From Shutdown to Restart – NBA Technology’s Full Court Press
Written by Dan Christopherson
Chief Technology Officer
National Basketball Association
Ask Krishna Bhagavathula about the landmark night of March 11, when the NBA boldly became the first U.S. sports league to suspend operations due to COVID-19, and he shoots back a layered reaction.
“I am missing basketball like crazy, and all sports, for that matter,” Bhagavathula says. “When the Korean baseball league – KBO – restarted, I woke up at 6 a.m. to see how they’re pulling it off. I watched NASCAR when it restarted. And I watched the NFL Draft to learn from their experience.”
As a fan, Bhagavathula can’t wait for the triumphant return of sports. As the NBA’s Chief Technology Officer, he couldn’t be prouder that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made that decisive shutdown move on March 11 to protect the health of players, staff and fans.
Every major sport quickly followed suit. Behind the scenes, NBA technologists did not stop when the games did – they simply pivoted. While his team got busy creating “frictionless technology experiences for staff” over several months of remote work, the NBA built a fast break offense around innovation. Among the highlights – a recently announced league partnership with Microsoft on a direct-to-consumer platform.
“The NBA and Microsoft made this announcement during the pandemic because it is important to move forward and continue the cycle of innovation with a compelling platform that will reimagine how our fans consume the game,” Bhagavathula says.
I can only see the NBA’s culture of innovation accelerating as we consider how to enable a safe space for the players, officials and others once the season restart happens.
In the final push toward basketball by the end of July, Bhagavathula reflects on the road his technology team has traveled to bridge the gap from shutdown to restart.
Considering the NBA IT team’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, what have you learned and how does that reshape your approach going forward?
What I have realized is we have to be prepared for all kinds of eventualities and unexpected scenarios. And to deal with that, we need to focus on what we can understand and control. I tell my team: focus on the end-user experience. Make sure you are deploying the right tools that drive the right experiences. If we do a great job providing that service through technology, we are really enabling the business to move forward. We have learned to be flexible and to pivot quickly. I have been really proud of my team’s ability to think on their feet. They are decentralizing decision-making organically. In the past, decisions took a lot of reviews and senior executives were regularly looped in for approvals. Those decisions are being decentralized because everyone understands our overarching objectives and that we are trying to solve problems and get rid of roadblocks as quickly as possible.
Is trust more important than ever – being able to trust your team to make decisions?
One hundred percent. And I’d stress that it is two-way trust. It’s trusting your staff to do the right thing and, equally important, getting your staff to trust you to frame the right problem for them to solve. As leaders, the onus is on us to be direct, give our staff information in real time, be honest and be transparent. I think empathy has never been more important in the corporate workplace. People are under a lot of stress – physically and emotionally – given everything that’s going on in the world. Be patient with them. One of the core principles that I have pushed in my department is culture beats strategy. That has been very important because it is that culture that builds trust.
How has this crisis disrupted your plans for rolling out new technology and innovation? What does the road map look like now?
Counterintuitively, the crisis has actually accelerated the adoption of many technology initiatives that we had underway. I believe that remote work has leveled the playing field to a large degree. Suddenly everyone is using the same kinds of tools, whether you like it or not. In a way, it has helped with the adoption of technology across the corporate workplace. It has certainly created new opportunities as well. I wouldn’t say that it has disrupted road maps for technology and innovation. Rather, it has accelerated certain projects and it has created or identified new priorities for us to pursue.
How have you grown as a leader through this crisis? What have you leaned on to rise to the occasion?
From my perspective, it has been an incredibly humbling and amazing learning experience. Now, more than ever, staff need to see and hear from the leadership team on a frequent basis, and I’ve learned the importance of having a recurring “command center” type meeting. Since the hiatus began, I meet more frequently with my senior leadership team than I used to. We used to do a quarterly town hall across all staff in the department, now I do that bi-weekly. The office water cooler is no longer there, and the hallways are not being used. I’ve realized it is vital, and on us as leaders, to create those virtual hallways and water-coolers that foster connections and conversations that are integral to the DNA of engaged and high-performing teams.
The crisis has also underscored the importance of having a bias to action. As a leader, I have leaned into anything – problem or challenge – that is thrown my way, and I’ve tried to act on it immediately. Planning is great but acting swiftly is even better if you empower and trust your teams. As an organization, I think this mindset has made us even more innovative than we already were.
In the NBA’s innovation game, do you see yourself as the point guard, the forward or the center?
<<Laughs>> It depends on the day. It’s a teamwork situation – and naturally, I’m going to do whatever it takes. My goal is to make sure we are using the best technologies for the NBA to move the business forward. I am going to be the forward in certain cases, and I’m going to be pushing the business units on a few things. In other cases, I am going to shepherd the right folks and make sure we do what needs to be done to solve problems. I consider myself to be someone that can wear a few hats and do a few different things on the court!
Special thanks to Krishna Bhagavathula and National Basketball Association.
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