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NBA announces plans for Atlanta All-Star Game despite health concerns, pushback from stars

LeBron James high-fives Anthony Davis during the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago. (Nam Huh/AP)

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, public pushback from players and concerns from a local government official, the NBA formally announced Thursday its plans to hold the All-Star Game in Atlanta on March 7.

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed to hold a modified All-Star Weekend, salvaging a scaled-down showcase during the March 5-10 midseason break after the pandemic scuttled plans to hold the event in Indianapolis.

Under the new plan, the All-Star Game will tip off at 8 p.m. at State Farm Arena, which is home to the Hawks. This year’s festivities will include a pregame slate of the skills challenge and the three-point contest, beginning at 6:30 p.m., and a halftime presentation of the slam dunk contest. Like last year, the All-Star Game will use the “Elam Ending,” which provides a target score during an untimed fourth quarter.

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Players will be shuttled into Atlanta on Saturday, March 6, and back out that Sunday night using private transportation. All participants will live in what the league is calling a “mini bubble” during their stay, with players and coaches remaining at a single hotel and underdoing regular coronavirus testing.

The rescheduled exhibition, which is expected to generate between $30 million and $60 million in television ad revenue, will feature a donation of $2.5 million to historically Black colleges and universities and coronavirus-related causes. Atlanta was chosen as the site in part because TNT, the official television broadcaster of All-Star Weekend, is based there.

“NBA All-Star in Atlanta will continue our annual tradition of celebrating the game and the greatest players in the world before a global audience,” Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “In addition to the festivities on the court, the All-Star Game will honor the vital role HBCUs play in our communities and focus attention and resources on COVID-19 relief, particularly for the most vulnerable.”

The pandemic has caused problems for the NBA this season, with positive tests by players and absences because of contact tracing leading to 30 postponed games. Yet the league’s health situation has gradually improved with tightened protocols, which were instituted last month and aimed at restricting players’ off-court contacts. Over the past three weeks, only six players have tested positive. Nationally, the rate of new cases has dropped from peak levels in early January.

Still, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) expressed concerns Tuesday that the event could increase the city’s coronavirus risk by attracting an influx of visitors and partygoers.

“Under normal circumstances we’d be grateful for the opportunity to host the NBA All-Star game, but this isn’t a typical year,” Bottoms wrote on Twitter. “I’ve shared my concerns [with the NBA and Atlanta Hawks. … We agree that] this is a made-for-TV event only, and people shouldn’t travel to Atlanta to party.”

While the Hawks announced plans to host roughly 1,300 fans per game at State Farm Arena on Jan. 26, representing 8 percent of the building’s capacity, the NBA said there would be “no fan activities, ticketed events or hospitality functions” this year.

As the NBA worked to finalize plans for Atlanta, it launched its all-star fan voting process three weeks ago. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets were selected as captains for their respective conferences. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal was selected as a starter in the East, joining Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Kyrie Irving. The West’s starting lineup includes James, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic. The NBA will name the full rosters Tuesday, with James and Durant participating in a draft to select their rosters.

Several top players expressed their concerns with holding the All-Star Game during the pandemic or with the league’s health protocols. James said that it felt like a “slap in the face” to hold an exhibition with little warning to players who believed they were getting a five-day break. Antetokounmpo and James Harden said that they would rather spend the time with their families, and Leonard argued that the NBA was “putting money over health.” Meanwhile, Durant tweeted his frustration with the league’s contact tracing policy, which had sidelined him for the second time this season.

To accommodate schedule-related concerns, teams with all-star players might be given an extra day or two off before resuming the second half of their regular season schedule after the midseason break, the league said this week in an internal memo to teams.

Silver said that coronavirus spread among all-stars in Atlanta was “not a particular concern” because the NBA was constructing “a completely controlled environment” that will be “a replication of the bubble-type environment” that the league used last summer at Disney World.

“Nothing comes without risk,” Silver said in a televised interview with TNT. "It could happen. A player could spread it from one to another. We feel pretty good about our protocols. ... There’s no doubt the players need a break, and we planned for one. We’re all collectively more concerned about players leaving our daily protocols and what happens on break [for players who won’t be at All-Star Weekend]. Of course, guys want to let loose a little bit. Those [are] activities that could more likely lead to guys, all-stars or non all-stars, getting infected, as opposed to being in a tightly constricted bubble in Atlanta.”

The All-Star Game is traditionally one of the most important dates on the NBA calendar from a television perspective, with Silver calling it “the number one fan engagement event of the entire season.” The 2020 event averaged 7.3 million viewers on TNT and TBS. By comparison, a 2019 Christmas showcase between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers averaged 8.8 million viewers on ABC and ESPN, while a 2020 Christmas game between the Lakers and Dallas Mavericks averaged 7 million viewers. The 2020 NBA Finals, which were held in October because of the pandemic and had to compete with the NFL, MLB and college football, averaged 7.5 million viewers. Additionally, Silver estimated that highlight clips from a typical All-Star Weekend can generate 1 billion views online.

The NBA has held an All-Star Game every year since 1951, with the exception of the 1999 lockout-shortened season. Last year, the NBA held All-Star Weekend in Chicago a few weeks before the season was suspended March 11. The NBA announced in November that Indianapolis’s turn to host All-Star Weekend, initially scheduled for Feb. 12-14 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, would be postponed until 2024, citing “public health conditions.”

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