The “Beautiful Weirdness” of NBA League Pass
Branden Buehler / Seton Hall University

Fans participate in a “baby race” during a Sacramento Kings home game
Fans participate in a “baby race” during a Sacramento Kings home game

Author’s Note: I submitted the following column discussing the “beautiful weirdness” of the NBA’s League Pass subscription service on March 12. Just a week later, on March 19, the NBA announced a notable change to the service, declaring that League Pass would begin offering its audiences the abilities both to view betting odds and to click through to sportsbooks to place wagers. Elsewhere, I’ve bemoaned sports media’s increasing embrace of a dehumanizing, hyperrationalistic perspective toward sport and so, for me, this announcement represented quite the troubling development. That is to say, League Pass’s integration of sports gambling offerings not only speaks to concerns about how the increasing visibility of sports betting potentially, for instance, enables and exacerbates gambling addictions, but it also foregrounds a highly instrumental approach toward sport that largely treats games as sites of financial investment and athletes as financial assets. Indeed, the same day the NBA announced the changes to the League Pass service, Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton lamented how, “To half the world, I’m just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever … I’m a prop.” With all that in mind, the largely positive column below – celebrating a service that will now usher its viewers toward league-partnered sportsbooks – cannot help but feel slightly pollyannaish. Nonetheless, the content here continues to speak to my ongoing interest in finding spaces within sports media that deemphasize the hyperrationality found so frequently elsewhere.

For the last decade or so, I have been an on-and-off subscriber to NBA League Pass, the National Basketball Association’s subscription service that offers out-of-market viewers access to the league’s non-nationally televised games. Ostensibly, the main reason I have subscribed to League Pass has been to watch from afar as my hometown Washington Wizards struggle through one disappointing season after another (with the added benefit of being able to flip to more exciting teams when Wizards games get out of hand). In recent years, though, I have found myself increasingly looking forward to using League Pass for reasons only loosely related to professional basketball. More specifically, I am increasingly drawn in by dance-offs, drumlines, and trivia contests.

That League Pass is more than just basketball has to do with a tweak to the service made several years ago. For much of its nearly 30-year history – League Pass debuted during the 1994-1995 season as a satellite-based subscription service – the service offered viewers a single telecast of each game. Over the last decade, though, League Pass has increasingly allowed viewers to customize their viewing experiences. Beginning with the 2013-2014 season, the service started enabling viewers to choose between the telecast offered in the home team’s market and the telecast offered in the away team’s market – an option that has seemed to intensify fan comparisons of the many local broadcasters that televise the league. For my purposes, though, it is particularly notable that starting with the 2016-2017 season, League Pass added another customization option for domestic viewers – providing “premium” subscribers the ability to watch telecasts that swap out the local broadcasters’ commercials in favor of “in-arena” feeds that show the in-game entertainment offered during breaks in game action.[1] All of a sudden, at-home viewers like me were being treated not just to glimpses of halftime shows but also to the other miscellanea that teams use to keep in-person attendees engaged – dance troupe performances, mascot hijinks, skee-ball contests, and so on.

The Los Angeles Clippers’ mascot Chuck performs with the team’s “Slam Squad” during a Clippers home game
The Los Angeles Clippers’ mascot Chuck performs with the team’s “Slam Squad” during a Clippers home game

In a 2017 article in the Wall Street Journal discussing the introduction of in-arena feeds to League Pass, journalist Ben Cohen commented that the goal of these streams “is to make viewers at home feel like they’re at the game.” In my experience, though, the in-arena feeds – rather than feeling immersive – instead conjure the sensation being offered furtive glances at local rituals. While there is something of a sameness to the in-game entertainment featured across the league – many teams seeming to offer, for instance, some variation of a “dunk squad” that uses trampolines to launch into acrobatic dunks – the many contests, performances, and promotions that teams put on can nonetheless underscore the regionality of professional sport. Recently tuning into a Los Angeles Clippers home game, for example, I watched a minor Hollywood celebrity gamely participating in a t-shirt toss, while later flipping to a Detroit Pistons home game, I witnessed a celebration of a longtime Michigan politician. The next night, I watched the Miami Heat run a competition between two fans to see who could prepare a better cafecito before later honoring Miami-based soccer commentator Andrés Cantor.

A mainstream commercial league like the NBA can often feel homogenized, particularly during national telecasts that – in attempting to address as wide of an audience as possible – apply the same mode of coverage to all teams. As journalist Dan Nosowitz comments in a discussion of League Pass, “In a world of nationally televised sports, the local flavor of the home team often gets lost.” The in-arena telecasts, though, not only offer the idiosyncrasy of local broadcasters – each with their own commentators, graphics packages, etc. – but also add in the unique particularities of in-game entertainment strategies meant to excite local fans. “You can legitimately get a sense of a team and of a city from these streams,” Nosowitz comments of the in-arena feeds. “You can see the strengths of different teams and different markets.” While it can be hard to ignore how these in-game offerings work to commodify community pride – attempting, in short, to turn local and regional particularities into brand awareness and ticket sales – there is nonetheless a refreshing quality to seeing sports television offer brief windows into the diverse places in which teams play.

A fan attempts to win a gas gift card during a Sacramento Kings home game
A fan attempts to win a gas gift card during a Sacramento Kings home game

For me, though, the real appeal of League Pass’s in-arena feeds goes beyond its ability to offer glimpses of local specificity. In a paean to a “hot dog cannon” employed by the Philadelphia Phillies, writer Eve Peyser pays tribute to the “kitschy,” “beautiful weirdness” of in-game entertainment – calling attention, in the process, to the “charming” strangeness of the League Pass in-arena feeds. As Peyser suggests, an endearingly eccentric quality pervades the NBA’s in-game entertainment. There is, for instance, an intentional unpredictability to in-game entertainment – not just in terms of what splashy, unusual strategies teams will next employ to grab the audiences’ attention, as those efforts might entail anything from baby races to Price is Right knockoff games, but also in terms of how the proceedings will unfold. There is always volatility, for example, when fans are involved, as in contests that pit fans against one another to see who might first complete a series of basketball-themed obstacles. One never knows if participants will end up in a heated competition or, alternatively, if they will be unable to complete the task (or to understand the directions). There is also a charming desperation at work in some of the in-game offerings spotlighted through League Pass, with hosts occasionally seeming to struggle to get fans to look up from their phones and pay attention to contests and promotions. (As a college instructor, these moments have a particular resonance.) Especially amid the self-seriousness that often pervades the discourse around the NBA and other major sports leagues – full of debates regarding player legacies, awards, and so on – it can be helpful to be hit over the head with the most blatant reminders that professional sport is, at its core, an entertainment product in a constant, harried search for eyeballs and that as soon as star players step to the sidelines during a timeout, a group of gameday workers will be running onto the court to set up trampolines or inflatables.

There is a fascinating discordance that comes from the NBA’s kitschiness. Thanks largely to ballooning media rights deals, NBA teams have exploded in financial value in recent years, with several recent team sales placing franchise values in the multi-billion-dollar range. Sportico, a sports industry publication, estimates the Golden State Warriors are now worth over $8 billion, while the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers are both estimated above $7 billion. Accordingly, NBA teams now attract attention not just from massively wealthy individuals looking to purchase teams but also from institutional investors like private equity and sovereign wealth funds. There is something almost comical, then, about these highly financialized multi-billion-dollar enterprises putting on events defined by a zany, “beautiful weirdness” also found at minor league baseball games. Indeed, the NBA’s in-game entertainment can feature a cheapness that is almost jarring, with fans who have potentially paid thousands of dollars for their tickets participating in contests in which they might walk away with a $10 gift card.

Image Credits:
  1. Fans participate in a “baby race” during a Sacramento Kings home game (author’s screen grab)
  2. The Los Angeles Clippers’ mascot Chuck performs with the team’s “Slam Squad” during a Clippers home game (author’s screen grab)
  3. A fan attempts to win a gas gift card during a Sacramento Kings home game (author’s screen grab)
  1. “In-arena” feeds were added to the international version of League Pass two years prior to being added to the domestic version. []

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