Business of Sport: Warriors setting the trend on and off court

Jay Asser 10:16 19/04/2016
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Megastar appeal: Steph Curry.

Stephen Curry brings the ball up the court, stops somewhere between half court and the 3-point line and splashes an audacious shot that no other player in the NBA would attempt.

Within minutes, the highlight is posted to Vine and looped incessantly – potentially millions of times – by people across the world.

This is the modern way to follow the league and the Golden State Warriors are at the forefront of creating the ultimate fan experience through their use of technology.

While Curry and Co. have set the NBA ablaze on the court in the past two years, including a champion- ship last June and a record 73 wins in the recently-concluded regular season, Golden State have also been winning behind the scenes by living up to their technology-rich surroundings in the Bay Area.

“Our fans expect us to be doing things with technology that no other teams are doing because of our geography,” said Daniel Brusilovsky, digital initiatives lead with the Warriors, at the STEP Conference in Dubai earlier this month.

“A lot of our fans are these guys from the tech industry. So when- ever we’re testing any new technology, our fans really embrace it because they’re used to testing tech at their day job. They come to a Warriors game and it’s kind of an extension of that.

“For us, that’s a big reason why we’ve been successful on the technology side because the expectation is there and it’s on us to deliver on that expectation and deliver on that experience.”

The commitment to technology starts at the top for the organisation. Golden State’s ownership group is led by Joe Lacob, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Entertainment. The executive board also includes big names in the tech industry, such as former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley.

With reputable faces at the helm, coupled with their location, it’s no wonder the Warriors have been able to leverage one of their strengths and expertise into a winning formula.

It’s also why their home games at Oracle Arena often feature more brain power than star power.

“I always joke around that the LA Lakers have celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Floyd Mayweather Jr who go to games and sit courtside. For us, we have tech celebrities. So it’s like Drew Houston, the CEO of Dropbox, or Jack Dorsey (CEO of Twitter) or Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook). Those are the kind of people coming to our games,” Brusilovsky said.

“It’s a huge advantage we don’t take for granted. We’re working on some really interesting things with Google and Apple and Facebook and Twitter. I talk to them, if not on a daily basis, then a weekly basis because what other NBA team has that kind of proximity.”

Ownership and location are two of Golden State’s biggest advantages when it comes to improving the fan experience through technology, but their trump card is Curry.

The reigning MVP and likely to be named the league’s first unanimous MVP this season is a one-man highlight factory. He has been a major catalyst for the Warriors’ steep incline as a social media powerhouse – 6.9 million Facebook likes and 1.6m Twitter followers – drawing countless eyes and clicks to the various platforms.

“Our fans go absolutely crazy with any content that has Steph in it,” Brusilovsky said. “When he’s warming up and we just do a quick Vine, it’s just insane. It’s a been a huge reason why our digital growth has been so big because our fans are just craving the content.

“I think a few years ago, we were doing too much content. Now, we can’t do enough content. He’s been obviously a big reason why.”

Social media, of course, is just one part of the digital landscape, which Brusilovsky describes as being made up of three other pieces: and web properties, email communication and mobile.

Using mobile technology has been particularly fruitful to enhance the in-arena experience for fans, while driving revenue for merchandise and tickets.

“We look at our app, the Warriors app, as a remote control to your experience,” Brusilovsky said.

Some of the innovative ways the app works is through beacons – approximately 75, according to Brusilovsky – spread throughout Oracle Arena to give fans notifications based on where they are.

For example, when someone with the app walks into the facility, they get a notification along the lines of ‘Welcome to Warriors ground’. That also extends to the team store, where app users will receive a notification with a video message from one of the players, something like, “Hey, I’m Harrison Barnes. Welcome to the team store. Here’s today’s offer.”

Fans will even see a notification at the top of every escalator, asking if they would like to upgrade their seats from the upper bowl to the lower bowl.

But while the Warriors have undeniably strengthened their in-arena experience, that luxury is only afforded to the 19,000-plus visitors at every home game. To engage fans who can’t watch in-person, Brusilovsky believes virtual reality is the next frontier.

In fact, Golden State had their season opener last October streamed live on virtual reality – a first for live professional sport. Fans were able to watch the Warriors championship ring ceremony before seeing the team begin its campaign against the New Orleans Pelicans, all with a courtside view.

To experience it, viewers needed a Samsung Gear VR headset along with the NextVR app within the Oculus app store. While the technology has yet to be optimised or made widely accessible, Brusilovsky does see an opportunity in the future to perhaps provide a subscription product to bring fans closer to the action.

The Warriors have become all too familiar with success in many of their endeavours, but their approach to widening their digital reach hasn’t been without some hiccups. Their experimentation with Google Glass, which saw them build an app to provide real-time stats and play-by-play, sputtered due to the wearable technology’s lack of appeal and stagnation.

“It wasn’t necessarily a huge success in terms of the project, but we learned a ton and we’ve taken that into how we rethink our entire mobile strategy,” Brusilovsky said.

Trying new things is what the Warriors are all about and that even extends to their players, who’ve followed suit and embraced technology through their own ventures. Curry, for example, has teamed up with former Davidson team-mate Bryant Barr to launch Slyce, a new social media platform that helps celebrities and athletes cut through the clutter.

Andre Igoudala invested in online clothing reseller Twice, which was acquired by eBay last year, while Harrison Barnes has done interviews with technology media property TechCrunch.

“Most of our players have gotten involved in it in one way or another,” Brusilovsky said. “All our guys are interested because they’re constantly around it. We’ve done a really good job as an organisation with the culture making it really accessible.”

As the players push to unprecedented heights on the court, the Warriors’ pursuit of maximising technology will continue, especially when they move to their new home of Chase Center, planned to open in 2019. In addition to having over 500,00 square feet of office space, the new arena will also boast 100,000sq ft of retail space.

“It’s more than just an arena, it’s really a destination or a theme park. It’s like the Disneyland of sports,” Brusilovsky said. “As we move towards this new venue, we’re not just going to be a basketball team. We’re going to be a media and entertainment company that happens to play basketball.”

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