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Tech in the NBA Bubble: A Conversation with Krishna Bhagavathula, CTO of the NBA

As CTO of the NBA, Krishna Bhagavathula and his team were on the front lines of bringing basketball back online this summer during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak. The successful creation of the NBA Restart in Orlando, Florida, required the deployment of novel technologies in health tech, streaming video, and mobility to enhance player safety and engage millions of fans around the world. Now entering the NBA Finals, the league has been recognized for developing one of the most innovative approaches to bring our world back online during a pandemic.

Krishna was recently recognized as an "All Star" by our Decibel Innovation Council, an influential group of C-level technology executives representing some of the largest Fortune 500 companies including Atlassian, Box, Cisco, Citigroup, Comcast, ConocoPhillips, Flex, Goldman Sachs, JetBlue, Metlife, Major League Baseball, and Rockwell Automation. His leadership highlights are summarized in our Q&A!  

Take us back in time. The season was shut down completely on March 11th, and it was announced on June 4th that you were going to restart the season on July 30th. How were you able to respond to the pandemic so quickly?

While the NBA season is played here in the US, we are a global business with many partners around the world. We were observing the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak earlier in the year in other parts of the world and learning from their experiences. In retrospect, that contributed, along with expert scientific and medical advice, to our decision to suspend the season in early March and how we handled our response to the pandemic, especially on the technology front. We were nimble in our use of technology to enable our staff to have access to the tools they needed – this was important to support our goal of working to develop a thoughtful plan to restart the season. Sports is such a big part of our culture, and we felt it was important to bring back the season for our players and our fans.

“Showing up to work in COVID is an entirely new experience.”

How did you land on “the bubble” and what were some of the major technologies required to make it possible for players to come back safely?

Our events and player health teams considered several options, and we were very fortunate to have our relationship with Disney, which allowed us to control many of the factors in bringing 22 teams back together in Florida. Led by the Player Health and Medical teams, we met with many – probably more than 100 – health tech, testing and mobility vendors starting in early April to help us understand the health tech landscape as we considered the best options for our players. We obviously wanted to do frequent testing and augment that with contact tracing which have become best practices but on top of that we have an internet connected thermometer, a digital pulse oximeter, a wearable device for biosignals, and proximity detection device. And this data is aggregated to create flags and models to determine if individuals have been in close proximity to each other, especially in case of symptoms – so this gives us a “rapid response” tracing system.    

What were some of the most innovative things that you tried to make the fan experience unique? What were some new things you tried that have worked?

We really wanted to come up with a unique way to bring fans into the games, and one of our most innovative ideas was to create “Michelob Ultra Courtside,” a virtual fan experience. On the sidelines, we set up 10 large video screens with 360 fans who are a virtual part of each arena. This required us to deploy new network infrastructure and hardware that could support the processing and bandwidth to stream real time feeds around the world with low latency. We didn’t have months to test this out - we had weeks to plan and days to deploy. We had to work around the clock to get the experience to feel seamless, and it was definitely one of the most ambitious and meaningful projects we undertook this season.  

“Virtual fans pushed us to leverage new technologies like low latency Internet video to improve fan experience. This had never been tried before.”

What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome to make this work? Any lessons learned?

The greatest challenges were around technology operations. We had to create “Red and Green” teams to deploy our technology teams on campus in Orlando to support our players and our broadcast staff while observing the medical protocols for different quarantine zones and limiting contact. Green meant that you had full access on campus, red means you have compound access but do not have access inside of the arenas. Red and Green teams were separated and couldn’t come in contact with each other. We also had to integrate tightly with Disney’s team. Our IT systems needed to deploy inside of their campus environment, which required close consultation and a partnership to ensure that data and infrastructure was always secure. And we relied on dozens of technology partners and vendors - large and small - to make everything work. It has been a huge team effort.

“I’m proud of our team. The Bubble required an overnight digital transformation of our sport.”

How will the 2020 season impact the NBA experience going forward? Will this change the game for the foreseeable future?

Like the saying goes, “from a great crisis always comes opportunity,” and I think we all have been pleased by the positive feedback we have received from players and fans on our new digital experiences. We have new ideas from startups all the time who are pitching us on ways to augment the games using mobile apps, AR / VR, and even artificial intelligence. The technology around health tech, testing, and integrating those devices and platforms will remain paramount. It is becoming clearer to all of us that we can use technology to enhance the overall experience for fans, and to bring them into the game in ways previously unimagined. I’m certain that we’ll be exploring lots of new ideas in the 2021 season so stay tuned for more!