When the NBA made the official announcement to suspend the season and go on hiatus following the first positive test by a player for COVID-19, the hope was to resume play after 30 days, even if in empty arenas and continue the season as planned. As the coronavirus outbreak has spread rapidly throughout the United States, however, it’s become abundantly clear that any hopes of a return to action before the summer are misguided and any kind of return to action this season is fairly optimistic.
With the sudden stoppage in play, there was rampant uncertainty at all levels of sports, with some more important and pressing issues than others. At the top of the list was concern over the health and safety of league employees, as well as taking steps to protect those that work at arenas around the league and require that income to pay rent and get food and take care of their families. Happily, no one involved with the league has seen severe symptoms of the virus, and most every team in the NBA (along with MLB and most other major leagues and entities) have pledged at least some form of fund to assist the hourly employees at their arenas during the hiatus.
Beyond that was the question of how will teams and the league as a whole fill the void of no live sporting events for fans, many of whom now could use the escapism of sports more than ever. To help with this at a high level, the NBA has opened up League Pass for anyone with an NBA.com account, allowing fans to watch games from this season as well as classic games from years past to pass the time.
At a team level, it immediately became an internal discussion of how they can continue forward with creating unique content and engaging with fans. In Phoenix, the Suns worked with their marketing division and social team to figure out a way to keep the season playing out as scheduled by using NBA 2K20 to play out the remaining games on the schedule. The organization’s CMO Dean Stoyer and senior social media manager Allison Harissis went to work on figuring out the logistics of streaming games live on Twitch, while integrating their usual in-game and social media brand partnerships to present highlights as if it were a regular game night.
“It was about 5:30 p.m. PT last Wednesday that we got the notification that the league was going to go on hiatus. So we went into hyper-planning mode for a number of reasons,” Stoyer said. “We actually produce our own broadcast for our Fox affiliate here, so we immediately had games we needed to fill as well as other content as well as partner activations and commitments for in-arena that wouldn’t be happening as well as through those broadcast.”
From there Stoyer said the team had to work on the fly to imagine “what does this new world look like,” and the solution was to embrace basketball video games as a source for new content.
“Following that initial conversation at the leadership level, I was working with the social team and we just threw around the idea of Twitch and just taking that actual gameday experience and applying it virtually,” Harissis told Dime. “So everything from what we usually do with our fans to in-arena elements like giveaways and other partner activations, and thought this was a great platform to apply it virtually and have a fun conversation around it.”
For Harrissis and the social team it seemed like a chance to actually provide some positive news in a very scary time.
“The current mood around social last Wednesday and Thursday was a lot of fear, a lot of negative conversation and our purist goal was fan engagement and positive conversation,” she said. “That night on Thursday we proactively sent out a tweet — we hadn’t even started building play yet — and told our fans we were going to continue the season virtually. The tweet caught fire and people rallied around us.”
The season isn’t over yet…
We will continue to play the Suns season games on @NBA2K!
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) March 13, 2020
The result was the virtual Suns and virtual Mavs facing off on Friday evening, streamed on Twitch with highlights coming out on the Suns social channels, treating it like a regular game night. That first game they had a local influencer who was formerly on the Grizz Gaming team, referred to them by Lang Whitaker of the Grizzlies who reached out after seeing the tweet, facing off against a member of the Mavs 2K team. Since then, they’ve worked with the Timberwolves, Clippers, and Mavs (again), expanding to have players from the Suns and opposing teams squaring off, and even got players from the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Chargers to take the sticks for their Clippers game.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) March 21, 2020
Monday night they’ll go live again at 6 p.m. ET (3 p.m. PT) with Frank Kaminsky going up against Brian Bowen II of the Pacers, as they keep their season rolling along.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) March 23, 2020
Moving forward, their goal is to continue to scale the venture up and bring in bigger players, from the NBA and beyond, as they hopefully, as Harissis notes, will have more time to plan and get “more than three days ahead.” Even so, given the scramble drill and rampant uncertainty it’s been impressive how they’ve pulled all of this together and they’ve inspired some other teams to do similar streams as the league looks to provide at least some entertainment and escape for fans in a time of social distancing.