The National Basketball Association will adopt Microsoft's Azure cloud to enhance the online experience for fans, and will use Microsoft Surface tablets in unspecified ways, starting in the league's 2020-21 season, the parties announced Thursday. The duration and terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The deal comes as the NBA is on hiatus -- the league suspended the current season on March 11 to limit coronavirus exposure, and other sports leagues have made similar moves. Given that teams could be holding games without crowds for some time, he said, it's even more important that the league's engineers start assembling the new system.
"I think the fact that we are announcing it in the middle of this pandemic is a testament to how important it is that we move forward with this deal," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told CNBC in an interview on Wednesday. "Time is of the essence here."
An NBA spokesperson said the league could use Microsoft's technology to add new features to its website and apps, such as delivering games in fans' native languages, letting them chat during games, displaying the best camera angle for the moment and showing relevant stats about favorite players. The league also wants to draw on archive videos to augment what people see while watching and roll highlight clips of favorite players.
Silver said that fans may prefer courtside seats over anything else to witness games, but the new digital capabilities are meant to bring them as close as possible.
"How can you replace that experience?" Silver said. "Maybe we can come close to it."
On a technical level, the NBA will move some key workloads to Azure from its on-premises data centers for its website and mobile apps, and will use Azure tools for indexing events in footage, encoding video feeds and consolidating disparate data sources in a single virtual place, a Microsoft spokesperson explained. Azure will be the exclusive cloud partner for the NBA's direct-to-consumer service.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted that the company has worked with the NBA for a long time. The new work came about because the NBA envisioned becoming a first-class provider of digital services, and the league went searching for a company with which it could have a trusted relationship and that has modern cloud and artificial intelligence capabilities, Nadella said.
"It's a pretty unique partnership for us," Nadella said.
In previous years the company has announced cloud deals with firms like AT&T, Gap, Salesforce and Walmart, and it beat out market leader Amazon Web Services for a prominent defense contract, which Amazon is contesting in federal court. Nadella once ran Microsoft's cloud business, and in his six years as CEO he has made cloud a greater focus.
Now he has an answer for what today's Microsoft can do in the sports world, after his predecessor Steve Ballmer scored a multiyear deal with the National Football League in 2013 that put Surface tablets into the hands of coaches and players -- and gave Surface a prominent spot in NFL broadcasts. It is not yet clear if the NBA deal will include similar product placement. (Ballmer, who left Microsoft in 2014, is now owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers.)
The deal also shows how Microsoft is still advancing big projects even while employees stay separated. Microsoft and the NBA began discussing the effort before the company sent home nonessential workers to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, Nadella said.
"It's pretty amazing what productivity has been in the context of work from home," he said. "In fact, our teams have been meeting, talking, getting the deal specifics done. That is a host of job functions and work and productivity and economic activity that continue."