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How the NBA Finals are beamed across the globe without hiccups

June 16, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors
May 27, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots over Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) during the fourth quarter in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs. at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports - RTX1EUZ0
Photograph by Reuters USA Today Sports

Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes stood unguarded in the corner during the waning minutes of overtime in the opening game of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He grabbed a pass, gently leaped into air and nailed an arching three-pointer that all but sealed victory for his team.

For the millions of basketball fans watching on television or following online, the game was a thrilling battle between two star-studded teams. What they didn’t realize—or even need to—was that it was all made possible by a complex web of technology that delivered the images, in-game statistics, and streaming video to them without hiccups.

Producers worked feverishly in front of a wall of television screens mounted inside a trailer parked outside the arena in Oakland, Calif. A separate team across the country in Secaucus, N.J. focused on managing the super sized network inside Oracle Arena that pulsed with all the video, photography, and communications from the game coverage.

Somehow, it all worked.

ABC broadcasts the Finals in the U.S. with its own commentary, extra features, and highlight packages. Meanwhile, foreign television companies each get customized versions spliced with their own play-by-play announcers. Together, it becomes a jumble of different feeds, languages, and time zones.

In all, the Finals go out in 47 languages to 215 countries including China, Columbia, and Tanzania. That counts not just television, but also streaming to desktop computers and mobile devices.

Outside the arena, in the black white trailer, a team of NBA producers and directors sat and stared at dozens of screens showing the action on the court. Known as the NBA World Feed Truck, the NBA producers inside help coordinate the broadcasting of the games for all of the league’s international television partners.

Although the video footage mostly comes from ABC cameras, the NBA team helps splice in foreign commentary from the visiting announcers. They also help create special video packages tailored to each country and, during commercial breaks, insert them into the feed so foreign audiences avoid U.S. commercials for shows like Modern Family.

NBA World Feed Truck – Jonathan Vanian
Photograph by Jonathan Vanian

“Two minutes until the world feed mic checks,” Tim Kane, an NBA senior director, announced into a microphone as the game tip off approached. He was alerting colleagues on the court prepping a foreign broadcaster for an interview with an NBA star before the game officially began.

On one of the screens inside the world feed truck, a broadcaster from China’s Guangdong TV stepped up to the courtside cameras for an interview with the former NBA legend and current commentator Grant Hill on his thoughts on the game. It wasn’t a hard-hitting interview by any means.

“I’m thinking it’s going to be a very exciting NBA Finals,” Hill said.

Kane, sitting in the trailer, warned the team that the interview should end soon by starting a countdown: “Five, four, three, two, one. Well done, we are clear. CCTV [China Central Television] is next.”

While the NBA staff was busy producing interviews at the game, more production staff in New Jersey was busy making sure all that video was ready to be sent across globe. They also helped to manage the 10 gigabyte network setup in Oracle Arena that carried 16 video signals, photography, and statistics.

All that data traveled from Oakland to Secaucus in a fraction of a second with the help of Zayo, a company that acts as a digital pipeline. The Zayo network is made up of 23,000 thousand miles of fiber that spans the country and connects the arena in California to New Jersey.

“It is a big firehose pumping the content out of the arena,” said Steve Hellmuth, executive vice president, operations and technology for the NBA.

Secaucus is the global distribution point for all NBA video. It’s also the home of over 400,000 hours of archived video that the NBA has been busy digitizing.

During the first game of the Finals, the Secaucus facility received 31.3 terabytes of video, statistics, and photos – roughly the equivalent of 7,000 DVDs. The NBA staff then compresses all that data so it can be sent out as quickly as possible to the rest of the world.

From there, a combination of satellites and video streaming technology sends the game out worldwide. The online video technology company NeuLion handles the online streaming portion that contains the specialized content tailor-made for each country.

NeuLion provides the NBA with a dashboard that can tell the league how online viewers watched the Finals including the kind of device they used. Around 18,000 people signed in to see Cleveland star LeBron James and Warriors star Stephen Curry warm up, Hellmuth said.

Still, most fans watching the Finals globally while online do so through personal computers rather than mobile devices, because of the larger screen sizes, he said. In Africa, however, Hellmuth said he has noticed that more people have been using their smart phones to watch the game.

In the past, the NBA primarily created highlight packages of game that might run the next day. However, the league is now in the business of delivering real-time video and statistics across the globe in near real time, Hellmuth said.

In the end, fans across everywhere can feel the excitement from the games, even if they may be thousands of miles away.

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