Digital hoop dreams

A conversation with NBA chief technology officer Krishna Bhagavathula

Three years ago, Krishna Bhagavathula landed his dream job as CTO of the National Basketball Association. Led by Commissioner Adam Silver, the venerable U.S. league was transforming itself into a global media powerhouse that today delivers games and programming in 47 languages across 215 countries and territories worldwide.

Bhagavathula is the IT guru who ensures all those fans can experience pro basketball from anywhere, on any device, 24/7. His department maintains a complex web of applications, systems and infrastructure that support the league’s 30 teams along with the NBA corporate office, which has approximately 1,500 employees.

“Our mission is to deliver innovation through technology to empower our colleagues, delight our fans and safeguard our brand,” says Bhagavathula, an Indian-born engineer who cut his teeth writing code for cellular providers in the mid-1990s and went on to fill senior tech roles at WebMD and NBC News.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 2% of NBA and WNBA fans watched games in physical arenas. The in-person audience shrank considerably to only include league and team personnel and players’ families for the remainder of the 2020 NBA regular season and NBA Playoffs, which were played in an isolation zone at Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL.

To protect the health of players, employees and vendors, access to the NBA’s campus in Orlando was strictly controlled. Working with ServiceNow (publisher of Workflow), Bhagavathula’s team implemented digital workflows on the Now Platform to ensure that anyone entering the NBA campus was screened and, if necessary, tested for COVID-19 infection.

“We wanted to create a consistent, intuitive user experience while collecting personal health information and other potentially sensitive documents that needed to be routed to the right people for approval,” Bhagavathula says.

Between July 22 and October 11, when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in Game Six of the championship series, these automated workflows handled the complex procedures needed to manage health screening and tracing for 2,600 employees, vendors and guests who entered the campus. The system processed some 13,000 documents and more than 700 physician reviews.

The upshot? Bhagavathula’s team managed the entire COVID-19 screening process with a minimum of manual work. And the NBA community on the NBA campus experienced zero infections. “We demonstrated that a safe, careful return to sports was possible with the right tools, protocols and plans in place,” says Bhagavathula.

The COVID-19 screening workflows are just one example of the league’s broad digital transformation over the past few years. Bhagavathula has modernized the NBA’s tech stack, creating new digital experiences for employees and fans and moving most workloads to the cloud.

On the employee side of the house, the IT team had already implemented one-click videoconferencing and an employee service portal before the pandemic started. This made it much easier for employees to stay productive when they all started working from home back in March.

The league’s long list of fan-facing innovations includes a dedicated camera feed optimized for mobile devices, as well as a video offering that allows fans to purchase viewing rights for individual game segments. So, if fans choose, they can opt to stream the specific half or quarter of a game they want to watch.

“We saw that did tremendously well, so now it’s part of all our products,” says Bhagavathula.

Going forward, the team is brainstorming workflow ideas that would push the envelope on the arena experience for fans – from the parking lot, to concessions, to their seats – and also developing virtual streaming experiences that will allow fans to stay connected with their favorite teams both on and off the court.

Overall, the NBA is waging a concerted campaign to create seamless digital experiences designed to boost engagement for both employees and fans. “We’ve never had a more tech-savvy, connected and mobile workforce,” Bhagavathula says. “Our fans are equally tech-savvy, connected and mobile these days. So, an end game of mine is to liberate staff from the mundane so they can focus on innovation that gives us a competitive edge.”