The National Basketball Association (NBA) has always been a fan-friendly league, simply by virtue of the exciting product it brings to its legion of fans every night. Buzzer-beaters, dunks, three-pointers, and low-post battles are nightly staples, and the in-game experience puts fans incredibly close to the action. Of course, since only a small fraction of the NBA’s worldwide fan base attends games, the league constantly looks for ways to closely mirror that personal, in-game experience. One way to do this, the league thought, would be to create an immersive statistical experience at NBA.com, giving fans the opportunity to engage with their favorite team or player on demand. Pulling up current stats from the living room couch while watching a game would enhance the viewing experience, and integration with social media would allow fans to connect with other like-minded fans in real time.
According to NBA Vice President of Information Technology Ken DeGennaro, whose team was instrumental in delivering this enriched fan experience, the vision originated from NBA Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, who will become the league’s fifth commissioner in February 2014.
"The NBA has always had a great archive of statistics, and with the leveraging of stats becoming more and more popular, both David and Adam wanted the NBA to be at the forefront of this,” DeGennaro says. “They wanted to create a destination for our fans with a definitive tool to access this rich history of NBA statistics.”
The vision for the NBA.com/Stats destination included box scores from every game in NBA history, shot charts for every player, comprehensive splits, all-time leaders sortable by category, and really, any statistic the league tracks. In a nutshell, the solution would be a one-stop shop that could answer any question a fan could dream up, presented in an easily viewable portal interface. If, for instance, a fan wanted to chart Stephen Curry’s record-breaking 2012-2013 NBA season, which consisted of 272 three-pointers, one could see he was a remarkable 53% (102 for 194) from the right-side center.
A Look Downcourt
When the NBA started the project to develop an enhanced stats page for NBA.com, it had no centralized statistics database that catered to all the groups that needed to access NBA statistics on a daily basis.
“The information was split across different systems depending on specific needs, be it for the teams, the fans, NBA.com, the archives, or some of our basketball operations groups,” says DeGennaro. “We did not have that singular connection of all this information in one comprehensive statistical database.”
After researching several options, the NBA partnered with SAP to develop and power the NBA.com/Stats page utilizing the SAP HANA platform. The NBA’s main requirements were that the new website feature a customizable and responsive user interface, support multiple upstream data sources, keep performance during peak usage, and enable continued growth.
The NBA started an extensive proof of concept with SAP HANA in the summer of 2012, building several models and testing on multiple loads. Some models were designed to simulate a live game to determine how fast the data was accessible. In other models, the league accounted for anticipated peak usage during a significant event, like an NBA Finals game, for instance. Unlike a business enterprise, the NBA wasn’t so much concerned with the sheer volume of data in the system as it was with making the data accessible to thousands of end users simultaneously. In working with the SAP HANA product team, the league set a concurrency requirement for the system to process a minimum of 250 queries per second.
Also unlike a business enterprise, the data SAP HANA was accessing wasn’t going to be pre-aggregated. In processing these queries, SAP HANA was going through 4.5 quadrillion combinations of information and segmenting that information in countless ways. In the case of a box score, for example, the information collected to show a player’s total points for a single game could also be displayed in queries showing that player’s season or career splits: How many points did the player score in the fourth quarter, or in the clutch, or against a specific team, or in the month of February?
“We quickly realized SAP HANA could meet and exceed our performance expectations,” DeGennaro says. “The system can take a collection of events and sum it up in real time, with the flexibility to split segments and display information any which way.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
One of the biggest challenges the league faced in migrating its statistical data onto the SAP HANA platform was transferring all the historical data into digital form, as much of the league’s earlier history was paper-based. In this massive data entry project, the league required a triplicate verification process to ensure accuracy. Months were spent poring over records dating to the league’s inception, a November 1, 1946, tussle between the New York Knickerbockers and Toronto Huskies.
The league also utilized SAP Landscape Transformation to harmonize its master data and complete the migration effort. With the data in place, another challenge for the league was rolling out the site in conjunction with NBA All-Star 2013 weekend.
“Our appetites grew,” DeGennaro says. “We had this ability to throw all these different dimensions of information at the tool beyond traditional statistical measurements, and we wanted to give fans all of it without it being overwhelming.”
The site debuted on February 15, 2013, and was an immediate hit. For hardcore and casual fans, the homepage alone is like a command base for customizing any information one could possibly want. In searching for, say, assists leaders, the homepage lists the top five averages and displays a bar graph showing each player’s key assists stats against league averages. An intuitive drop-down menu instantly changes the view from regular season to playoffs, and a quick view of the top five easily expands to find the information for any player in the league.
What the league has found is that fans are visiting the SAP HANA-powered site more — and staying longer. DeGennaro says NBA.com drew a record 9.5 billion page views this past NBA season, and fan engagement on NBA.com/Stats is up as they are spending twice as much time on the site as they used to. The increase isn’t hard to understand. Essentially, what the NBA has done is present information to its fans that years ago may have been difficult for a coach or general manager (GM) to access.
“Once fans dive in and see what they can do, they just keep digging and digging,” DeGennaro says. “It’s that completely immersive experience. The more engaged the fan is, the more interested they are in our product and the more basketball they want to consume. Now, it’s SAP HANA that’s enabling us to get there.”
Included in the initial launch was integration with various social media outlets, so fans can immediately share their customized queries on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. The NBA is currently developing enhancements to the site that it plans to roll out in time for the beginning of the 2013-2014 season, which tips off when the NBA champions the Miami Heat host the Chicago Bulls on October 29.
The considered enhancements include embedding video into the stats portal. For example, looking at the Stephen Curry three-point shot chart, a fan could conceivably hover over a specific shot on the chart and see a replay of the shot. Another consideration is providing the ability to compare players of different eras, so a Larry Bird fan could put up Bird’s numbers against, say, the numbers for LeBron James, and, with SAP HANA running in the background, analyze hundreds of data permutations with results appearing nearly instantaneously.
Integration of its video management system into the statistics portal, in addition to providing a positive fan experience, will also conceivably benefit scouting operations. “Say you wanted to pull up a highlight reel of every LeBron James three-pointer that he took in the last 10 seconds of tied games. It’s interesting from a fan’s perspective, but for basketball operations, that could be valuable information,” explains DeGennaro. “In preparing to play Miami, a scout could look at LeBron’s tendencies in those situations and try to defend against them.”
Even in its current form, NBA.com/Stats powered by SAP HANA empowers any fan to be an armchair coach or GM, which is essentially what the league set out to do. With NBA.com/Stats, fans now feel just as close to the action off-court as the fans who are sitting at the live NBA games — maybe even closer.