Here’s what we know so far about NBA All-Star weekend: There were no major snags, hotels were full and roughly 13 million people across the country watched at least some of the main exhibition games and skills competitions. Still to come: a comprehensive economic impact report that will shed light on whether projections in the range of $100 million were overly optimistic.
On Thursday, figures compiled by hotel industry tracker STR showed All-Star weekend, as hoped and predicted, boosted occupancy and room rates in uptown and countywide. In uptown, average room rates of $320 rank second only to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, when the average reached $337. The latter figure accounts for inflation; in 2012 dollars, the average was $307.
Other notable numbers from STR crunched and compared by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority include:
• Making gains over the same period a year earlier in uptown hotels for weekend occupancy (up 28.8%), overall sales (plus 36.5%) and total revenue (170.8%).
• Expanding hotel business across Mecklenburg year to year with an occupancy rate of 83.7% (15.4% more than in February 2018), a total room sales gain of 18.4% and room rate and revenue growth of 89.5% and 124.4%, respectively.
Tom Murray, head of the visitors authority, told me this week that, while visitor spending and related gains from event organizers are important, the biggest benefit the city realizes from major sports and political events is the attention brought by near-constant media coverage.
According to the NBA, 1,800 media members — reporters, columnists, camera operators and others — came to town last week for various All-Star events. In some cases, the league or the visitors authority encouraged coverage by recruiting influential international social media users.
Murray mentioned TV coverage distributed to 215 countries in 49 languages, replete with skyline shots of uptown, as the kind of unquantifiable but important attention that comes with hosting high-profile events.
“One of our barometers is how the NBA felt about it,” Hornets president Fred Whitfield told me Tuesday afternoon. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Kathy Behrens, the league’s top executive for social responsibility and player programs, “told us they were thrilled with the outcome of every facet of the weekend. They viewed it as a complete effort (between the team and local business and government). They said it was one of the more impressive (All-Star weekends).”
On Saturday night at Spectrum Center, Silver, during his annual basketball state of the union, praised the hometown Hornets and local organizers. This was the first All-Star weekend here since 1991, when Michael Jordan, the Hornets owner, played for the Chicago Bulls; the city’s arena at the time was located on Tyvola Road, not in the middle of uptown.
“To the city of Charlotte, you’ve been tremendous hosts,” Silver said. “Thank you, from the hotels to the restaurants, the police officers, everyone who’s assisted us in the community, it’s really been a fantastic reception. To the Hornets team, let me begin with Michael Jordan, the principal owner. This is something that he wanted to make happen for a long time.”
The commissioner also singled out Whitfield, who spent most of a year between March 2016 and March 2017 traveling to Raleigh with business leaders from across North Carolina as part of a campaign to repeal the anti-LGBTQ law known as HB2.
The law passed in March 2016 and caused the NBA to scuttle the 2017 All-Star Game scheduled to be played in Charlotte. In July 2016, Silver and the NBA said the 2017 All-Star weekend would instead go to New Orleans.
In May 2017, soon after HB2’s partial repeal by the legislature, the NBA awarded Charlotte the 2019 game.
“Ultimately, in true North Carolina fashion, people came together and ultimately did change that law,” Silver said. “For many people, (the repeal) didn’t go far enough and I’m sympathetic to those who feel that there are still not appropriate protections for the LGBTQ community ...”
Among the steps taken by the NBA after the HB2 fallout: requiring all venues used by the NBA to allow for public restroom use on the basis of gender identity; continuing a program to include women-, minority- and LGBTQ-owned businesses to receive a portion of vendor contracts (a combined $1.5 million for 26 companies, according to a city presentation this month); and extending community service programs to include Time Out Youth, a support and advocacy center for LGBTQ people ages 11 to 20.
On Tuesday, two days after wrapping up one of, if not the biggest sports weekends in the city’s history, Whitfield and Hornets Chief Operating Officer Pete Guelli were beginning to take stock of five years of bidding, lobbying, preparing and, finally, hosting the league’s midseason showcase.
Charlotte’s initial bid was submitted in August 2014. By June 2015, Silver and Jordan were at Spectrum Center announcing the 2017 All-Star weekend in Charlotte.
“Michael and Fred should be pinching themselves,” Signature Sports Group principal Steve Hall told me. “What they’ve gone through to get to this point, the persistence (to overcome HB2) — they did a hell of a job.”
Hall, whose company was not involved in All-Star weekend, said Whitfield helped the Hornets recover from what was a “punch in the gut” from HB2, a law that not only took away the All-Star Game (temporarily, as it turned out), but also threatened the NBA team’s core business. The reason: the Hornets operate the city-owned arena and rely on concerts and other outside events to turn a profit as venue manager.
Performers including Bruce Springsteen, Maroon 5 and Cirque du Soleil canceled concerts here and elsewhere in North Carolina while HB2 was in effect. If HB2 had not been struck down, Spectrum Center would have lost NCAA men’s basketball tournament games in 2018 and the upcoming ACC men’s tournament as well as more concerts.
Beyond tourism benefits, All-Star weekend included so-called legacy aspects — community service and philanthropy — as well as anticipated business gains for the Hornets. In the former category, the NBA and its players union donated $500,000 combined from Team LeBron and Team Giannis, the participants in the Sunday night exhibition. (This was the second year of a pick-up-game format that makes the top vote-getter in each conference a captain who then selects his All-Star teammates.) Team LeBron won the game, giving $350,000 to dropout-prevention nonprofit Right Moves for Youth. Team Giannis donated $150,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina.
All-Star weekend in Charlotte: NBA Day of Service
In addition, the NBA’s annual Day of Service, held on the Friday before the All-Star Game in the host city, this year included 1,500 NBA and WNBA executives, employees and former and current players and coaches. They conducted youth basketball clinics, helped with a United Way refurbishment project and packed food donations, among other things. Hometown product Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors teamed with Under Armour, Chase and his family to pay for renovations and additions to the Carole Hoefner Center, including an overhaul of the gym and a computer center.
Guelli called the weekend “incredibly successful” for the team both with current sponsors and potential new corporate backers. VIP hospitality packages sold by the Hornets to help offset $6 million worth of local organizing costs gave Whitfield, Guelli and other team executives a chance to spend time with key sponsors while national NBA business partners got a first-hand glimpse of Spectrum Center.
Companies including apparel brand Mitchell & Ness and watch company Tissot came away impressed with fan response to temporary displays and sales kiosks set up for All-Star weekend, Guelli told me. And, he said, some of the companies that learned more about Charlotte and the Hornets last weekend will likely become team sponsors.
On that last point, “I’m highly confident,” Guelli said.
TV and online coverage of the main events by TNT (and, for the All-Star Game, an alternate version on sister network TBS) proved to be a mixed bag, but it still commanded the largest cable sports TV audience of the weekend.
The Rising Stars game Friday attracted 1.5 million viewers while another 5 million people watched All-Star Saturday Night, featuring the dunk and 3-point shooting contests. Those figures represented increases of 5% and 8%, respectively, from 2018, according to TNT parent Turner Sports.
The All-Star Game on Sunday night drew a combined 6.8 million viewers on TNT and TBS, down from 7.65 million the previous year. Sports Media Watch reported ratings for the All-Star Game matched lows last seen in 2010 and 2008. A Turner Sports spokesman noted that social media impressions, video streaming and video views all increased this year over 2018. Video streaming grew 32% from the previous All-Star weekend.
Backers of events like the All-Star Game point out that even with middling ratings, mass exposure far surpasses the reach of advertising campaigns — and at a fraction of the cost.