Recapping the 2020 NBA Tech Summit with Milton Lee


Milton Lee is Chief Reputation Officer for Synergy Sports US. He was formerly the VP and a Director of Onexim Sports and Entertainment USA (Holding Company of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center). He was also General Manager of Minor League Operations, Director of Basketball Operations and in charge of technology and analytics for the Brooklyn Nets.

With the NBA starting to play games in Orlando, and the season set to recommence with seeding games for the playoffs on July 30, I recently caught up with Milton to discuss his experiences over NBA All Star Weekend earlier this season.

In particular, I was curious about his thoughts on the NBA Technology Summit held in Chicago, and the challenges and opportunities now that sport is slowly starting to resume. Following the events that have happened since, which would have been difficult to foresee back in February, it’s interesting just how prescient many of the event themes were.

One of the issues brought up at the Tech Summit was the subject of social change. The NBA is known to be at the forefront in terms of its progressive values. Did they cover why they feel this is important?

The NBA has done a terrific job of being at the forefront of social change. Whether that be African American rights, Women’s Rights, LGBT or any progressive cause.

In terms of how this has manifested itself, the diversity among Head Coaches in the NBA exceeds any other professional league around the world. The NBA also obviously launched its sister league, the WNBA to help grow the women’s game, which has become hugely popular.

I think with the current climate in the United States, with differing ideas over what America fundamentally is and how exclusive or inclusive that vision is, the NBA feels like they have to be leaders in this space.

The whole of All Star Weekend, not just the Tech Summit, has themes that link into social change. Take the Newsmaker Breakfast, which has in many ways grown into the marquee event of the weekend. The panelists were the Mayor of Chicago, the Governor of Indiana, the Former Mayor of New Orleans and the President of a Social Activist Group that has had over 150 wrongful convictions of African Americans overturned. The topics discussed were very much about the social climate in the United States and what we can do to help create more acceptance. The highlight of that Morning was Barack Obama speaking for 15 minutes on what he felt was important for us to help create change in this country.

Back to the original question, I think the NBA always tries to stay on top of what the current atmosphere is and tries to push the boundaries in the direction of social change and acceptance.

It’s interesting they included a speaker from Take Two Interactive (a video game company) on this session about values and social change. What perspective did they offer?

The Tech Summit does a great job of getting perspective from leaders within the NBA family, meaning owners, players and coaches. But they also do well at embracing technological change. Whether that’s pushing content via an emerging platform like TikTok or inviting the perspective of a video game company like Take Two Interactive.

Strauss Zelnick, the CEO of Take Two Interactive spoke about the company’s approach to serving all of their constituents. They highly prioritise their customers first, their colleagues second, their investors third. I think the real point he was trying to get across was that while he runs a high tech gaming company, there are truths that resonate in any industry.

It was great to get this perspective, when you consider the speed and scale at which gaming has grown as an industry and how relevant a sector it has become in the entertainment space.

There were guest speakers from YouTube, Facebook and Amazon in the session focusing on the growth and importance of streaming. Do you think their perspectives differed, coming much more from a technology vs a competitive sporting perspective?

The big question mark with the big tech and social platforms is how much top tier sporting content will be distributed through new forms of technology. Whether that means as an add-on, alongside traditional legacy linear productions or as exclusives. For example the exclusive range of content Amazon has been producing with the NFL.

It’s important to have them at the table because they are the agent of change, offering new ways of reaching our audience, new lines of revenue, and hopefully allowing sport to reach a broader and deeper audience too. It sounds obvious, but without their perspective and insights, we likely wouldn’t have as well-rounded a view of the traditional content distribution methods like cable TV vs newer forms of media.

The overall belief is that new media actually adds rather than takes away from NBA properties. In the near term it doesn’t seem like there will be major movements in traditional contracting. There’s still a huge appetite for fans to consume live sporting events in the way they’re accustomed. They love highlights and some alternate programming on other channels, but the major way to consume the product is still in the traditional way for now.

One of the things I’ve been interested in following is how with the NBA’s audience being (on average) younger than other major US sports, the talk of a ratings decline isn’t necessarily an indication of lowering interest — more an indication that the method of measurement excludes a lot of the new media we’ve been talking about. Was this addressed during the summit?

A consistent theme was that while the rating metrics are a little down right now, overall consumption of the product is way up. Because of what you just mentioned, there are so many different ways to consume games and the product generally now, both in terms of channels and behaviour. Some fans may prefer to follow in short bursts, some may prefer to watch on mobile devices or via social channels.

At another one of the weekend’s events, it was mentioned that the 18–34 demographic is showing clear changes in viewing patterns. This is the demographic most important to advertisers and reachable thorough sporting properties. Gen Z in particular is generally watching less TV, but there’s a massive uptick in their media consumption when you consider all platforms. This is thought to be up 37%

My takeaway from the weekend’s events, including the Tech Summit, is that the NBA believes there’s no single way of pivoting to reach this group. And so they’re experimenting with a lot of different things. Whether it’s audio in different languages, players-only audio, mobile cameras through a 5G network at Summer League or creative camera angles like being closer to the court at eye level. In the graphics area they’ve experimented with enhanced graphics to further engage the audience. The NBA has demonstrated itself as being very open to experimenting with different aspects of a traditional broadcast to continue to reach new fans.

What was your biggest takeaway from the session on digital content and personalization?

The main thing that stood out to me from this panel was a single line from Baron Davis. That what was once 15 minutes of fame has become 15 seconds of fame. Everybody is trying to figure out how to get that 15 seconds, whether it’s the ice bucket challenge or other viral trends. There’s both positive and negative sides to this accelerated digital environment, but it’s not going away and it’s something that’s crucial to consider moving forwards.

I saw the demonstration of being able to use a large space to project a view of the game that replicates being at an Arena. How close do you think this experience can get in terms of replicating actually being at a live game?

I think the technology has been around for a little while to make you feel like you’re at a game. Twelve years ago there was a lot of experimenting with 3D technology to make games pop off the screen. I think it’s great for concerts as well as sporting events. Now we have VR and AR that can add layers to this.

So the technology is there, but the leap that needs to be made is how they allow fans to interact with one another. Everyone agrees that what’s terrific about going to a stadium is not only being at the live event, but also being there with your best friends or your significant other. It’s about sharing those moments with people that are important to you.

I’m sure we’re not that far away from technology bridging this gap, even if you’re in different locations, but I’m not quite sure we’re there quite yet. We mentioned video games earlier, and if you look at how video game fans on YouTube or Twitch are able to engage with the players and each other, that’s likely a good starting point for sports to aim for.

Was there anything else you think was interesting from the event that we haven’t covered?

I thought the most interesting panel was a fireside chat with Andy Jassy, the CEO of AWS. I had dinner with Andy the night before and it was really interesting to hear where AWS came from. It was actually a startup within Amazon created to help solve a problem they had internally, having to recreate the same technology over and over again. They felt that if they were having this problem, lots of potential clients would also have this issue.

Now over 15 years later it looks like it was a no brainer, but it was a long journey to reach where they are today. At the event it was suggested AWS is a half a trillion dollar company, which is almost half of Amazon’s market capitalization.

He started and built this company within Amazon that he thinks it’s still at the nascent stages. He gave a metric that only 3% of all server related storage and computing has transferred to the cloud. There’s a massive amount still to transfer in the coming years.

What I found interesting was how it resonated from a Synergy Sports perspective. I feel like we’re in a similar position to that experienced by AWS in those earlier years. We’re trying to solve a problem that many of our clients are trying to figure out. We’re building an automated technology stack that takes multiple inputs and allows them to speak to each other seamlessly. We know it’s an issue that our clients and many other sporting organisations out there have and we’re working to solve it for all of them.


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