Major sports leagues and their member clubs increasingly face this question: How do you entice fans into the arena when the game experience is about as good – at times, better and always significantly cheaper – in the comfort of their own homes? The iOS/Android app unveiled recently at the Barclays Center, the new downtown home of the Brooklyn Nets and a concert hall to rival the Knicks' Madison Square Garden, doesn't provide the answer to that question. But it does move the conversation forward.
Like other NBA arena apps, the Barclays Center app allows the user to pursue the practical (reporting a rowdy, over-served patron to stadium security, for example), the social (texting messages to appear on the center-court scoreboard) and the fanatical (tracking up-to-the-second stats). What sets it apart is video, or what technology developer Cisco is calling StadiumVision Mobile. Thanks to multicast, a one-to-many data-delivery system, you can cue up a high-quality, multiple camera angle video stream on your smartphone or tablet without experiencing slowdowns or complete crashes. What does this digital first mean? As many as 19,000 – a Barclays crowd at capacity – are no longer stuck in the seat listed on their ticket.
Say you're in section 1, behind the home-side backboard, and Nets point guard Deron Williams has just pulled off an ankle-breaking crossover at midcourt. Getting a sideline view video replay offers the feel – or perhaps the illusion – of a 50-yard line seat not far from the team benches. When the game stream is up and running on your device's screen, press "replay" at any time to launch a just-recorded clip. You can customize whether it starts 10, 15, or 30 seconds back from the moment of your click. Once the clip has ended, you can either keep playing it on a loop or return to the live feed. You'll also notice that the truly live action on the court is one to two seconds ahead of what you're watching, which annoyingly delays the announcers' audio on the game cam but also may negate the need to press replay at all: You can watch, say, a Brooke Lopez dunk on the court, then peek down at your palm to catch take two in less time than it takes you to say, "Dunk you very much." There are also standard game cams (the YES Network feed) and the GoPro-style "Slam Cam" (a popular vantage point at the recent All-Star Dunk Contest), with other angles to become available during this inaugural season of the relocated New York area franchise. (Putting a lens on minority team owner Jaz-Z's head or patented dark shades – the Jay-Z Cam, if you will – is actually a joke around the suites, but we think it's not a bad idea, to be honest.)
If you're using this core feature effectively – and it might take until halftime to get your timing down – you instantly become the director of your own personal control room. But keep this in mind: Basketball moves too fast for replays of every highlight reel-worthy shot, block or steal, with freak athletes that can coast from the three-point line to the rim in three strides hurrying up to keep pace with a 24-second shot clock. At a recent game, we found it difficult to look down at our device without missing the next play, interrupting a sport that is fluid at its best. In this way, the app is similar to the billboard you might see driving east on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, away from Barclays after another buzzer-beater victory. Like the large ad, which pictures two iPads as swerving race cars, it only becomes a distraction if you let it. The Nets, of course, would like to imagine us all standing up, cheering and waving our phones and tablets in the air like we just don't care. And, as some sports blogs have pointed out, it also comes in handy for folks who need to slip away to the restroom and don't want to miss any of the live game.
Because it achieves its simple yet tech-complex goal so well, the Barclays' app significantly enhances the in-arena experience. It's easily accessible on its own or right from the Nets' own app, and we found that its intuitive Facebook-like navigation – simple, clear commands like "Watch" on the left side of the screen – goes a long way, too. We have two beefs, however: There is no way presently, for example, to go back and watch multiple archived highlights, and you lose access to the video when you leave the arena. So, no, it's not quite like sitting on your couch, one hand on your keyboard maneuvering NBA.com, the other clutching the remote ready to rewind and fast forward. Right now, that game experience is tough to beat. This is just a first release in all its glory, however, and it will evolve. At the moment, the StadiumVision Mobile experience is only available at the Barclays Center, but it will be implemented at the home stadiums of Real Madrid and Sporting Kansas City later this year. [Free, itunes.com, play.google.com]