From New Orleans to Orlando: How the Pelicans brought their fan experience to the NBA bubble

Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

A semblance of normalcy for a few hours

Growing up more than 1,000 miles from New Orleans up in New Jersey, I was never sure I’d ever have the chance to take in a live Pelicans game and not be surrounded by Knicks, Sixers, or Nets fans. This season, I finally got my shot. With my city edition Jrue Holiday jersey on my back and my fraying team-themed socks on my feet, the getup I had worn to many a contest in the Northeast had finally made it down south. I was finally surrounded by a group committed to cheering on the same team, chanting “Let’s Go Pels!” and complaining about shot selection in unison: just how I’d envisioned it.

What I never could have foreseen was that this experience would come not at the Smoothie King Center, but at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for a Sacramento Kings home game.

The NBA’s March 11 announcement that they were suspending the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic was followed quickly by prospects of forming a bubble to complete the 2019-20 season. Would it have been preferable for some of the world’s wealthiest people to direct resources to battling the pandemic other instead of one of their various cash cows? Certainly! But by the first week of June, the plan to put a bubble in place was officially approved. Players, coaches, and a smattering of other team personnel would make their way to Orlando, finish an abbreviated regular season, and play through the postseason until a champion was crowned. It seemed as if the fans would be the only group not to make the trip.

That wound up only being partially true. While fans were not to be allowed to attend games in person, they continue to show up virtually thanks to a partnership between the NBA and Microsoft that began earlier this year. Every team in Orlando was enabled by Microsoft teams to have properly-equipped fans appear around the court for every game with the hope of creating an atmosphere that felt similar to the typical NBA experience, if not quite the same.

Tracy Singian, the director of product marketing for the New Orleans Pelicans, helped the team embrace the league’s vision for this unique engagement experience. Getting fans to games and providing them with the products best suited to help them enjoy it came with the job from the jump when she began in December, but how she has gone about doing so has changed rapidly over the course of the last nine months.

“Everything is fluid,” she said. “The NBA is looking to push the limit of what they can do, and fans are coming around to it.”

I was in the “crowd” on Thursday, August 6, to watch the Pelicans get trounced by the Kings 140-125, In order to be situated in time for tip-off, the Pelicans support staff asked that all participants, most of whom had taken advantage of a free sign-up opportunity (I was selected on behalf of The Bird Writes), were logged into Microsoft Teams about 45 minutes prior to the 1:30pm EST starting time. As Pelicans director of game presentation Kyle Huber notes, getting fans to the right digital location can often be one of the more challenging hurdles.

“[Microsoft Teams] is something new, a login that they’re not familiar with, a platform that a lot of people are probably not familiar with,” he said after the Pelicans stretch of games in the bubble had come to an end. “That’s the hardest part with anything new and technology-based.”

To say that Microsoft Teams is something new is an understatement, especially when it comes to the Together Mode functionality that makes the experience possible. The former has been on the market for about three years, but Together Mode launched this July, mere weeks before it would be implemented in real time for millions of viewers around the world.

The NBA’s partnership with Microsoft extended to the waiting rooms that I and the other participating fans found ourselves in during the run-up to the game. Singian praised the efforts of Microsoft employees who were present for troubleshooting that Pelicans and Kings employees couldn’t realistically have been trained to provide in such a small window of time. In fact, that anything resembling a fan experience was able to happen at all is a small miracle in and of itself since, according to Singian, teams were given the information on what they would be able to do on July 17 — less than two weeks from the July 30 Pelicans-Jazz matchup that would kickoff the Orlando restart.

I hadn’t spoken to Singian before my personal fan experience, but I recognized her among the few dozen people accompanying me in our virtual section. There were many viewing options within the Microsoft Teams app for all participants, which most conveniently included the same screen that television viewers saw on the video boards surrounding the court:

It was also possible to view my peers in the same group- or speaker-centric ways made available by platforms like Zoom or Skype. Balancing this with the game feed from NBA TV, which included the Sacramento Kings announcing crew (since it was a Sacramento home game), got a bit chaotic at times, especially because the app’s functionality has not been optimized for the Linux-based laptop I used to participate. In retrospect, it makes an abundance of sense that a Windows setup would allow for the smoothest experience, but that a wide array of devices were at least usable made accessibility less of an issue than it otherwise may have been.

Fans were joined by a select few hosts from the Pelicans, who ranged from cheerleaders to a magically-inclined T-Bob Hebert to team staff, who led the way in terms of maintaining engagement from the group. The scripts and prompts that guided these efforts evolved as more games were played, said Singian, who lauded the enthusiasm of those she was working alongside to make it happen.

“It was important for us to have the fans know how important they are to us and it was great to have our Pelicans Dance and Hype Teams bring some of that in-game stadium flavor and feel to the Virtual Fan Experience,” she told me. “Initial results from the NBA told us that from we had one of the highest show rates in the league, so I think that is a positive to show New Orleans’ hunger for the return of basketball, the love for the team and being together.”

An attempt to capture that coveted atmosphere in this new context was also at the fore for Huber, whose primary responsibilities typically involves scripting out everything that happens in the arena that isn’t the actual basketball being played. This includes everything from the video and audio from the starting lineups, sound effects during opponent free throws and halftime entertainment. The bubble setup was not kind to any aspiring halftime entertainers, but these other aspects of the fan experience were welcomed by the league in order to make the “home” games feel more like home.

“They would tell us, ‘You can put up four logos, you can do this amount of player music,’ gave us some parameters there,” Huber said of the specifics they were provided early on in the preparation process. “And all of the teams are doing this, so you can imagine somebody getting all of this information and then having to put it together for all these teams.”

For everything to work as it should, collaboration between teams was necessary. Huber, whose seat during games at the Smoothie King Center is right beside the PA announcer, did not make the trip to Orlando. Instead, he worked with a combination of NBA employees and those who filled a similar role for other teams, such as the Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets, and Los Angeles Lakers, to organize the most New Orleans-esque game experience possible. Just how much of an impact these in-arena elements have may be understated by the casual fan, and they were certainly underappreciated by me until Huber explained it.

“There are numerous stakeholders when it comes to the fan experience, and it’s not just the fans. It is the coaches, administrators, my bosses, the fans, the players, all those things. And they’ll all tell you when you’re not doing a good job. As the season was kind of going on, as we’re trying to create and really embrace this Won’t Bow Down and embracing the New Orleans mantra in our game experience, we are asking ourselves those same questions of ‘what do we know success looks like?’”

Often, a successful fan engagement effort is as simple as one that spreads rapidly through social media. Dominique Hammons’ epic violin performance during a halftime in March was among this season’s biggest hits. In the bubble, perhaps no effort reached more eyes than the Phoenix Suns’ use of friends and family to introduce their starting lineup. Huber wants residents and visitors of New Orleans alike to view Pelicans games as a must-see event in a city that is full of such things, and that means doing whatever they can to convince fans that a ticket will be worth their time.

On an individual level, judging the success of the evening was quite easy. My family was able to see me on national television, which is not something I may ever get to say again. The stream of the game was not of very sharp quality, but hearing the other fans around me chatting constantly and often randomly about what we were collectively observing was more reminiscent of an actual in-person experience than I expected. Sure, it would have helped if the Pelicans didn’t allow 140 points, but spending that stretch of a few hours with these fans was a welcome return to at least a semblance of normalcy.

What the immediate future of NBA basketball looks like remains to be seen. The postseason has begun without any COVID-19 issues sprouting up inside the bubble, but the disease continues to disrupt communities in the United States and abroad.

“Everybody’s kind of in the same boat,” said Huber. “I think the NBA right now is just trying to get through this season, and then once this season’s over, we’ll try to kind of figure out where we are as a society.”

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @NolaYanks2740.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

The post A Plague of Giants appeared first on Elitist Book Reviews.

The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.