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The NBA's Living, Breathing Archive

Referee assessments among uses for NBA's digital library 6/13/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

While the National Basketball Association season wraps up with the conclusion of the NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, the production and operations staff at NBA Entertainment in Secaucus, N.J., will keep moving full-speed through the summer.

The NBA Entertainment facility is the home of the NBA's digital archive. It's used to provide footage for NBA broadcast rights holders TNT, ESPN, ABC and NBA TV, as well as the league's fast-growing Website NBA.com. It also generates a wide variety of game video for analysis by coaches and league officials.

All of the video can be searched and accessed through a standard Web browser in low res. That allows networks and coaches to search clips. It also lets league officials easily review replays of flagrant fouls or controversial calls by referees.

That last feature may become more relevant in light of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy's charges last week that the NBA directed referees to “manipulate” games, specifically the 2002 Western Conference finals. Donaghy earlier was charged and pleaded guilty to conspiring with gamblers, and is awaiting sentencing. The NBA, which closely monitors its referees, denied his claims.

The league has a separate storage section for sensitive material, which teams don't have access to, and an “Officials Review System” that accesses low-camera angles that aren't shown to viewers, but are archived.

“It's invaluable for them in terms of development of referees,” says Steve Hellmuth, senior VP of operations and technology for NBA Entertainment. “If they have a referee that they see is not making a particular call correctly, they can look at every call he's made for the entire season. It's at their fingertips.”

Reviewing the archive video could also help NBA officials fine players for “flopping,” i.e., exaggerating light contact to draw a foul, which the league has announced it will start doing next season. While the NBA's competition committee hasn't officially informed NBA Entertainment how it will police flopping, Hellmuth says the archive system could certainly facilitate it.

The league has made a multimillion-dollar investment in both software development and storage hardware from SGI and StorageTek to create the archive, which first became operational in September 2006, and recently extended a contract with SGI to provide more disk storage including extra capacity for high-definition video.

For the past two seasons, the NBA Entertainment team has been recording each NBA game (1,200 games per season including the playoffs). At the same time, it is digitizing a vast library of historical content that dates back to 1946 and contains more than 400,000 hours of footage, stored on various forms of videotape. Between live games and shelved tapes, the NBA is adding about 160 hours of video to its archive each day during the season.

The archive also includes WNBA and NBA Development League games. So far, the NBA has digitized about 60,000 archive tapes (an average tape is one hour), which equates to 2.9 million individual video clips.

The NBA isn't the only major content provider to embark on a digital archive; news organizations including CBS News, ABC News and CNN are engaged in similar projects to preserve their valuable content for the digital future.

But the multiple purposes of the NBA's archive—serving programmers, coaches and league officials—makes it a particularly important project. That is why NBA Entertainment will continue to run the archive even as it transitions production functions for NBA TV and NBA.com to Turner Broadcasting System as part of a new digital-rights agreement announced in January. A network would not likely archive the NBA as extensively because someday it might lose the rights.

“For us, we're in this forever,” Hellmuth says. “So this is all a very worthwhile investment.”

The NBA Entertainment team has developed its own media-management software and ingest process for live game-logging, which breaks down games by each offensive possession—there are roughly 500 per game—and creates detailed metadata about each aspect of a game. While news scripts might be the universal language for news organizations, statistics are the universal language for the NBA and form the basis of the metadata that is used to manage the archive.

“Everything we do, we try to reuse,” says Keith Horstman, VP of digital media management systems for NBA Entertainment. “So the statistics that originate courtside are used to springboard into logging. Those same stats are what you see on all the games on NBA.com, the same exact feed. The logging data is used to produce the highlights for television, and the same package is used on NBA.com.”

Thomson Grass Valley Profile servers are used to ingest the games, which lets loggers view them with a slight delay so they can pause or rewind back through the action. There are actually two rounds of game logging: one for production purposes to create game highlights, such as the top 10 plays featured nightly on NBA.com, and a second logging process designed with the league's coaches in mind that breaks down the game by various formations and plays, such a pick-and-rolls or post-ups.

Content is stored in both high-resolution format, for use in broadcast production, and in a low-resolution format for broadband distribution, on a mix of SGI disk arrays and StorageTek robotic libraries loaded with LTO data tape. Other key gear includes Sundance Digital automation software; Snell & Wilcox video processing and encoding, including its iCR content-repurposing system; Avid Pinnacle Liquid and Grass Valley NewsEdit editing systems, which are used to browse the SGI storage-area network; Telestream FlipFactory transcoding software for repurposing video in different formats; and AP's ENPS newsroom computer system, which interfaces with the archive to give producers quick access.

There are more than 1,000 regular users of the NBA archive system, which can both stream clips at two different levels of video quality (compressed at 1.5 megabits per second or 340 kilobits per second) or deliver them as downloaded Windows Media files along with an XML file containing all the logged metadata on a game. That XML data can be used by teams' video coordinators to quickly package game video for coaching purposes, says Bob Carney, NBA Entertainment senior manager of digital media operations.

“For example, the Celtics can get every single pick-and-roll that involved [the Lakers'] Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, download it, put it on a DVD and give it to [the Celtics' Kevin] Garnett so he can study it on the plane.”

To hear Glen Dickson's TechTalk podcast on the NBA's digital archive, click here.

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