On the same day the NBA announced that in-venue broadcast enhancements, including virtual fans, will be added when the regular season “seed games” begin, the product was still pleasing without the extras.
Even without the enhancements during Friday’s opening scrimmage, where the Sixers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies, 90-83 at The Arena in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla., there was a lot to like while watching NBA basketball in a near-empty venue on television.
The enjoyment wasn’t just because the Sixers regulars, especially Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, played well.
From a Sixers perspective, that certainly helped, but even a Grizzlies fan would have to be impressed by the presentation.
The game aired on NBC Sports Philadelphia, with the announcers broadcasting from the Wells Fargo Center. NBC Sports Philadelphia used the world feed provided by the NBA.
The NBA made sure there was a professional look. There was the huge NBA logo at mid-court, “Black Lives Matter” painted on the hardwood and plenty of virtual advertisements and signs
The virtual signs covered up for the fact that there wasn’t a crowd so the viewer didn’t see a smattering of empty seats, which is never visually appealing.
Even though all the games are being played at a neutral arena, the NBA designates a home and away team. The home team, which was the Sixers, got to receive the amenities that made it feel like they were playing in Philadelphia. That meant, for instance, piping in the Sixers’ canned organ music that is heard so frequently at the Wells Fargo Center.
The only thing missing was crowd noise, but as stated, that will be added during the regular-season games.
Besides the virtual ads, there was a huge Sixers sign that was also prominently shown.
In the first few rows, the players sat in the seats instead of on a bench, so nothing looked empty.
The NBA added extra microphones so the viewer could hear the bouncing of the ball and the squeaking of sneakers off the floor.
For the purists, basketball was the focus of the game. Since these are the best players in the world, that is not a bad thing.
Maybe because it was the first time the Sixers were on the court since the NBA season was suspended on March 11, but they played with energy and at least for one scrimmage, didn’t seem to mind not having the fans.
What this showed was that NBA games will be fine to watch. Once the virtual fans and other enhancements are incorporated, it will make it that much more appealing.
After the game, Sixers coach Brett Brown was asked on a Zoom interview about eventually having virtual fans.
“Your question about fans in the stands, I think it helps,” Brown said. “How much, does it make it aesthetically better for viewers at home, I would think so. Noise in the crowd, I would think so.”
And then he got the point about the importance of presenting a good look for television.
“And so, it is like we are playing in a video game,” he said.
Those who decry using virtual fans, insisting that it is fake, are missing the point.
The main reason the NBA is playing is because of television and the money that the league can still earn. The NBA is earning $2.6 billion this season just from network television contracts.
Without fans, this is all about presenting the best look for television, so viewers will be captivated to continue watching.
Whether the NBA in the long run could hold the interest of people with the way the scrimmage was presented is tough to say.
The dedicated fans will always watch, but the playoffs are about attracting more than just the die-hards. And doing everything to make it an entertaining presentation, is what the NBA is striving for.
Simmons, who was explosive against Memphis, just had one suggestion when virtual crowd noise is eventually used.
“They better put boos in there for us. If we are not playing hard, we want to hear those boos,” Simmons said. “You can’t put this here and have fans screaming and replicate Sixers fans [without boos].”