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Samsung and Apple's Next Court Battle: Tablets in the NBA

May 14, 2013

Samsung and Apple's Next 'Court' Battle: Tablets in the NBA

Wesley Johnson #2 of the Phoenix Suns drives the ball against Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors during the second half of the NBA game at US Airways Center on April 5, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. Photographer: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Noel Gillespie didn't like what he was seeing. From the bench, the Phoenix Suns assistant coach watched his basketball team easily give up 48 points to the Golden State Warriors halfway through a game last year.

One play in particular was hurting them -- the "pick and roll." It's when a player blocks for his teammate before slipping behind him to receive a pass and score.

But as it turns out, the Suns had a new weapon they were preparing to try out. Call it the swipe and scroll.

Gillespie pulled out his Samsung Galaxy tablet and called up a video clip from the first quarter. He was able to immediately show his players what their opponents were doing so they could make quicker adjustments during the game.

Meet the extreme mobile worker: the professional athlete, whose closest thing to an office is the airplane seat when traveling from arena to arena.

  • Special Report: The Mobile Workforce

As smartphones and tablets change the way companies do business, sports teams are also increasingly tapping mobile devices to get a technological leg-up on the competition. The Suns became the first NBA team this season to outfit both players and coaches with tablet computers for use on and off the court.

The Suns coaches use an app that lets them draw plays, see them in action, review playbooks and pull up game videos. This replaces whiteboards, reams of paper, bulky laptops and "a rack of DirecTV boxes recording other teams, and having a guy making DVDs all night long," said John Brandstetter, president of Flying Tiger Entertainment, whose company developed the software.

Players and coaches said the tablets have had the biggest impact during travel. Kendall Marshall, the 21-year-old point guard who the Suns drafted last year, said he reviews video from his plane seat en route to the next game. Gillespie thinks up plays and inputs them into the tablet by swiping his finger along the screen.

"If I'm going on a road trip, instead of having six three-ring binders, I have all of that information on the tablet," said Gillespie, who recalls using VCRs to look at game footage when he entered the NBA 11 years ago. "As technology has changed, the NBA is trying to change."

Meanwhile, other professional sports leagues have been experimenting with tablets. Verizon Wireless, which helped bring Samsung's Android-based tablet to the Suns, arranged a similar deal with the Denver Broncos for use in the National Football League, said Tom Gainor, the wireless company's associate director of marketing and sales operations.

Like any fast-moving business, sports teams rely heavily on having data at their fingertips. Some in the NBA have been using video technology from STATS LLC's SportVU to record player movements and collect statistical information. The data-driven, so-called Moneyball approach to gain a competitive edge is popular with some Major League Baseball teams.

When successful, such innovations can find their way to college, high-school and even little-league sports. Mobile apps such as GameChanger lets coaches and parents track every play of a game so they can monitor the progress of their kids over the season. If Samsung's tablet or Apple's iPad passes muster in the NBA, the next generation of athletes could be prepping for after-school sports on their devices in between games of "Angry Birds."

In Flying Tiger's current app, the playbook and play-creation features give an animated, overhead view of how each formation might play out, with players represented by X's and O's. The next version will have 3-D players dribbling and passing to each other. It could end up looking like a game for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 console.

"This is basically bringing what you have in video games to professional sports," said Brandstetter, who had previously worked on a Sega basketball game called "David Robinson's Supreme Court" and a version of "Madden NFL." "At some point down the road, we may even put sensors in their shoes" to monitor movement and speed, which could help coaches decide when to give a tired player some rest.

The companies are mulling whether to make these tools available to other NBA teams. The Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers have expressed interest in using the technology, Gillespie said.

While he's a fan of the technology, Gillespie said he's still not comfortable using the device during the game.

"It doesn't seem natural for an assistant coach to all of a sudden pull out a tablet and watch a video," he said. Time is better spent monitoring the game and coaching players rather than reviewing tape.

Of course, there is the occasional instance when it's useful to have a tablet handy -- like during the game against the Warriors, who are now in the playoffs. After studying the pick-and-roll footage, Phoenix outscored Golden State in the second half. Still, the Suns lost by 2 points.

A tablet can't solve everything.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Milian at mmilian@bloomberg.net


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