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With the return of the NBA this week after a more than four-months-long hiatus, fans were just content to see stars like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokuonmpo leading their teams on to the court and battling for playoff position as the regular season concludes. 

What most thought would be a fan-less scenario at the Orlando bubble quickly changed when NBA virtual fans appeared on large video boards strategically placed on the sidelines. What exactly does it take to become a virtual fan? Does it cost anything? Here are the answers to how you can find yourself cheering on your favorite team for the rest of the 2020 NBA season.  

What other leagues are doing with no fans

Since the UFC was the first sport to return to action, the different leagues have taken varied approaches on numerous topics from where they hold their competitions, to how they test their athletes, and finally, whether or not fans will be allowed. The UFC set the standard with a bubble philosophy, which has been adopted by the MLS, NBA, and NHL. 

MLB opted to allow its teams to travel, which has been problematic as numerous organizations have had to postpone games due to virus outbreaks within their clubhouses. MLB has also taken a unique approach when it comes to fans. Absent fans, which is the standard choice for all leagues, baseball has allowed fans to purchase cardboard cutouts of themselves that are strategically positioned throughout the ballpark. 

MLS, which was the second league to restart, was the first to use virtual fans. The images of virtual fans in MLS are, in essence, fans on a Zoom call with whatever background present at their home. Unfortunately, fans are not often shown on television because the video boards are positioned in locations at the end and opposite side of the field that rarely get significant airtime. 

NBA virtual fans and how it works

The NBA has taken virtual fandom to another level. Unlike the MLS, where it’s rare to see its virtual fans, NBA games regularly feature fans as the 17-foot video boards are located directly behind the team’s benches. The camera generally shows fans in the background throughout the course of play. 

The NBA has put a high priority on featuring virtual fans during the broadcast for two reasons — it makes the fanbase feel included, and there’s a major sponsorship in Michelob prominently displayed in the areas of the video boards.

What also differentiates virtual fans at an NBA game from the MLS is the aesthetics. Unlike the Brady Bunch-like screen full of boxes found on your standard Zoom call, the NBA virtual fans appear to be sitting in individual seats. That does create interesting visuals as the sizes of fans sitting in their seats can sometimes vary wildly. Despite that, the NBA has set the standard for leagues when it comes to its use of virtual fans and replicating the game-like feel of fans in the stands. 

How do you sign up to be an NBA virtual fan?

First, and most importantly, becoming an NBA virtual fan is absolutely free. Second, it’s easy to sign up. It’s a program that fans can download from Microsoft. But there’s a catch. Since there are only 320 slots available, the NBA is leaving it up to the individual teams to select the fans they want to invite for a digital seat. 

If you are one of the lucky ones, be prepared, because you just might find yourself sitting next to someone well-known like 11-time NBA All-Star and two-time NBA Champion Chris Bosh, who made an appearance this week. Former Nets player Kerry Kittles also showed up as a fan, but as can happen with technology, his video cut out, and he looked like Scotty getting beamed up in a scene from Star Trek. 

Also be warned, like a real NBA game, fans exhibiting poor behavior will be ejected, or in this case, deleted. The setup includes moderators who monitor fan sections and can remove a spectator for any type of bad behavior. In addition, if the fan disappears for an extended period, that seat may be reassigned.

While the pandemic has disrupted the entire world, including sports, it’s nice to see leagues like the NBA trying to replicate game-like situations as best it can through the use of technology with NBA virtual fans. For those lucky fans selected, it’s a unique opportunity to watch the game, possibly make it on national television, and maybe find themselves sitting next to a celebrity, all at no charge. We’re guessing that’s considerably less expensive than a court-side seat at a Lakers games next to Jack Nicholson.


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