NBA exploring new frontiers in fanless arenas

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. >> The NBA has put an awful lot of thought into what is sure to become some of the least attended games in its history.

With a black curtain blocking off three walls of seats in its largest venue, the league has unveiled the temporary home for its upcoming three-month run to crown a champion. Outside of the 94 feet of hardwood, the NBA will play in front of digital screens and unmanned cameras, with seats spread out and and many observers encased in plexiglass — an almost alien surrounding for a game that typically relies on thousands of raucous fans to create atmosphere.

On Tuesday, the league allowed a small group of reporters onto the hardwood at The Arena, one of three venues at the Wide World of Sports Complex. In a pandemic-stricken world, the NBA and its TV partners Turner and ESPN are trading out in-person fans for technology, hoping to create as immersive an experience as possible while preserving the game itself.

One of the biggest takeaways? There’s a lot the league is still trying to work out. But it’s going to seem strange any way it turns out, to both the viewers at home, and the players trying to adapt to the foreign surroundings.

“I hear it’s pretty unique,” Danny Green said. “But I think regardless of what the scenario is, the situation or the court setup, I think most of us have played in many different arenas and can adapt and adjust to it, hopefully sooner than later. It will probably take a couple of games for us to get used to it.”

With scrimmages beginning Wednesday — including the Clippers taking on the Orlando Magic — NBA players and fans alike will begin leaping into the experience soon.

Some of the differences immediately stick out: The coach and player benches, for example, are spaced apart in three rows to keep social distancing — even though players will be tangling like normal on the court feet away. The scorer’s table is surrounded by plexiglass, as are other sections of broadcast areas. Of the thirty cameras that are estimated to be covering each game, only three are expected to have a person standing behind them, with unique angles including a rail cam that will span the length of the court. This likely means more experimental camera angles, trading off wide shots of crowds for close-ups and pans following on-court action.

Among the boldest statements: The court will read “BLACK LIVES MATTER” just above the center court logo, reflecting the league’s support for the movement popular among its players.

There’s also seating in the lower bowl for players who simply want to watch, between 62 and 30 seats reserved depending on the venue. Some have expressed interest in being one of the few live viewers in their off hours.

“Gotta look at the schedule and see who’s playing and stuff like that,” Anthony Davis said. “But there’s not much to do here, so to go out and watch some other teams, scout them a little bit, I might end up doing it.”

There are a number of issues that the league still has to sort, including how games will sound and look off the court. The league is also exploring how to simulate home court advantage — one of the most beloved facets and treasured advantages of the playoffs — when every game will be played in one of three sparsely attended arenas.

League officials still aren’t prepared to finalize those details, but Davis said he had heard there could be options for players’ family and friends to appear on the video board.

Other players have been weighing the benefits of more on-court sound being available, including play calls or colorful trash talk. There’s also more niche considerations, like whether the digital walls could skew the depth perceptions when players shoot.

Green imagined that the new environment will be revealing, both in how certain players fly without fan support, and what they say to each other when otherwise blanketed by crowd noise.

“It’s probably going to be less pressure,” he said. It’s going to be interesting to see how guys operate — like if the numbers go up or go down depending on whether they have fans in the building or not. So we’ll see how that goes. It will be like pick-up games at L.A. Fitness which I think people are interested to see because there’s going to be a lot of trash talking.”

It’s unclear how much on-court audio the league will green-light, especially given that generally, words too hot for TV are tossed back and forth. Frank Vogel said he’s cautioned his assistants to rein in what they might say to referees, lest officials hear barbs a little more clearly.

Jared Dudley has been one of the most vocal supporters of letting fans hear his — and everyone else’s — voice on the court. His interpretation is that if the NBA takes away in-person access, they ought to provide something else compelling.

“If we don’t have a crowd what’s the one thing we can give you that we’ve never been able to give you before?” he said recently. “And that would be the in-game experience of what’s trash talking, hearing (LeBron James) talk to refs, hearing James Harden when it comes to how he’s trying to get a call from a ref. I think this is something intriguing when you have trash talking with Pat (Beverley). I think fans are intrigued by that, I think they want to hear what people have to say, I think it could bring excitement, so I’m not worried about it.”

This much can be said for that option: It hasn’t officially been ruled out.

For more on the NBA’s tour of its facilities and a look inside the NBA’s bubble, follow Kyle Goon on instagram.