Indy’s delay for hosting NBA All-Star Game provided helpful timeout

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(IBJ illustration/Audrey Pelsor)

When thousands of basketball fans, journalists and corporate sponsors land in Indianapolis next week for All-Star Weekend, organizers say they’ll be treated to a more elevated experience than they would have been in 2021, when the city was originally slated to host the event.

Among the changes over the past three years: a fully renovated Gainbridge Fieldhouse, a stronger focus on arts and culture programming and a hometown team that is on the upswing.

Mel Raines, chief operating officer of Pacers Sports & Entertainment and president of the All-Star Game Local Organizing Committee, said the NBA told Pacers officials in August 2020—at the height of the pandemic—it was unlikely the 2021 All-Star event would happen as planned.

At the time, the NBA wasn’t even certain when it would start its 2020-2021 season or whether fans would be permitted at games.

The NBA finalized its decision the following November, when the league said it would push Indianapolis’ turn to host the game forward three years, after stops in Cleveland and Salt Lake City. The 2021 game was moved to Atlanta, in part because Indianapolis had already committed to hosting the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament the same weekend the NBA eventually selected for its events that year. And that was OK with officials in Indianapolis.

“We wanted the full All-Star Game that we’re getting in 2024—we wanted all of the events, we wanted the whole city to be back open,” Raines said. “We knew construction [at the fieldhouse] would be done, which was a bonus, but it was just the next year available. I’d like to say it was a super strategic move, but we were willing to take the next spot.”

The Atlanta game was no-frills, with only 1,500 people in the stands, a group largely consisting of frontline workers, community partners and alumni, students and faculty of Atlanta-area historically black colleges and universities.

This year’s event will welcome more than 125,000 people over at least three days, including tens of thousands of visitors from across the country. The event is expected to generate $320 million for the local economy, according to a Temple University Sports Industry Research Center study commissioned by the host committee, PS&E, Visit Indy and the Indiana Sports Corp.

Those figures collectively would make NBA All-Star Weekend the biggest sporting event in more than a decade in Indianapolis, based on IBJ research. The 2012 Super Bowl had an economic impact of $278 million but brought about 1.1 million visitors downtown over a 10-day period.

Joey Graziano, senior vice president of global event strategy and development for the league, said the delay has ultimately been “a blessing” for the NBA, Indianapolis and basketball fans.

“I think the Pacers would agree it was a very difficult decision that required tremendous leadership” from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Pacers executives including CEO Rick Fuson and Raines, Graziano said. “But it’s one I think we’re going to look back on and be very grateful for.”

Completing the renovation

Graziano pointed specifically to the $400 million renovation of the Gainbridge Fieldhouse campus, which concluded in January with the opening of the Simon family-developed Commission Row. The building is adjacent to the fieldhouse and Bicentennial Unity Plaza on Delaware Street and features a restaurant, speakeasy and event space.

The fieldhouse and plaza renovations were funded through state legislation approved in 2019 as part of a 25-year deal to keep the Pacers in Indianapolis.

When the Pacers first began discussing the renovation plans with city leaders and the Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board, officials had hoped they could wrap up the work by the time All-Star Game rolled around in 2021. But that proved unrealistic—both because of construction and planning timelines and then delays because of the pandemic.

In fact, only the first phase of the project was finished in time for the original All-Star Game date. Those improvements included two new clubs: the then-unsponsored Sire Sports ’67 Club that features a speakeasy environment and the PointsBet Hardwood Club, which feels more like a traditional sports bar.

The upgrades also included 10 additional suites and two loge boxes on the Key Bank level (bringing the total number of suites temporarily to 74) and underbelly screens on the center court scoreboard for spectators on the lower levels of the fieldhouse.

Those improvements were done in time for the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which was held in Indianapolis, Bloomington and West Lafayette in a “bubble” environment. The fieldhouse hosted 16 of the tournament’s 66 games, albeit at 25% capacity.

Other parts of the fieldhouse renovation—including most of the updated seating throughout the venue, the plaza and improvements to the suites on the Krieg DeVault level of the arena—had not started.

Today, all three phases—including construction of the event plaza—are done.

“It’s a great benefit that we were able to complete everything and we’re now without any more construction cones. My hard hat is retired,” said Raines, who oversaw the project.

Later phases of the project reduced the overall number of suites to 56 but added other premium ticket and event spaces. The reduced emphasis on suites is part of a league-wide trend that focused on offering better quality spaces at reduced numbers—a strategy meant to fetch higher revenue for the Pacers because the team is able to charge more for a better experience. The move was also functional: It created more large gathering areas and different price points for suites that can be marketed to different users, depending on their need.

The NBA is expected to use most of the venue’s premium spaces throughout All-Star Weekend events, largely to entertain corporate partners and celebrities.

The company with the fieldhouse’s naming rights—Gainbridge, which offers a financial platform—is also set to benefit from All-Star Weekend. The company signed on as the venue’s naming rights partner in late 2021, replacing longtime sponsor Bankers Life.

Mark Rosentraub, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, said the changes to the fieldhouse allow Indianapolis the opportunity to put its best foot forward for the basketball world.

Rosentraub said the new design “emphasizes the way in which people prefer to consume sports now.Many people really don’t want to sit in the same seat for a full game and they are looking for areas where they can walk around. It’s a much more open design and has a good deal of social seating that enhances the enjoyment of the venue experience.”

Work on Bicentennial Unity Plaza—shown here under construction last July—had not even started in 2021, when Indianapolis was originally slated to host the All-Star Game. (IBJ file photo)

A new dialogue

Another significant shift in Indianapolis’ approach to All-Star Weekend stemmed from the racial and social reckoning that happened in summer 2020, after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. The event set off a firestorm of activity, including massive protests in downtown Indianapolis and elsewhere across the country.

The NBA used the opportunity to assess the role it could play in social issues and promoting diversity initiatives. Likewise, local organizations evaluated and enhanced their role in promoting Indianapolis’ cultural landscape, which led to the creation of GangGang, a firm focused on showcasing Black artists and their work.

GangGang worked with the Indianapolis Cultural Trail and the Indy Arts Council on a three-week art and music festival called Swish that took place during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2021. That project laid the groundwork for the All-Star Host Committee to embrace arts and culture as part of its approach to the 2024 events.

In fact, the host committee didn’t have an arts and culture committee as part of its 2021 planning. Today, that committee is one of the key drivers of the way the organizers plans to showcase the city.

“Having gone through March Madness in 2021 and seeing Swish, and everything that brought to the event, I literally just about hit myself over the head with a hammer and said, ‘Why did we not do this before?’” Raines said.

GangGang’s Alan Bacon and Malina Bacon are co-chairs of the Arts and Culture Committee with Indiana Humanities CEO Keira Amstutz and Indy Arts Council CEO Julie Goodman. Goodman said Swish in many ways catalyzed local organizations to make larger investments into the arts for these big events, she said.

For example, Swish was funded through a $355,000 grant from Lilly Endowment and paid 600 artists for their work. This year’s All-Star event has $2 million in arts funding through the endowment, the city, the host committee and the Capital Improvement Board.

Swish also largely focused on music and art installations on vacant storefronts throughout downtown, while the All-Star event will have many more components, including 24 Hoosier Historia sculptures, a new Tip-off event, a “cultural corridor” along Washington Street and several light-based art installations, including a special “Shining a Light” show on Monument Circle.

“I think everybody involved would agree that the scale and integration of arts and culture looks very different in 2024 than it would have in 2021,” Goodman said. “I don’t think we’ve taken the time to pause and reflect on it that way because we’ve all been running so fast. … But I think it’s significant when we think about the difference of what this looks like today compared to what it looked like pre-2021.”

The delay also means some Indianapolis business owners who weren’t downtown in 2021 can now participate in the event.

Antonio Maxie is owner of the Nap or Nothing streetwear shop at 525 Massachusetts Ave. He opened the location in December 2022 as part of an “In the Mix” initiative from GangGang and Downtown Indy Inc. focused on helping Black-owned businesses secure storefronts downtown.

“Nap or nothing,” a motto that expresses loyalty toward Indianapolis, is featured on T-shirts, hoodies and sweatpants marketed by Maxie.

Maxie said he had hoped some might patronize his store—at the time located at Lafayette Square Mall—during the 2021 All-Star events or that he might be able to showcase his music. Now, he has teamed with the Ruffles potato chip brand on a pop-up inside his store for this year’s events.

Ruffles, which is the sponsor of the Feb. 16 celebrity basketball game at Lucas Oil Stadium, will use the 3,000-square-foot store to replicate its signature Ruffles Ridgeline, a four-point distance shot in the celebrity game that visitors will be able to shoot from to try and earn prizes. That activation, planned for noon to 6 p.m. Feb. 17-18, is free to the public and one of many planned for downtown throughout the weekend by the NBA and its sponsors.

“I don’t know if that opportunity would have come up if we were still in Lafayette Square,” Maxie said.

Former Indiana University and NBA player Alan Henderson, who owns Henderson Spirits Group, will also have a presence downtown during All-Star Weekend. His products, Birdie Brown Plain Hooch whiskey and Tom Bullock’s bourbons and gins, have expanded from Indiana to more than 10 states since 2021, giving him enough exposure to secure partnerships for two spaces downtown in addition to having some of his spirits sold at Commission Row.

Henderson Spirits Group is sponsoring a sold-out party at Burn by Rocky Patel at Circle Centre Mall, as well as partnering with GangGang for a pop-up Henderson Bar—named in his honor—inside what will be called The Suite, located where the Rock Bottom restaurant was previously housed on Washington Street.

The Henderson Spirits Group’s brands are named for two Black pioneers of the beverage industry: Birdie Brown and Tom Bullock.

Henderson, an Indianapolis native, was drafted 16th by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 1995 NBA draft. He also played for the Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers, retiring in 2007. He played high school ball at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, leading the team to the state basketball championship game in 1991.

Henderson said while he was optimistic he might have been involved in the 2021 game, the delay gave him more time to build his brands.

“It gave us a chance to grow and get into more accounts,” he said, noting the company’s products are now sold at Total Wine and Meijer. “We’re definitely more ready for All-Star Weekend.”

Maxie, the owner of Nap or Nothing, said he thinks Indianapolis is now in a better spot—both as an NBA franchise and as a city—to play host to the league’s biggest event.

“I think the [timing] was a blessing,” he said. “We would have still enjoyed the All-Star Game three years ago, but I feel like we are in a better situation. It gave Indianapolis enough time to develop and grow. All of these years and these mishaps are just building blocks for this greatness that’s going to happen now.”

A different look

Much like the fieldhouse and the city’s arts and culture scene, the Pacers have a different look—and swagger—today than they did just a few years ago.

At that time, the team was coming off a 4th place finish in the Eastern Conference (in a condensed season that finished in a “bubble” setting) and was led by Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, both of whom were All-Stars for the 2020 game in Chicago.

But a disagreement between Oladipo and the Pacers over the star’s contract demands led him to be traded to the Rockets in January 2021—just weeks before the All-Star game was originally set to take place. Sabonis was traded in 2022 as part of a six-player deal that brought Tyrese Haliburton to the team from the Sacramento Kings.

Last month, Haliburton was named an All-Star starter.

And even with a sixth-place record in the Eastern Conference this year, the Pacers look poised to make a run come the playoffs. That’s because in addition to Haliburton’s on-the-court performance—he leads the NBA with an average of 12.5 assists per game—the Pacers have made other pickups to fill out the team, as well.

In addition to bringing in Obi Toppin from the New York Knicks in the most recent offseason, the franchise drafted newcomers Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard in 2022 and Jarace Walker and Ben Sheppard in 2023. Most recently, the Pacers traded for Pascal Siakam, adding another strong player to their lineup. The team has also retained Myles Turner, who remains a key component of the franchise’s strategy.

Haliburton, who is back in the Pacers’ starting lineup after a hamstring injury, will start for the Eastern Conference team. Oscar Tshiebwe, who plays for the Indiana Mad Ants G-League Team, has been picked to participate in the Up Next game at the All-Star Weekend’s Crossover event.

Mathurin will participate in the weekend’s Rising Stars game at 8:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Milt Thompson, an Indianapolis attorney and former sports agent, said the Pacers have “turned the entire franchise keys over to Haliburton … and are really putting together some pieces that go around him.”

Haliburton is “ready to be a starter for the All-Star Game in his hometown, and that’s an exciting thing franchise-wise.”

Haliburton–whose likeness has been plastered across Indianapolis as part of preparations for the festivities, including on the JW Marriott hotel and in baggage claim at Indianapolis International Airport–will play a role throughout All-Star Weekend as the literal face of the franchise.

Thompson said he believes All-Star Weekend positions Indianapolis to showcase not only its prowess as a host city but as a potential home of “some exciting basketball” in its own right, given the Pacers’ run in the NBA’s In-Season Tournament, where Indiana lost in the final to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Already, people are paying attention,” Thompson said. “The In-Season Tournament games did more for the franchise than people can imagine. It says, ‘We’re back.’ And that announcement was made loud and clear.

“Now they have a chance to do that again with the All-Star Game–and with Haliburton as a starter, no less. That’s pretty high cotton right there.”•

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2 thoughts on “Indy’s delay for hosting NBA All-Star Game provided helpful timeout

  1. Im very proud and happy for Indy. It’s constantly proving its ability to host major events just as good or better than any city. The people here are very creative and ive always said there’s a lot of talent in Indy. I have no doubt that Indy is one of the most underrated cities in the country.

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