Rob Coombes has felt the buzz for months.
The NBA All-Star Game is still two weeks away, but commercial real estate brokers like Coombes have been busy taking calls, showing spaces and girding for what might be the largest crowd of people downtown in a decade.
Brokers are filling vacant retail spaces with corporate parties, personal events and a wide assortment of fan-focused pop-ups offering everything from team jerseys to musical entertainment. They are hoping the large crowds will take a good look downtown and think about coming back the next time they are looking for a fun night, a nice dinner or even office or residential space.
“These are the largest events that we’ve had since the start of COVID,” Coombes said. “And that’s going to help remind people of what makes our downtown great. And what our downtown can be again.”
The last four years have been a struggle for many parts of downtown, with scores of restaurants, retail shops, art galleries and offices closing during the pandemic, often with the space remaining empty. The retail vacancy rate for downtown was 14.4% in the fourth quarter of 2023, the highest for any part of Marion County, which had an average retail vacancy rate of just 4.5%, according to commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.
So for brokers and building owners, the All-Star Game is a major opportunity to get people to take a fresh look at downtown. The NBA All-Star 2024 Host Committee is projecting that 125,000 people will come downtown for the game or fan events and entertainment over the three-day weekend, which runs Feb. 16-18.
“I do think that bringing additional foot traffic back downtown for this Olympic type of event, this monumental event, is really, really good,” said Bill French, executive director and retail broker at Cushman and Wakefield.
He compared the event to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis in 2012, which attracted more than 1 million people downtown.
“After we had the Super Bowl, the downtown became more vibrant, and I think the downtown will become more vibrant after we have the NBA All-Star Game,” French said.
For some, the big game could be exactly the right medicine to get the business community charged up to address the challenges of dark storefronts. The key word for All-Star Weekend is “activation”—shorthand for putting new life, even if only for a few days or weeks, into vacant spaces.
“There’s a sense of urgency that the All-Star Game brings to get some of these spaces that otherwise would continue to sit vacant to be brought back to life,” said Catherine Esselman, founder of Cat Consulting, an Indianapolis commercial real estate consulting firm and a former commercial property expert at Downtown Indy Inc. and the Indy Chamber.
Fans without game tickets
Not many locals can actually attend the All-Star Game on Sunday evening at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Those tickets are, in most cases, used by the NBA and corporations. So the satellite activities are ways for lots of residents in the region to be able to enjoy the game as well, supporters say.
Some corporate officials say the pop-up and ancillary activity is one of the weekend’s major draws.
“I think it helps with the enthusiasm and atmosphere around the city,” said Allison Melangton, who headed the 2012 Super Bowl Host Committee and is now senior vice president of Penske Entertainment. “The more things, the better, right? It makes it have the big event feel, to give opportunities for fans to participate that aren’t the actual ticket holders for the game.”
On a purely short-term basis, the pop-up businesses stand to make tens of thousands of dollars for work lasting just a few days. And the landlords make money from leasing space that would otherwise sit empty.
And much like a convention that brings thousands of people downtown for a few days, the All-Star Game is expected to give restaurants, hotels, retailers and other businesses a boost. So even if it lasts just four days, the event is a huge benefit.
But in the long run, the event could remind people that downtown, for all its challenges, is Indianapolis’ central business district. And it’s a place with all kinds of spaces for all kinds of interests.
“Then people come to town, they go, ‘Wow, Indianapolis is a great place,’” said Steve Delaney, vice president at Dallas-based commercial real estate firm CBRE’s Indianapolis office. “It’s a marketing tool for the developers, so [when] people see downtown, they think it’s a nice place to do business.”
Mark Rosentraub, a sports business expert at the University of Michigan, said the activations are valuable because they’re likely to bring people downtown in numbers that exceed expectations. For example, the Super Bowl—which had been projected to bring 150,000 people downtown over 10 days—actually drew more than 1.1 million, six times the estimate, partly because of unusually mild weather.
All-Star events will span four days, including ancillary events that begin on Feb. 15. But that weekend also could exceed expectations.
“For Indianapolis and other cities, like Detroit, this sort of event is a real windfall because there wouldn’t be any tourism this time of the year, and people are coming downtown for this to be part of the action,” Rosentraub said.
So what attractions are popping up and generating buzz for brokers and building owners?
Much of the activity will take place in a large section of downtown that city officials have designated a “clean zone”—an area generally bounded by North Street, Kentucky and West streets, McCarty Street and East Street that will give priority to All-Star Weekend events. Operators of businesses such as horse-drawn carriages and food carts and trucks will need a permit to operate inside that perimeter.
Joey Graziano, NBA senior vice president and head of global event strategy and development, said prioritizing that real estate for All-Star Weekend events gives fans the chance to engage with many of the league’s more than 50 sponsors—particularly given that most available prime pieces of real estate are within a short walk of the venues hosting official All-Star events.
The league has worked with city officials and the host committee to identify open spaces throughout downtown. According to data from Coombes, there are more than 25 vacant storefronts in the clean zone, with many expected to be leased for All-Star Weekend.
Statewide, more than 400 locally owned businesses are participating in All-Star Weekend, including dozens downtown, through a rewards program that gives patrons access to tickets and other prizes for spending money at local stores.
NBA Crossover, a fan-focused event at the Indiana Convention Center, will feature NBA stars and legends who will take part in photos, autographs and panel discussions. The event is expected to feature a collection of more than 30 brands, from Under Armor to Ruffles, that will stage pop-ups.
In the mall
Circle Centre Mall, which has struggled for years and has numerous vacant shops, is set to be a main attraction for fans throughout the weekend. It’s been billed “The Intersection” by the NBA and will feature numerous retailers in vacant spaces. Among the pop-ups there will be sports apparel retailers Under Armour and Mitchell & Ness and Indianapolis-based Cargo Streetwear.
Mitchell & Ness, known for its throwback jerseys and snapback hats, also will present live podcast episodes at the mall featuring NBA personalities. In addition to NBA gear, items related to the city’s auto-racing history will be available at the Mitchell & Ness shop.
The Under Armour shop is set to specifically focus on the company’s Curry brand of sneakers and apparel. Two new pairs of shoes are expected to debut from the line the week before the All-Star Game.
Under Armour said the weekend is a chance to connect “with people who love the game” while also showcasing its latest products.
“The NBA All-Star Weekend is the most engaging event of the year on the basketball calendar,” said Ryan Drew, general manager of Under Armour’s Curry brand. “Athletes, celebrities, influencers, media, fans and brands are all in one place to celebrate the best of the NBA and the culture around the game.”
Luke Aeschilman, vice president and senior general manager of Circle Centre Mall, said having recognizable brands as part of its involvement sends a strong message to visitors—whether they’re from Indianapolis or in town for NBA events.
“I think it presents us the opportunity to showcase [that] there’s still a lot of value to our location,” he said. “It’s an easy decision for [these companies] to want to be in Circle Centre Mall and want to get their brands the best possible exposure and opportunity to do some sales.”
Aeschilman said even the former Carson’s department store space at 1 W. Washington St. is set to be leased for the weekend. He declined to identify the user, citing contractual obligations.
Chase’s Freedom credit card line will also have a presence at Circle Centre; it will be presenting sponsor for the National Basketball Players Association’s Brotherhood Deli. The space, planned for the third floor, will feature clothing and merchandise from companies that have been founded by, invested in or endorsed by Players Association members. Chase also plans to use a portion exclusively to entertain cardholders.
Brent Reinhard, general manager of Chase Freedom, said the idea of partnering on the space was a “no brainer,” because it presents a branding opportunity that extends an existing partnership with the Players Association and gives Chase more face time with customers and potential customers. The Deli is expected to feature player appearances and giveaways throughout the weekend.
“What’s so exciting about All-Star is the celebration component of the weekend. This isn’t the Finals, where only two teams are participating. It’s a chance to bring together players and fans for all of the NBA teams into an experience that you just don’t get on a regular weekend,” Reinhard said. “The opportunity is, we serve customers throughout the country, and we are supporting fans, regardless of the team they cheer for. … It’s a full-on celebration.”
The All-Star Game comes at an auspicious time for the mall. In December, Wisconsin-based Hendricks Commercial Properties LLC announced it had agreed to buy the mall and begin a $600 million overhaul to make it more outdoor-oriented.
Elsewhere downtown, the Indianapolis-based Be Nimble Foundation will take over an event space at 601 S. Meridian St. to create a tech and entertainment hub known as Black Future Haus.
Black Future Haus will be home to HBCUvc, a San Francisco-based not-for-profit that advises college students on tech entrepreneurship, and Indianapolis dance party Songs for You, among a roster of local and national participants.
Google will have a spot at Crane Bay Event Center focused on its Pixel products in addition to a presence at the Crossover.
The Ruffles potato chip brand, sponsor of the Feb. 16 celebrity basketball game at Lucas Oil Stadium, will have a presence at streetwear shop Nap or Nothing, 525 Massachusetts Ave. The celebrity game will feature a “4-point” long shot billed as the Ruffles Ridgeline, which will be replicated at Nap or Nothing for visitors who want to attempt it.
Ruffles, part of Dallas-based snack giant Frito-Lay Inc., told IBJ it was important to partner with a local business that has deep community roots.
“Nap or Nothing was a natural fit,” said Ryan Condon, senior director of the Ruffles brand. “We reached out to them, alongside our agency partners, and they were on board right away to help us put together a unique pop-up event for fans in Indianapolis.”
David Morton, former principal of Indianapolis-based consulting firm Sunrise Sports Group, saluted Ruffles for engaging with a local merchant.
“I think that will increase the marketability of Nap or Nothing,” he said.
Of course, all the big hopes of downtown brokers, building managers and merchants are pinned on one outcome: that swarms of people come downtown, check out the attractions and get a positive vibe.
Some hope the event will pay off for years, similar to the Super Bowl jolt.
“It’s all the same components—international media celebrities, some of the best athletes on planet Earth—all in one city with fan engagement and activity,” said Chris Gahl, executive vice president of Visit Indy. The tourism agency helped several companies identify locations for their activities.
“Residents who were oozing with pride during the Super Bowl and who plugged in and came downtown just to be part of the action and just to see the sights through the lens of a visitor and a proud resident should have the same feeling—and we believe do have the same feeling—this time around 12 years later.”•