Event planners stake claims at venues for All-Star Weekend

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The combination upscale restaurant, event space and speakeasy-style tavern being built next to Gainbridge Fieldhouse is on target to open before NBA All-Star Weekend.

That’s good timing for Commission Row, the $20 million structure occupying 30,000 square feet on a former parking lot north of the arena.

Basketball’s elite will gather in Indianapolis in mid-February, and the All-Star Game, slam dunk contest and 3-point shootout are merely part of the show. All-Star Weekend has become synonymous with parties that attract celebrities and people who gravitate to celebrity.

But you’ll likely need more than luck and cash to rub shoulders with anyone inside Commission Row Feb. 15-18. The food, beverage and party complex spearheaded by Pacers Sports & Entertainment owner Herb Simon plans to host private events during All-Star Weekend and will not be open to the public, a Cunningham Restaurant Group spokesperson told IBJ.

Cunningham will be managing the eatery, event space and bar inside Commission Row, which will be accessible to the public before and after All-Star Weekend.

Meanwhile, All-Star demand is high for venues downtown, an area long celebrated for its compact layout and track record of hosting large events.

Six weeks out from this year’s All-Star Game, few details about parties, retail pop-ups and music performances have been revealed.

It’s clear, however, that venue owners are making decisions about how their spaces will be used. Options include hosting a public event, hosting a private event or doing business as usual.

The new Commission Row—a food, beverage and party complex opening next to Gainbridge Fieldhouse—is scheduled to host private events during All-Star Weekend. (IBJ photo/Mickey Shuey)

St. Elmo Steak House, 127 S. Illinois St., is sticking to its format of serving ribeyes and famed shrimp cocktails while expanding hours of operation. Instead of being open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., St. Elmo will welcome customers 11 a.m. to midnight Feb. 16-18.

Jason Benish, vice president of operations for St. Elmo parent company Huse Culinary, said the restaurant’s regular customers represent a higher priority than potential rental arrangements.

“Initially, we had a large number of inquiries from corporate groups looking to buy out our entire downtown establishments,” said Benish, referring to St. Elmo, Harry & Izzy’s and 1933 Lounge. “This is a practice we avoid in order to serve as many visitors as possible during this busy time.”

St. Elmo, in business since 1902, is anticipating a significant crush of customers.

“Based on conversations with those familiar with this event, we expect the boost in traffic to be somewhere between a Final Four weekend and the days leading up to the Super Bowl being hosted in Indianapolis,” Benish said.

Indianapolis venues will be used for different kinds of events, including:

Public events: The All-Star Game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse and All-Star Saturday Night at Lucas Oil Stadium stand out as the main attractions. Ticketed concerts are expected to be announced in coming weeks.

Sponsor events: During last year’s All-Star festivities in Salt Lake City, 35 brands took over venues or attached their names to events, Adweek reported. Some companies might be headed to Indianapolis to interact with the public, while others might restrict their business to contest winners or clients.

Player events: It’s not uncommon for All-Star players to host private parties. In 2020, LeBron James hosted an event at a Chicago steakhouse for sports agency Klutch Sports Group. In 2018, James Harden co-hosted an album release party in Los Angeles for late rapper Nipsey Hussle.

Be our guest

Julie Johnston

Julie Johnston, co-owner of VisionLoft Events, said companies planning All-Star gatherings have sought extended bookings at her venues.

“I would say 80% of them want the entire week,” Johnston said. “I will say, ‘Well, we can do these two days,’ and they’ll say, ‘No, we need the whole week.’”

The VisionLoft lineup of venues includes its 6-year-old Mass Ave location, 235 N. Delaware St., and its Stutz space, 1060 N. Capitol Ave., which opened as part of the historic car factory’s 2023 renovations. VisionLoft also serves as event booking agent for the Stutz Car Museum.

Johnston said companies booked two of the locations for brand activations, beginning with setup on Feb. 13, and ending the day of the All-Star Game on Feb. 18.

“Activation” is a buzzword in the context of brands and events such as NBA All-Star, the Super Bowl and South By Southwest. The term refers to engaging with customers through interactions and experiences.

“One company didn’t rent from us because our ceilings were too low,” Johnston said. “They wanted to bring in a full basketball court. I said, ‘That’s great, but we have high-end lighting. We’re a wedding venue.’”

Venue owners don’t necessarily know a great deal about the companies seeking to occupy their spaces during All-Star Weekend. So-called brand-experience firms often scout locations without divulging the companies they represent, Johnston said.

At 416 Wabash, an event venue at 416 E. Wabash St. that features industrial-meets-discotheque decor, two companies are renting the party spot in two-day chunks.

Owner Christopher Wodock said he started fielding requests about All-Star availability one week after Chicago hosted the game in 2020. At the time, Indianapolis was expected to host the 2021 game, although the pandemic altered the schedule, and the Indianapolis game was moved to 2024. Similar to VisionLoft, 416 Wabash was contacted by scouts who didn’t share a wealth of information about the companies they represented.

Wodock said he’s looking forward to a low-stress All-Star experience because brands renting his space aren’t selling tickets with hopes of maximizing attendance, and the brands are sticking around for longer than a one-night stand.

“As a venue owner, one of the things we struggle with is just getting the venue turned around for the next event,” he said. “If we were to do [separate events on] a Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday, just turning the venue around four times is hard on everybody.”

On the schedule

One All-Star Weekend ticketed event has already been announced for the Hi-Fi venue in Fountain Square.

On Feb. 17, Hi-Fi will host a live podcast recording for The Ringer, a sports and pop culture website founded by ESPN “30 for 30” co-creator Bill Simmons. Tickets are $20 if purchased in advance and $25 at the door.

The event is similar to a couple of broadcasts that occurred in 2012, when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl. That year, “The Dan Patrick Show” broadcast live from Victory Field and sports-and-comedy duo Nick DiPaulo and Artie Lange broadcast a radio show live from bygone Scotty’s Brewhouse north of Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Josh Baker

Josh Baker, CEO of MOKB Presents, the concert company that operates Hi-Fi, said energy building to All-Star Weekend so far is reminiscent of what the city experienced leading up to Super Bowl XLVI.

“This is another opportunity to showcase that Indianapolis is really good at producing these kinds of events,” said Baker, who’s part of the arts and entertainment committee of the NBA All-Star 2024 Host Committee.

MOKB Presents operates three venues inside Murphy Art Center, 1043 Virginia Ave.: the Hi-Fi, Lo-Fi Lounge, Easy Rider Diner and a new studio for on-camera performances and audio recordings at the company’s offices. Baker said those spaces will be busy during All-Star Weekend, including one day when the Easy Rider restaurant will be closed to the public.

Many companies looking to do All-Star business aren’t planning public-facing events, Baker said. “They’re entertaining athletes, or they’re entertaining their clients,” he said. “Or they’re [entertaining] contest winners from an activation or whatever it may be.”

Two public concerts on the All-Star schedule are gospel shows scheduled for the same night.

At Madam Walker Legacy Center, All-Star Gospel Celebration—an annual show staged in cities hosting the All-Star Game—is planned for Feb. 15.

At Clowes Hall, Marvin Sapp, Hezekiah Walker and Donnie McClurkin will perform the same day on a bill presented by Urban One, the company that owns radio stations WTLC-FM 106.7, WIBC-FM 93.1 and WYXB-FM 105.7, among 10 media holdings in Indianapolis.

Deon Levingston

Deon Levingston, regional vice president for Urban One, has attended NBA All-Star Weekends in New York City, Dallas, Houston and other cities. Indianapolis has been home base for much of Levingston’s career, but he also spent more than a decade in New York, where he managed popular R&B station WBLS and iconic hip-hop station “Hot 97.”

In addition to the gospel concert at Butler University’s Clowes Hall, Urban One is finalizing plans for downtown events during All-Star Weekend, Levingston said.

“Downtown is laid out perfectly for this,” he said. “In Dallas, AT&T Stadium [site of the 2010 game] is not close to anything central. It’s not positioned for activations like downtown Indianapolis is.”

Heart of the action

Because Commission Row is next to Gainbridge Fieldhouse and the adjoining Bicentennial Unity Plaza, the new venue is comparable to Salt Lake City’s Flanker Kitchen & Sporting Club, an 18,000-square-foot restaurant and entertainment complex that hosted an A-list party during All-Star 2023.

Flanker Kitchen & Sporting Club borders Olympic Legacy Plaza, which was built in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics within one block of the arena where the Utah Jazz hosted last year’s All-Star Game. Flanker was the site of the “Players Party” organized by the National Basketball Retired Players Association in partnership with Revolt, a TV network co-founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs.

Bryan Bass, chief marketing officer for Flanker’s parent company, Carver Road Hospitality, attended last year’s event in Salt Lake City. Bass said the Flanker venue, which debuted in 2021 in a former Punch Bowl Social location, made a strong impression during All-Star Weekend.

“We knew that it was an opportunity for us to put a stamp on the venue and its role in the city,” Bass said. “We wanted to be involved in some pretty high-profile things, and we knew those were going to materialize at some point.”

Although it’s too early to speculate about celebrities who may attend All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis, a roster of Salt Lake City’s 2023 visitors provides a frame of reference.

The influx of celebrities to the city that’s world headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints included musicians 21 Savage, Jennifer Hudson, Lil Baby and Janelle Monae; actors Ben Affleck, Michael B. Jordan and Chris Tucker; and former NBA players Jalen Rose and Dwyane Wade.

NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley complimented Salt Lake for being “a great city” during an All-Star Weekend telecast, but he also noted its straitlaced reputation during a laughter-filled exchange with fellow commentators.

“There ain’t nothing to do in this boring-ass city. … Can’t smoke! Can’t drink! These people [are] going to heaven,” Barkley said.

During an interview with the IBJ, Flanker Kitchen representative Bass challenged Barkley’s perspective.

“I found it interesting, because I certainly saw and experienced a very different weekend,” Bass said.

A 50 Cent weekend?

Tedd Hardy, a promoter of hip-hop events in Indianapolis for more than a decade, predicted that All-Star Weekend will be a big one for rapper and entrepreneur Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.

It’s an educated guess by Hardy. In October 2022, Jackson formed an official alliance with the Pacers.

Jackson’s wine and spirits company, Sire Spirits, sells Branson Cognac and Le Chemin du Roi Champagne at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Meanwhile, the Pacers and Jackson’s not-for-profit, G-Unity Foundation, made a commitment to invest in Indianapolis youth initiatives.

Hardy said he expects Jackson’s name will be attached to a downtown party or two during All-Star Weekend.

Regarding his own event planning, Hardy said he feels squeezed out by high-profile parties and brand activations planned at local venues.

“Everybody’s scrambling,” he said of independent promoters hoping to land events at in-demand locations. “I went to all of the venues, saying, ‘What do I need to do?’ ‘Can I make you a flier?’ I just want to be a part of it.”

The IBJ attempted to contact five event venues within a few blocks of Lucas Oil Stadium and Gainbridge Fieldhouse to ask about All-Star Weekend plans. Attempts to reach representatives of the Crane Bay Event Center, Industry, Bullseye Event Center, Biltwell Event Center and Silo Auto Club & Conservancy were unsuccessful.

Instead of continuing to scramble for a downtown presence, Hardy will present a burlesque show Feb. 17 at the Irvington Event Center, 6767 E. Washington St. He’s marketing the party, titled “Ethereal Lady Love,” as a celebration of both Valentine’s Day and the All-Star Game.

The Patron Saint, a subterranean nightclub at 250 S. Meridian St., plans to conduct business as usual. Co-owner John Larner said The Patron Saint’s format of DJs showcasing electronic dance music is a good fit for All-Star Weekend.

“We tend to stick to more underground music and want our local supporters to still have a place to go,” Larner said. “Also, we believe sticking to that will give the out-of-town people some more options musically.”

Larner said it’s important for venues to have realistic expectations when attractions such as the NFL’s Super Bowl and the NCAA’s Final Four basketball games come to town.

“I think a lot of people get stars and dollar signs in their eyes,” Larner said. “They try to do events, but the budgets get too high.”

The bottom line

Not every place approached by a company or party planner is saying “yes” to rental opportunities.

Taco eatery Agave & Rye opened in February 2023 at 336 S. Delaware St., a CityWay storefront along the path for pedestrians who walk from the south to Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Chris Britt

Chris Britt, Agave & Rye’s chief operating officer, said his Kentucky-based company fielded queries about availability for the chain’s Indianapolis location.

“Some have wanted to rent out the entire restaurant, which doesn’t make sense for us because we want as many people as possible to come in to experience what we offer,” Britt said.

Similar to St. Elmo, Agave & Rye likely will expand its hours of operation during All-Star Weekend, Britt said.

MOKB Presents CEO Baker said his company is working to steer All-Star business to Fountain Square venues it has relationships with but doesn’t own. Parties at White Rabbit Cabaret and the Fountain Square Theatre could introduce attendees to the entertainment district southeast of interstates 65 and 70.

“It’s enough of a distance from downtown that you’re just outside of the madness but you’re still close,” he said.

According to projections announced in October, the upcoming All-Star Weekend is expected to attract more than 125,000 visitors and generate at least $320 million for the central Indiana economy.

The timing couldn’t be better, said Baker, whose company has brought acts ranging from Big Thief and Tyler Childers to Alabama Shakes and Jack Harlow to Indianapolis.

“The touring business is a little slower in January and February,” Baker said. “Having something like this land in the middle of February is huge. It’s a huge win for economic impact for the city, for our business, and I really think it’s a huge win for our neighborhood.”•

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6 thoughts on “Event planners stake claims at venues for All-Star Weekend

    1. Agreed! Dave Lindquist gets the job done again. It’s nice to see that you appreciate good journalism.

  1. I own a venue, right between Lucas and Gainbridge. We had one promoter book our 11,000 sqft for the entire week and is hosting, with partners, a dozen different parties/events over the 6 days leading up to the game.

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