Todd Bishop, GeekWire

LA Tech Darling Honey Will Adorn Clippers Jerseys This Year

A new streaming service unveiled by the LA Clippers this morning reflects the philosophy 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.”

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

The strategy is the sports equivalent of a retail brand selling directly to consumers as an alternative to traditional distribution channels, establishing a tighter connection to 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.

Nonetheless, , Ballmer said the approach reflects ongoing trends in media consumption.

“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.

Enabled by New TV Contract

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.

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.

Bally Sports, a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group, also holds the television rights to more than 20 other teams as part of its regional sports networks. Ballmer declined to speculate when asked if other NBA teams would use the Clippers’ new contract as a blueprint for their own renegotiations.

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.

BallerVision -

At launch, ClipperVision also comes with a special perk, a limited edition team jacket exclusive to subscribers. Ballmer said it was important to include something “physical and tangible” with the service.

One long-term goal is to unify user accounts across digital and in-person experiences.

“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.

Evolution of Sports Viewing

Ballmer said he has been thinking about the potential for bringing new levels of interactivity to sports viewing 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.

He was able to explore his ideas further after buying the Clippers for $2 billion in 2014. Ballmer and the Clippers worked with tech company Second Spectrum to launch the CourtVision experience four years ago, with stats, animations and other graphics overlayed on screen in near real-time.

One advantage of the new direct-to-consumer streaming service, Ballmer said, will be the ability to add new capabilities in the future. He cited the hypothetical example of gamifying the experience as something that would be harder in a distribution scenario.

At the same time, the Clippers are still investing heavily in the future of 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.

In the long run, Ballmer said ClipperVision could become a meaningful source of income for the team, but the bigger priority for now is to control its own destiny in the distribution of content.

Cord-Cutting Continues, and the Metaverse expands

Ballmer is leaning into a broader trend in the way sports fans consume entertainment on small screens. In July 2022, opinion analytics platform Civic Science reported “that of the people who use a sports streaming service, 73% have cut the cord on cable or satellite television.” Watching sports is one big reason behind cord-cutting, according to Civic Science, but many viewers still prefer other streaming services over satellite and cable services, even if they have no interest in sports.

Meanwhile, teams in other sports are striking out with their own singular digital enterprises. The Los Angeles Kings dove headfirst into the metaverse in early 2022 with immersive, VR-friendly video packages, and the St. Louis Blues launched a metaverse shopping experience. In June this year, Los Angeles Lakers icon Earvin Magic Johnson invested in SimWin Sports—an NFT-backed digital sports league made up of virtual teams and athletes playing simulated games. The league hasn’t launched yet but continues to acquire capital and celebrity team owners like Backstreet Boy Nick Carter.

Even though consumers keep cord-cutting in favor of streaming, a recent Nielsen survey indicated 46% of viewers sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of available entertainment choices. So—if the Clippers are at the leading edge of a trend that will see more organizations creating dedicated pro team streaming channels as well as establishing metaverse presences, there’s a danger of it all becoming too much of a good thing.

This article first appeared on GeekWire. Steve Huff contributed additional material for publication on dot.LA.

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Leen Kawas, the Seattle biotech exec who resigned as CEO of Athira Pharma after an investigation found she had altered doctoral research images that helped to form the initial basis for the company, re-emerged Friday as co-founder and managing general partner of a new investment firm called Propel Bio Partners LP.

Co-founded with Richard Kayne, a prominent Los Angeles-based asset manager who was an early Athira investor, Propel Bio Partners also has support from several other Athira investors. Among them: John Fluke Jr., who remains on Athira’s board as the publicly traded company pursues therapies for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

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Microsoft is aiming to vault itself into the upper echelon of video games with its $68.7 billion deal to acquire Activision Blizzard, the gaming giant behind such franchises as Warcraft Diablo, Overwatch, Call of Duty and Candy Crush.

Announced Tuesday morning, it would be the largest acquisition in the Redmond company’s history, eclipsing its $26 billion purchase of LinkedIn in 2017. Adding to its existing Windows PC and Xbox gaming businesses, Microsoft says it will become the third-largest gaming company by revenue, behind Tencent and Sony.

“Today, we face strong global competition from companies that generate more revenue from game distribution than we do from our share of games sales and subscriptions,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on a call with investors and analysts Tuesday morning. “We need more innovation and investment in content creation and fewer constraints on distribution.”

Activision Blizzard, based in Santa Monica, Calif., will bring Microsoft some of the most iconic franchises in modern gaming, 10,000 employees, and a recent spate of revelations of sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct.

Bobby Kotick, Activision Blizzard CEO, will continue to serve in that role, Microsoft said. After the deal closes, Activision Blizzard will report to Phil Spencer, who will have the new title of CEO of Microsoft Gaming.

Update: A Microsoft representative clarified that the statement referring to Kotick continuing to serve as CEO was a reference to the period from now until the deal closes, in which Microsoft and Activision Blizzard will continue to operate separately. The company isn’t commenting on leadership plans beyond that.

Under the all-cash deal, Microsoft will pay $95 per share of Activision stock, a 45% premium to Activision Blizzard’s Jan. 14 share price. Microsoft says it expects the deal to close in its 2023 fiscal year, which begins in July of this calendar year.

Activision Blizzard was on track for $8.7 billion in net revenue for 2021 as of November, up from $8.1 billion in 2020.

Microsoft’s gaming revenue rose 33% to $15.4 billion in its 2021 fiscal year, which ended in June.

Consumer spending on video games reached a record $60.4 billion last year, up 8% from 2020, according to data published today by the NPD Group research firm. Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Vanguard and Call of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War were the top-selling video games in the U.S. last year.

The announcement comes a week after Take-Two Interactive announced a $12.7 billion deal to acquire mobile game maker Zynga, promising to combine the companies behind Grand Theft Auto and FarmVille.

“Mobile is the biggest category of gaming, and it’s an area where we’ve not had a major presence before this transaction,” Spencer said. Activision acquired King, the Candy Crush maker, for $5.9 billion in 2015.

The addition of Activision Blizzard also promises to bolster Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription service. After the deal is completed, Microsoft “will offer as many Activision Blizzard games as we can within Game Pass,” including new titles and games from the company’s back catalog, Spencer said.

Microsoft’s deal to acquire Activision Blizzard comes about a year after Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax Media, the Maryland-based holding company for the video game publisher Bethesda Softworks, the company behind such games as Doom, Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and the Wolfenstein series.

On the call Tuesday morning, Nadella also addressed Activision’s challenges with misconduct, saying that creating a healthy corporate culture is his top priority, requiring a mindset of continuous improvement.

“This is hard work,” Nadella said. “It requires consistency, commitment, and leadership that not only talks the talk but walks the walk. That’s why we believe it’s critical for Activision Blizzard to drive forward on its renewed cultural commitments.”

Activision Blizzard reached a consent decree with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Division in November 2021.

Just last week, Microsoft’s board hired an outside law firm to review the company’s own sexual harassment and gender discrimination policies and practices, including its handling of past allegations against Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, in response to a shareholder resolution that passed overwhelmingly in the fall.

Among the big U.S. tech companies, Microsoft may be in a unique position to make major acquisitions such as this right now.

“From a regulatory perspective, MSFT is not under the same level of scrutiny as other tech stalwarts (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google) and ultimately Nadella saw a window to make a major bet on consumer while others are caught in the regulatory spotlight and could not go after an asset like this,” said Wedbush analyst Dan Ives in a note on the deal.

Microsoft had more than $130 billion in cash and short-term investments as of Sept. 30. Its market value is about $2.3 trillion. Microsoft stock was down slightly, less than 1%, to about $308 per share in early trading Tuesday morning, following the announcement of the Activision Blizzard deal.

Activision Blizzard is scheduled to report its fourth quarter and year-end results on Feb. 3. Microsoft reports its fiscal second quarter results next week, on Jan. 25.

This story first appeared on GeekWire. GeekWire’s Taylor Soper and John Cook contributed to this report.