The NBA’s Joey Graziano joined us at Reimagine Experience 2021 to share how the NBA completely redesigned the attendee experience in response to COVID-19.
On March 11, 2020, an NBA player from the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19. In that moment, the team had to quickly rethink the entire strategy around their events in order to keep their players and their fans safe.
At our recent event, Reimagine Experience 2021, Joey Graziano, SVP of Business Operations and Global Events at the NBA gave us the inside scoop at how his team took an imaginative approach to their events amid the COVID-19 pandemic by creating The Bubble.
Here are the top 10 things we took away from his story that can inspire event professionals as we continue to innovate our event strategies.
1. "The Best Leaders Are Able to Take a Complex Subject and Simplify it For Their Audience"
In response to the quickly evolving pandemic, the NBA assembled a global task force of medical and health professionals and “created a number of models for how to potentially continue playing basketball through the pandemic.” In doing all of that work, Joey and the NBA leadership team decided that they would make a “mark in the sand moment,” meaning that if an NBA player tested positive for COVID-19, they would stop the season and use the moment to reflect and figure out their next steps.
So when that time came, Joey shared that the NBA “got a lot of credit for the ability to make a seamless decision and in many ways, to lead a model around the world to shut down. I’m really proud of our decision.”
“In that moment, our leadership took a really complex subject - how do you navigate COVID, when do you shut down or continue - and were able to simplify it by saying that if a player tests positive, there’s no decision that needs to be made, we’re gonna pause our season and figure out what’s next.”
2. “Most Obstacles are Imaginary, the Rest Only Temporary.”
As soon as they got back from Chicago for the 2020 All Star Game, Joey and his team worked with outside medical experts for “15 hours a day 7 days a week from the first week of march to produce over 10,000 different slides with various return models, timelines, and strategies to think about creating a safe environment.”
This was a massive undertaking unlike anything the events world had faced before. But the NBA and Joey’s team truly set the example for incredible leadership. What got them through it? How did they look at the pandemic as a challenge to be solved creatively, rather than a defeat to be accepted?
Joey shares one of his favorite quotes, and a sign he keeps above his computer as a daily reminder:
“Most obstacles are imaginary, the rest only temporary.”
Joey used this quote as an inspirational mantra to guide him and his team throughout the entire process of brainstorming all of the ideas that would eventually lead them to their greatest one yet: The Bubble.
3. Health and Safety Must be an Event Planner’s Top Priority
One of the reasons the Bubble was such a success was because Joey and his team made health and safety their number one goal. The team looked to their health professionals to help them implement daily testing, masks, and physical distancing.
“We were acutely aware of the fact that we were responsible for over 8,000 people's lives who were going to be working on this.”
As event planners continue to navigate their way through hybrid and the return of in-person experiences, health and safety is the most important factor.
4. Mental Health Matters
Joey shared with us that the mental health of their participants was equally as important as their physical health. The team recognized that they were asking them to do something anxiety-inducing and something that no one had ever asked them to sacrifice before.
“I learned that we had to be radically candid with our audience because in moments of stress and anxiety, time just accelerates. And in this moment of crisis, our candor and consistency was important.”
As event planners, we must be acutely aware of our audiences’ and our teams’ mental health. It’s important to always consider the context of the world outside of the physical or virtual walls of our own event.
5. Use Your Platform to Promote Causes You Care About
By the same token, we have the opportunity to use our events as platforms to support the social causes we are passionate about. That’s exactly what The NBA did this past year.
“If we were going to do this, it had to be about more than basketball. We were committed and our players were certainly committed to using this platform to address systemic racism and social injustice in our country.”
Joey’s team leveraged every touchpoint to further their message, from media interviews and content opportunities to how they dressed up the court. They even sourced out 23 NBA arenas to use for voting activities. The players also helped push important messages around voting. Between Lebron’s More Than a Boat campaign and the NBA’s Ge Out & Vote initiatives, they drove unprecedented voter registration in the NBA, going from 22% of players voting in 2016 to 96% voting in the last national election.
6. Drive Local Economic and Social Impact With Your Events
Events have an incredible potential to impact the local economy. Financially, socially, and economically, we have the power to use our events to make a real difference in our communities. And that’s exactly what the NBA did with The Bubble.
“When we thought about our food and beverage program, not only did we use Disney, but we also used 10 minority-owned restaurants and were able to drive economic impact and keep business afloat which was really important to us.”
Not only did Joey and his team focus on how they could positively impact the community, but the players drove this goal as well. The NBA players went viral on twitter for taking up fishing when their normal recreational activities were not an option. They embraced the local culture around them to inspire their audience and drive social and cultural impact.
7. “When Your Neighbor’s House is on Fire, You Run Towards it”
Joey shared that one of the most important goals for the NBA this year was a commitment to how they would tackle this challenge together, adding that, “The Bubble gave us an opportunity to push back, to reclaim just a small piece of who we were and what we cared about.”
Growing up, Joey’s father was an NYC Firefighter, and he taught them at a young age that “when your neighbor’s house is on fire, you run towards it.” And this became a constant mantra for the team, that this was the house and it was on fire, so they needed to start running.
8. Be a Grizzly
“The Bubble was an unprecedented build, this was the largest and most complex event in the history of the NBA. We were building an entire city, and we had one month to do it.”
Here’s a look at just how large of an undertaking this was:
- 800 custom-made extra-long king beds
- 5 separate hotels and 140,000 room nights
- 1.5 million transportation rides with daily cleanings
- 14 trucks from around the country to deliver practice courts
- 9 separate NBA-ready practice facilities
- 1,000 incoming packages each day
- Basketball laundry facility with 70 washers and dryers
Joey constantly reminded his team of this mantra, which served as a constant source of inspiration through the project:
“If you’re gonna be a bear, be a Grizzly.”
Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. Like Joey said, “if we were going to build an NBA practice court, we were going to build the best NBA practice facility that any of our teams could use.”
“We were never going to be anything less than the best that anybody had ever seen.”
9. It’s a Completely Irrational Decision to Get Off the Couch
As Joey puts it, there really is no rational reason to ever leave our houses, let alone our couches, so it’s a completely irrational decision to get off the couch. That means that by being in events, we are in the irrational decision business.
“That’s an amazing business to be in because when you get someone to make an irrational decision, they are a fan for life.”
By giving our audience a reason to get off the couch and attend our events, it creates endless possibilities to engage them, monetize them and drive value for our business. There’s a “new breath of fresh air that can be brought into the event business, but we have to capitalize on it.” Joey shares that the best way to do this is by embracing personalization and customization. He believes that we have just started to scratch the surface of personalization in events and that there is a lot of room for innovation and creativity.
“We have to embrace that everything we do has to be custom curated for particular audiences at our events.”
10. Monetize Your Virtual Event Highlights
One of the things Joey loves about events, whether virtual or in-person, “is that they are content generating machines, machines that need to be monetized.”
No matter what industry you are in, there are incredible moments that happen at our events, but so few organizations are able to quickly monetize those moments and turn them into viral highlights.
Joey shares an example, the NBA’s Top Shot, which allowed them to leverage blockchain technology to monetize their viral moments quickly. One of the incredible aspects about these moments is that when we capture them virtually, it becomes IP (intellectual property). And that IP becomes a valuable opportunity because people are willing to pay a lot of money for the access and the ability to transfer it to someone else.
“That’s why you see NBA highlights sell for $200,000 per highlight. The quick transfer, the idea that you can be on the cutting edge of all those places. These virtual events are uniquely positioned for all those moments.”
The 2020 NBA Bubble is a truly inspiring example of how resilient and creative the event industry is, especially in the face of adversity. Joey Graziano shared with us an in-depth look at how the NBA responded to the pandemic and against all odds, saved their basketball season. By working with Disney to create The Bubble, the NBA was able to give their players a safe place to continue practicing so they could continue to provide a respite of entertainment and joy for their fans.
To hear the whole story, you can still watch Reimagine Experience 2021 on demand.