What It’s Like to Be a Virtual N.B.A. Fan

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Malenda Meacham usually watches the Memphis Grizzlies play their home games at FedEx Forum from her perch in Section 106. She stands. She cheers. She paces. And, of course, she pretends to pound on the cartoon bongos whenever they flash on the arena’s big screens.

A part-time judge who moonlights as Bongo Lady, one of the team’s most easily recognizable superfans, Meacham, 51, was among those who labored through the N.B.A.’s extended layoff this season, her cartoon bongos rendered silent by the coronavirus pandemic. But when the Grizzlies faced the San Antonio Spurs in a seeding game at the N.B.A.’s restart at Walt Disney World in Florida, she seized the opportunity to make her presence felt again.

Clad in her personalized powder-blue jersey, Meacham provided her ticket information — Section 2, Seat 1 — then spent the next two hours sweating through every possession. In the third quarter, she even broke out a pair of bongos (autographed by the former defensive stopper Tony Allen) at the urging of the other fans in her section.

“We should all do the air bongos!” Meacham said.

The weird thing was that Meacham was nowhere near the arena. In fact, she was on her living room couch in Hernando, Miss., shouting at her laptop computer.

As part of its expansive efforts to build atmosphere for games inside its fan-free bubble at Disney World, the N.B.A. has been inviting spectators to attend — virtually. Select fans who are viewing the games from home are being livestreamed onto three video boards that extend along each baseline and one sideline. There are 10 sections in all, each with 32 seats, helping produce the vague appearance of bleachers — along with the all-too-familiar feel of a video conference call, which seems sadly appropriate these days.

“We wanted to create something that would bring our fans to the players,” Sara Zuckert, the N.B.A.’s head of Next Gen Telecast, said in a telephone interview. “It’s also a way to give fans the opportunity to feel like they’re interacting while enhancing the broadcast for everyone else at home.”

As the coronavirus continues to upend sports, and the way that fans view them, leagues around the world have showcased varying levels of creativity when it comes to sprucing up their empty backdrops. Major League Baseball teams have deployed cardboard cutouts of fans. An inventive baseball club in South Korea enlisted stuffed animals to fill its stadium. At Major League Soccer’s tournament in Florida, digital video boards hum with activity. And then there are the tarps — so many tarps in so many countries sheltering so many vacant seats.

In partnering with Microsoft, the N.B.A. has harnessed the magic of 21st century computer technology to beam fans like Bongo Lady straight into its three arenas at Disney World. (Imagine reading that sentence before the start of the season.)

Most of the virtual seats for each game are allotted to the designated “home” team, with one section typically reserved for the players’ family members and friends. The rest largely go to season-ticket holders, sponsors and fans who apply online, though there have been celebrity cameos. The rapper Lil Wayne, for example, was recently spotted behind the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench.

Former players like Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh and Manu Ginobili have also made appearances — from the comfort of their own homes. Games now double as “Where’s Waldo?” searches: Was that really Shaquille O’Neal watching the Milwaukee Bucks play the Miami Heat? (Yes, it was.)

Peggy Rounds, an account executive with the Grizzlies, reached out to Meacham to see if she would be a virtual fan for the team’s game against the Spurs.

“Who wouldn’t want to try this?” Meacham asked.

Meacham signed a three-page waiver that detailed various rules. Near the top of the list: no bad language, as audio of the virtual fans would be blended and piped into the arena. Meacham knew in advance that she was going to wrestle with that restriction. As the game wore on, she was grateful for the option to turn off her microphone. Yes, Bongo Lady muted herself. She did pick her spots, though, such as when the Spurs’ Lonnie Walker threw up an errant jumper. Meacham leaned into her laptop.

“AIRBALLLLL!” she said.

Meacham was looking at a split screen of the rest of the fans in her section, in the form of a video conference, and a live feed of the game itself. She also had the regional broadcast of the game on her television, which provided a much larger, more user-friendly viewing experience. But there was a delay, which was problematic: Her reactions as one of the virtual fans needed to come in real time, and that required her to pay attention to the pint-size feed on her laptop.

Still, the TV broadcast was vivid and seductive, and Meacham wanted to see what was actually happening. She was both invested in the game — which the Grizzlies desperately needed to win to increase their odds of landing a playoff spot — and eager to fulfill her duties as a virtual fan. The tension was real.

“I’m glad to do this for the players,” she said. “If there’s any chance that it gives them some extra oomph, then it’s worth it.”

Rounds, the Grizzlies’ account executive, policed Meacham’s section as a moderator (no cursing; stay in your seat) while a member of the team’s dance crew pumped up the energy by starting chants. There was a semi-successful attempt at doing the wave. When Ja Morant, the team’s star guard, drained a jumper, several fans mimicked his “goggles” celebration. Meacham yelped with delight.

“High-five! High-five?” Meacham said as she extended her arms. “Nobody’s high-fiving.”

She experienced other minor inconveniences. She was unfamiliar with the Microsoft program. (“I’m a Zoom girl,” she said.) The virtual fan “sitting” in front of her was too close to the camera on his computer, which had the effect of partly blocking her out. (“I keep trying to get his attention,” said Meacham, who pretended to squeeze the offending fan’s head between her thumb and index finger like an overripe tomato.) But she also struggled to remain in her own seat as the game slipped away from Memphis.

“I get too hyped up,” she said. “I’m usually standing.”

The fourth quarter was excruciating for Meacham, who spent entire possessions with her head in her hands. She put her bongos away.

“I think I may need a drink,” she said.

Afterward, she digested the loss by reflecting on the experience.

“I know the N.B.A. is just trying to do the best they can under the circumstances,” Meacham said. “And I’m honored that the Grizzlies asked me to do it.”

But she was still looking forward to the day when she could watch a game the old-fashioned way — in person.

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