute packages for TV, with lots of long views, and 30- to 90-second segments for mobile phones and, featuring more close-ups for those smaller screens. The NBA served up a staggering 1.8 million video clips per day on the Sunday and Monday after the All-Star Game, with masterful jams in the slam-dunk contest like Philadelphia guard Andre Iguodala's as the hottest attraction. Spoonemore claims that the clips, with embedded short ads, are already making money for the league. How much, she won't say, but she insists that short-term the cash is almost incidental. "Nobody knows what the next big thing is going to be. But if the fans want something, we want to be there."

The fact is, none of the big players in entertainment know how to turn these connected screens into profits. As Sinnreich explains, existing TV contracts get in the way of going after these new markets full throttle. Rights issues are also an obstacle for the NBA's next big idea: personalized text messages that tell fans when, say, Kobe has scored more than 50 points, or the Knicks, somehow, are still in the game. Clicking on the message would call up a live broadcast, formatted for a small screen. Chances are, this will happen sooner rather than later. The NBA, after all, has the kind of rabid fan base, especially overseas (the source of more than half of traffic), likely to pay for such a service; it also owns its content (unlike a TV network, which gets its shows from outside). Fanatical execs like Spoonemore, who lives next to a public school in Manhattan and "wakes up to the sounds of basketballs bouncing," don't hurt, either. That "core sense of being a fan," she says, "is how I get my ideas." What's more, Stern "has a bias toward action," she says. The NBA did the first live pro-sports Webcast, in 2001. It had blogs before most newspapers did. "There's a thirst for speed: Just f—king do it," Spoonemore says. "Get it up there."

Noah Shachtman is a writer based in New York.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.