Grim Economy Affects All-Star Weekend
Subdued Feel Permeates, But League Stays Upbeat

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009

Over the years, NBA All-Star Weekend has been synonymous with extravagance, excess and excitement -- a social event that meshed all-world athletes with A-list celebrities and business leaders. That convergence will still occur this year in Phoenix, but the economic downturn has contributed to a more tempered celebration.

An inability to assemble private sponsors has led to the cancellation of some of the more popular parties, such as Zo & Magic's Eight Ball Challenge, a celebrity-infused pool tournament that usually kicks off the weekend, and an ESPN bowling event. The Jordan Brand shoe company, which held a red-carpet party last year in New Orleans, elected to have a private dinner instead. And the NBA Players Association All-Star Gala, a lavish, invitation-only event considered the premier party of the weekend, plans to rely more on music from a disc jockey after having live performances by comedian Cedric the Entertainer, rappers T.I. and Snoop Dogg, and R&B singer Mary J. Blige in recent years.

"I think the people that are coming to Phoenix are going to enjoy All-Star Weekend a great deal," said Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher, president of the players' union. "At the same time, a lot of our sponsors, a lot of our players and the league overall are very aware of what the people in our country are going through. I think you'll see a little bit of a subdued feel with over-the-top parties, and guys doing a lot of different things individually."

The NBA has experienced flat attendance this season, with most teams offering lower ticket prices, special packages and incentives. The three primary all-star events this weekend -- the Rookie Challenge tonight at the convention center, the contests during all-star Saturday night and the 60th All-Star Game at US Airways Center -- have all sold out, with the cheapest tickets costing $350. The league, however, offered some reduced prices for rookie game tickets, including promotional packages and $10 upper-bowl, "end zone" seats.

Overall, official all-star events haven't been affected much, according to Ski Austin, the NBA's executive vice president for events and attractions. In addition to the family-themed "Jam Session," the league has a new free block party that started yesterday and goes through tomorrow, which will take place just outside of the arena. "Obviously, we are mindful of the economic conditions we are under right now and we're taking a look at how we're going to go about producing our events," Austin said. "We haven't cut back on any of the events that you've come to enjoy or expect. I think it's an itinerary that's not that different."

The NBA cut back on planning costs by relying more on Phoenix Suns staffers, with league employees making fewer trips to the all-star site. The league also is leaning more on volunteers and local vendors and suppliers for goods and services.

Steve Moore, president of the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau, estimated that 15,000 to 16,000 people will flock to the city for the three-day All-Star Weekend (today, tomorrow and Sunday). Moore said the entire downtown block of hotels has been sold out, and he is expecting the event to generate just north of $30 million in revenue. That pales in comparison to the more than $200 million the Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots generated in Phoenix in 2008, but Moore said, "We're trying to be extremely conservative" with our financial estimates.

League spokesman Brian McIntyre said the NBA credentialed more than 1,800 media members this year, a slight decline from past years. McIntyre said American newspapers are sending fewer reporters and photographers, but the league has more international (300 from 31 countries), digital and television reporters.

"Nobody is immune, really, to anything that is happening in this economic climate right now, but I will say that marquee events, like the All-Star Game, are really the one that people tend to gravitate to, both to the arena and on TV," Turner Sports President David Levy said. "So from that perspective, our all-star event is going to be a huge success, I believe, from an advertising perspective and I think the ratings will also be there."

Levy added that advertising for the events tomorrow and Sunday is at the same level as last season, but the hard economic times have forced TNT to scale back, especially on the production front. TNT is taking a smaller technical crew to Phoenix, overlapping producers and directors from its Thursday studio show and NBA-TV, which it also owns. Levy said TNT will also do more editing in Atlanta for the game, which will be viewed in more than 200 countries. "Let's not kid ourselves. We are certainly right-sizing our business," he said. "There are going to be some things behind the camera. The viewer at home won't recognize it."

While some functions have been canceled or toned down, TNT analyst Kenny Smith said he still plans on throwing his annual party and will add his own block party, with performances by rappers Common and Soulja Boy tomorrow.

"It will be great for the fans. They will be entertained," said Suns guard Steve Nash, the official host of All-Star Weekend. "It may not have all the ancillary things or an insane amount of tourists or visitors or insane parties and whatnot. But overall, it should be a great content for the fans and a lot of fun. It will basically be the same."

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