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Why this NBA team is launching its own streaming service: Steve Ballmer on the strategy behind ‘ClipperVision’

NBA legends (L-R) Baron Davis, Paul Pierce, and Jamal Crawford with LA Clippers chairman Steve Ballmer, during a preseason preview of “BallerVision,” a live commentary mode included in the team’s new ClipperVision streaming service.

A new streaming service unveiled by the LA Clippers this morning reflects the philosopy of the franchise’s chairman, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, about the role the NBA and its teams should play in shaping the digital viewing experience.

“We need to define the future of watching basketball,” Ballmer said in an interview with GeekWire. “We’ll always do a better job of that than any distribution partner. Whether we distribute directly or through an ESPN or a TNT or an Amazon, or whoever gets into the business of distributing these things, the experience that makes this the best basketball possible will come, I believe, from our league.”

ClipperVision is a new subscription service that costs $199.99 per annum. Available only to viewers in the Los Angeles market, it will provide access to all the team’s games except those broadcast nationally.

Strategy is the equivalent of a retailer brand, selling direct to consumers. This creates a stronger connection between their customers or fans.

However, the new Clippers’ service will also grapple with a growing trend of subscription fatigue as consumers become weary of all the monthly services needed to access different slices of content, from content aggretators like Netflix and Hulu to narrower streaming sites from entertainment brands and sports leagues.

The idea of individual sports teams creating their own streaming service could increase the feeling of overwhelm. While the Clippers are currently the NBA’s first streaming team, there is the possibility that other NBA teams will follow.

Ballmer however stated that this approach was a reflection of ongoing media consumption trends.

“I think the world’s going to mass personalization, mass customization,” he said, explaining that he sees no reason to fight that trend. “Every other aspect of content is going that direction.”

The ability to stream games in the LA area is a major difference from the NBA’s $99.99/year League Pass, which doesn’t let fans watch games in their local markets due to restrictions built into regional TV deals.

New TV contract allows for this.

For the Clippers, Ballmer said, gaining the ability to launch the service was a “fundamental part” of the team’s recent contract renewal with Bally Sports, which distributes Clippers games and is also launching its own streaming service.

“Come hell or high water, I was going to offer the streaming service,” Ballmer said. But because the team was able to work out a deal, he added, “now it’s without compromise.”

ClipperVision is built on the NBA’s NextGen platform and other shared technologies, with a “clear path” for other teams to launch their own services if they wish, using their own variations on the approach, Ballmer said.

Sinclair Broadcast Group subsidiary Bally Sports also has the TV rights for more than 20 teams through its regional networks. Ballmer declined to speculate when asked if other NBA teams would use the Clippers’ new contract as a blueprint for their own renegotations.

ClipperVision offers six viewing modes, including the team’s CourtVision augmented reality experience; Korean- and Spanish-language streams; and a live commentary mode called BallerVision, featuring former Clippers players such as Jamal Crawford, Baron Davis, and Paul Pierce, with guest appearances by Ballmer and celebrities.

ClipperVision will also launch with an exclusive perk: A limited-edition team jacket. Ballmer said it was important to include something “physical and tangible” with the service.

The long-term goal of unifying users across digital and in person experiences is the ultimate goal.

“If you want to buy merchandise, or you’re coming into the arena, we already know you, and want to make your experience as personal as possible,” Ballmer said.

Like this year’s closely watched Clippers team, led by star players Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the organization’s new streaming service is many years in the making.

The evolution of sports watching

Ballmer stated that he had been considering the possibility of bringing interactivity to sports viewing ever since he was Microsoft CEO. He pointed out that the Microsoft Surface sponsorship deal with the NFL had its origins in talks about interactive Xbox viewing experiences that didn’t pan out at the time.

After purchasing the Clippers in 2014 for $2 billion, he was able explore more of his ideas. The CourtVision experience was launched by Ballmer and Second Spectrum four years ago. It features stats, animations, and other graphics that are displayed on-screen in real time.

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“If this is a basketball city, damn it, let’s hear it!” LA Clippers Chairman Steve Ballmer exhorts the crowd before a recent exhibition game in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Ballmer stated that the direct-to-consumer streaming platform will have the potential to offer new features in the future. As an example, he mentioned the possibility of gaming the experience. This would be more difficult in a distribution situation.

The Clippers continue to invest heavily in in-person viewing. The team’s new 18,000-person arena, the Intuit Dome, is set to launch for the 2024-25 season in Inglewood, Calif.

Ballmer has been a regular at Clippers games and can be seen cheering from his base seats. He believes that the joy of in-person basketball will continue to thrive, despite the advancements in technology.

“There’s still something special in being in the arena,” he said, “with the energy and the sense of community.”

Ballmer stated that ClipperVision may eventually become an income source for the team. However, the priority right now is to direct ClipperVision’s distribution.

“Over time, I do see it as a way to make money, but we don’t know how the whole world of distribution of content is going to evolve,” he said. In the meantime, he explained, “this lets us be light on our feet.”

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