Despite logging in early, the recently retired, 58-year old superfan found herself staring at the entry kiosk screen leading to the NBA's virtual fan portal, as she waited for an online moderator to grant her access to her virtual sliver of the NBA bubble.
“Those 5 or 10 seconds that I waited felt like years,” Pitts said. ”I’m not a technology person, so I was just sitting there tapping my foot trynna think of how they were going to put me down there in that bubble.”
Unlike Major League Baseball and other sports leagues around the world that have attempted to fill the fan void caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with cutouts and stuffed animals — the NBA, has created an innovative way to attend games virtually.
That second-screen experience has become as much a part of the broadcast as the games themselves as commentators regularly point out interesting happenings from the virtual crowds.
And while Michael Jordan isn't likely to stroll through those virtual doors, on any given night you're liable to see goats, dogs, celebrities and even kids playing the saxophone as the virtual experience has become a bit of a who's who.
“We wanted to create something that felt real and gave fans the opportunity to be present and also to interact digitally … without crossing that line to, you know, something that seems over the top,” the NBA’s head of NextGen Telecast, Sara Zuckert, said during a media teleconference. “This really gives us the opportunity to give fans access to the game and to give players that feel as well … we think that will add a lot of excitement.”
By partnering with Microsoft, select NBA fans are given a login that makes it possible for at-home viewers to be seen and heard by their favorite players and fellow fans, while live videos of them cheering are broadcast on one of three video boards lining the court’s baselines and one sideline.
Access to the virtual fan experience varies from team to team, but in general, season-ticket holders and player family members are given first dibs at the 320 available virtual seats for each game. Though in some cases like the Indiana Pacers, any fan may apply for a virtual seat by visiting the team’s website and submitting the appropriate application.
All fans are required to sign a three-page contract meant to maintain a fun, family-friendly environment. The list of prohibited behavior includes: usage of profanity, signs of any kind, inappropriate gestures, filming the online interface and turning off their camera during the game.
The stringent guidelines may be a struggle for some, but for a diehard like Pitts, who had spent the last five pandemic stricken months regretting her decision to give a family friend her ticket to see the Wizards versus her "basketball boo" Vince Carter and the Atlanta Hawks, the tradeoff for being reconnected with other fans is worth it.
“When the league shut down a few days after [the Wizards versus Hawks game] and it was clear that this was going to be long term I was like, ‘Aww, man, I might have gave up my last chance to cheer on the Wizards with my D.C. family,’" Pitts said. “While I love watching me some Beal and TBryant [Thomas Bryant], watching with all my friends and experiencing the arena is what I was worried about the most when I heard about the bubble plan.”
While spending a couple of hours watching basketball on a laptop can be clunky at times and the idea of doing the wave or taking part in unified chants during a glorified Zoom meeting may feel corny, the re-imagined at-home experience recreates an arena-like atmosphere.
Even the worst parts of life at the arena, like kids crying or 1995 junior varsity all-stars providing unsolicited in-game analysis, come off as endearing and boost the at-home experience.
Whether in person or virtually, Pitts said that it’s always fun and an honor to cheer on her Wizards, though she’s hoping that people will start wearing their masks so she can return to section 103 soon.
“When I became a season-ticket holder the Wizards were struggling, so for me the wins and losses weren’t what kept me coming back game after game. It was all the people I got to meet along the way,” Pitts said. “How I’m watching doesn’t matter to me, as long as I get to watch with my people I’ll be there cheering. Selfishly, I do hope that next season they let at least a few of their favorite fans watch in person, even if it is in a bubble.”
Read more on basketball: