Finding one’s way into Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Feb. 18 for the flagship event of NBA All-Star Weekend will cost a pretty penny, if any tickets can be found at all.
That’s because, even though the NBA made this year’s slate of events more accessible for fans—10,500 tickets for Saturday night’s pregame events at Lucas Oil Stadium were sold for $24 to $79 apiece—the All-Star Game itself remains a cornerstone of the league’s corporate entertainment strategy.
Consequently, the league tightly controls distribution of game tickets, a fact that drives even the lowest ticket prices sky high and makes private suites harder to come by for local sponsors.
“For the NBA’s biggest partners, All-Star is an opportunity to entertain clients, and there’s a lot of value in that—it’s an event that nobody wants to miss,” said Larry DeGaris, a sports marketing expert and executive director of the Spiegel Research Center at Northwestern University in Chicago.
In short, he said, the game is akin to the NFL’s Super Bowl, which will take place just one week prior, on Feb. 11, in Las Vegas. Both games are where league sponsors are wooed, celebrities gather and party, and occasionally, deals get done—whether at seats in the nosebleeds, inside a suite or in seats just steps from the game action.
“For a lot of NBA All-Star Weekend sponsors, hospitality is the primary objective,” DeGaris said. The NBA All-Star Weekend is “number two only to the Super Bowl as far as [sports sponsor] appeal” in North America.
The NBA uses private channels to market its ticket inventory rather than listing tickets on sites like Ticketmaster or SeatGeek, making any access for the public challenging and costly. The league allots thousands of tickets to its stable of sponsors and to 1,500 credentialed media members.
An undisclosed number of tickets is provided to the host team—in this case, the Indiana Pacers—for distribution to local businesses and sponsors, team personnel and a few lucky fans, while about 35% is distributed to the rest of the NBA’s 30 teams.
A few thousand tickets also are made available through NBA Experiences, a league-backed group that pairs game tickets with other All-Star Weekend perks, such as access to the Crossover fan event, NBA parties or interactions with notable former basketball players. Packages centered on the All-Star Game start at $1,399 per ticket for seats in the upper sections of Gainbridge Fieldhouse, with some exceeding $8,500 per ticket with access to multiple lounges, lower bowl seating, parties and concerts.
Those are typically scooped up by corporate groups, celebrities and other well-heeled buyers.
So far, only about 100 individual tickets for the game are listed on the online secondary market, with prices ranging anywhere from $930 to $8,700.
The Pacers declined to comment for this story, referring questions about how suites are used during the All-Star Game to the NBA.
Joey Graziano is senior vice president of global event strategy and development for the league. He said the NBA emphasizes corporate-partner access—the league has nearly 50 sponsors that run the gamut from sports drinks to footwear to tires—because those companies are important to both All-Star Weekend and the league.
Many league sponsors are sure to have a presence throughout downtown all weekend—through pop-up spaces, at fan events or in public gathering areas.
“We want to be able to bring in all our marketing and media partners because … it’s what delivers the global media platform that puts the city and this event on a true global stage,” Graziano said.
In fact, this year’s event will give the NBA a better opportunity than ever before to entertain sponsors because the Saturday prelude events and the Sunday All-Star Game will be at separate facilities, collectively featuring more suites and premium spaces than any previous All-Star Weekend.
For the game, Gainbridge Fieldhouse offers 56 suites and a handful of other premium spaces; other prelude events in the southern half of Lucas Oil Stadium will offer access to 82 suites and premium spaces.
NBA sponsor benefits
The league’s sponsors—many of which will have suites for events throughout the weekend—generally have their weekend seating and access included as part of their sponsorship agreements, experts said.
“These are custom deals that are negotiated out between the NBA and its partners, and they’re very complex, large deals,” said Todd Lindenbaum, founder and CEO of Denver-based SuiteHop, a brokerage site for sports-facility premium spaces.
He said it’s hard to put a figure on the value of a suite for All-Star Weekend, because the league does not make its contracts public, and suites for the event rarely come to the open market. But he estimated the cost at $125,000 for just the game or $200,000 for the weekend.
Another expert on suites, Thomas Wills, president and CEO at Canadian sports consulting firm Bonham/Wills & Associates, pegged the figure slightly higher, at $250,000 for the weekend. Suite prices for this year’s Super Bowl are expected to range from $800,000 to $2 million.
“In the sponsorship realm, we see a huge value in these [All-Star] weekends,” Wills said. “There’s tremendous value in the ability to use hospitality to reward employees, customers and clients.”
Some local companies and Pacers sponsors might also get in on the action, though it’s unclear how much access they’ll have.
While corporate purchasers of Gainbridge suites for a Pacers full or half season often get access to concerts and many other non-Pacers sporting events as part of their package, the NBA All-Star Game is not included.
When a team agrees to host All-Star Weekend, it must rent the entire building to the NBA, said a source familiar with the arrangement between the NBA and Pacers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
For now, it’s difficult to know precisely what accommodations the Pacers will be able to provide their own sponsors, the source said. The breakdown of what will be available to the Pacers that weekend hasn’t been finalized as the league continues to work with its partners on accommodation details.
The source said the mix is likely to include balcony and lower-level seats, along with possibly a few suites or some other premium-area access.
Gainbridge Fieldhouse is a very different space than it was even a few years ago, particularly from a corporate entertainment perspective. As part of a three-phase overhaul, which wrapped up last summer, Pacers Sports & Entertainment removed eight suites to make way for other premium offerings, like new terraces, veranda areas and lounges. Two club areas were also added, with exclusive access for those with seats in the lower sideline sections—an alternative to the standard corporate spaces.
All of those areas are expected to be used by the NBA and its partners throughout the weekend, as will the $20 million Commission Row building set to open this month next to Gainbridge Fieldhouse and Bicentennial Unity Plaza. That building will host private events on each floor.
“This is going to be a much better All-Star because we’ve had those renovations happen,” said the NBA’s Graziano, because the new spaces have created “additional inventory” for corporate entertainment.
‘An interesting approach’
Among the local entities that will be at the All-Star Game is Visit Indy, which plans to entertain at least a dozen groups considering hosting events in Indianapolis in the coming years. The tourism agency has 22 seats in the stands for the game, as well as tickets for other weekend events at the fieldhouse and at Lucas Oil Stadium—like All-Star Saturday Night, which features the 3-point shooting contest, skills challenge and dunk contest.
Chris Gahl, executive vice president of Visit Indy, said the organization has been considering its invitation list for the game for more than two years.
He said while he could not discuss how Visit Indy procured its seats, the organization has worked closely with the Pacers since the bid was awarded to ensure a presence at the game. Visit Indy budgeted about $100,000 for the weekend, including flying in decision-makers, entertainment and lodging, dining, and the seats themselves.
Gahl said Visit Indy shifted its focus from a suite for the weekend amid “incredible demand” for the spaces by companies and individuals from outside central Indiana. He said the move will give Visit Indy a chance to provide meeting and event planners a more immersive experience.
“We think this will be an interesting approach,” he said. “By curating seats with 22 people—including a handful of staff—we think it offers a chance of having more of a fan perspective. It’s a very curated weekend, and it’s part of our sales and marketing process.”
Gahl declined to identify the companies expected to be entertained, noting that tipping the organization’s hand could hurt the bid process. But he said three-quarters of those scheduled to attend have never been to Indianapolis.
It’s expected other local groups will also use the weekend as a marketing tool—a common practice for city and state economic development arms and sports development organizations. The city of Indianapolis referred questions about whether it will have tickets to any weekend events to the Capital Improvement Board, which owns both Lucas Oil Stadium and Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
A CIB spokesperson said in an email that the agency “does not have any complimentary seats or suites” for events at either venue. The agency did not answer questions about whether it paid for any seats.
The Indiana Sports Corp. declined to comment for this story. And a spokesperson for the Indiana Economic Development Corp. said its plans for the weekend are still being finalized.•