How the NBA is embracing tech and enabling DIY publishing

By Richard Nieva , written on February 18, 2013

From The News Desk

The most tech-related thing to come out of the National Basketball Association’s All Star Weekend was not BlackBerry Creative Director Alicia Keys’ overt product placement on Saturday night.

As a part of its All Star celebration, which just capped yesterday, the NBA unwrapped a gift to stats nerds everywhere: access to a comprehensive database of every box score and for every game ever played, and individual statistics for every player throughout the league’s history, since its first season in 1946. The platform is powered by SAP, and allows users to analyze things like a player’s per possession efficiency or end of game “clutchness.” The announcement even has the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner -- and soon to be Head Commissioner -- Adam Silver spouting off buzz phrases like “big data.”

The database is not new, but before now, it was only accessible to personnel from the teams themselves and a few media outlets. (The league could not be reached to spell out which particular outlets previously had access.) The wide release of the database, in its own small way, is in line with the democratization of publishing that has been taking place with Tumblr and some small startups like The Magazine.

For a while now, the sports blogosphere has been a core part of sports coverage. That’s the reason a company like Vox Media, which owns the blog network SB Nation, could even afford to take on a project like The Verge when it launched in late 2011. The network operates over 300 sites dedicated to individual teams, like the Golden State Warriors’ Golden State of Mind or the Miami Heat’s Hot Hot Hoops. And Bleacher Report, another sports blogging network, produces content at an incredibly fast clip, with a monthly audience of more than 14 million unique users. (Cofounder Bryan Goldberg is a contributor to this website.)

For all the challenges that hyperlocal blogging presents for companies, perhaps the best suited use case is the coverage of sports teams, especially for SB Nation: built-in fan base, evangelical readers, and obsessive writers who often write as fans – not a bad thing as long as they don’t try to feign objectivity. A perspective like that comes with a refreshing passion that you don’t get with most newswriting.

While access has gotten better as the site has grown, the thing is, some writers at SB Nation don't get special statistical resources that wouldn’t be available to an everyday hobbyist, despite the perspective and analysis that only comes with a particular brand of fandom. I’ve been reading Golden State of Mind for years, and imagine my surprise when I found out that one of the writers on that site was a good friend’s teenage brother (they use online handles instead of their real names). He was not using any official database. I'm told some SB Nation sites had access to the NBA database and some didn't, based on submitting requests to the league. Other editors used or Synergy Sports, but nothing endorsed by the NBA. The major rollout is sure to remove any barriers.

It is perhaps most valuable for an upstart blogger who isn’t a part of these networks, and is going it with truly no organizational resources. Major League Baseball already does a good job of providing info to fans of the famously stats-obsessed sport. Its website gives users data dating back to 1876. The other leagues would do well to follow suit. It never hurts to produce a more informed public to spread the history of your sport.

For an organization so enamored with its past (have you seen another league more obsessed with throwback jerseys?), the NBA has arguably been more forward thinking about technology in the last five years than most North American sports. It has long been bullish on social media as a promotional tool and has been looking at how technology can improve the flow of the game, like experimenting with sensors to enforce rules like goaltending. The NBA is also more hands off in letting fans post game highlights to YouTube, while the MLB has tried to ban GIFs.

Yes, NFL players Tweeted on the sidelines during the Pro Bowl, and instant replay has been a welcome edition to Americn football, but the NBA’s embrace of technology recently seems much more engrained in the attitude of the league. NBA players can’t Tweet during a game, but Commissioner David Stern’s reaction to players Tweeting in general was, “Go ahead, guys. Go at it.”And that seems to be the same attitude he has toward the fans and stats: Go at it.