Last weekend, under the lights of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, the Jabberwockys danced in what may have been an email TV special as part of “the most culturally relevant basketball experience on the planet.”
That’s what it was called on the sign, anyway. It was the first ever NBA Con and was modeled after the league’s Comic Con. Basketball-themed Lollapalooza hosted his three-day event of fashion, music and basketball.
But seen through a different lens, the tournament provided an interesting window into how the league thinks as a business.
For the NBA, stars are much bigger than the game and a cultural presence far beyond the floor. The NBA took advantage of this by hosting a tournament during Summer League in Las Vegas, bringing a large number of associations, retired players, owners, general managers, players, sponsors and fans to Nevada.
“When you ask people about the NBA, it’s not a company to them,” league deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said. “It’s life. It’s their culture. The NBA is a culture of music, fashion, entertainment and style.”
More than 25,000 fans attended, most paying between $30 and $250 for admission. But really, cultural relevance is priceless, especially in the case of Michelob his Ultra sponsor. (They were there too.)
The convention floor was set up to evoke the spirit of New York City with park benches, Jenga, cornhole and pickleball courts. There were districts titled Drips, Collections, Networks, Parks and Combos.
Sponsored drips were the true heart of the competition.
Certainly, conventions have helped the league reach fans in a way that LeBron James couldn’t when he’s not playing every night. On Saturday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver detailed the new in-season tournaments in a TV special. But hosting NBA Con also meant the league created new intellectual property opportunities. The company sold NBA Con merchandise and created a new Twitter account, but the account had fewer than 2,000 followers as of Monday, compared to nearly 44 million for the league account.
There was an AT&T booth with a sign that read, “Show off your Firefit in the spotlight.” Fans lined up and filmed slow-motion videos of the outfits under the flashy spotlights.
Another booth, run by memorabilia company MeiGray, sold jerseys worn at the games. The main podium displayed a mannequin wearing the jersey worn by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in Game 2 of the NBA Finals last month. It sold for $150,000. Next to it was a small podium decorated with the jersey Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler wore in Game 3 of that series. It sold for $17,500. The winner, the Nuggets, will be awarded a bigger box and a higher price.
In the far corner of the convention space was an exhibit called “Ring Culture” by Beverly Hills jeweler Jason. Several replicas of championship rings were on display. It could have been the perfect location for a movie heist like ‘Ocean’s 11’.
The night before the tournament, the NBA held a walkthrough for journalists. YouTuber Tristan Jas, best known for his trick shots in basketball, showed off some of his skills on a makeshift court. But before that, he tells the story of his journey to fame.
“We left our mark of inspiration all over the world,” Jas told the crowd.
His first shot was a heave from a location adjacent to the court behind a chain link fence. He missed his first two attempts, but got a hit on the third. It was impressive. His second shot launched full court from the opposite corner. This didn’t work. After failing at least 20 times, some observers (apparently uninspired observers) moved on to the rest of the tour. “That hurt,” Jas muttered when the shot went off.
The highlight of the weekend was a panel discussion with San Antonio Spurs’ Victor Wenbanyama and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, moderated by former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas. There were hundreds of seats, but long lines formed for viewers to catch a glimpse of the basketball torch being handed over. Wenbanyama was the most talked about No. 1 pick in last month’s NBA Draft.
There was also a larger background. Abdul-Jabbar and Wenbanyama conversed during the 30-minute panel discussion more than we have spent in the past 20 years conversing with James combined. Abdul-Jabbar told reporters in Los Angeles last month, “I never really got a chance to talk to LeBron other than a couple of minutes.”
Abdul-Jabbar said at NBA Con that he was shocked by how much the game had changed.
“Different players in different positions have different duties and what is expected of them,” he said. “There was a really big change. For more than a few minutes, I was just sitting there thinking, ‘Can I compete?'”
Abdul-Jabbar spent 20 seasons in the NBA and retired in 1989 as a career leading scorer. James surpassed his own record in February.
“However, it would have been nice to be able to fly charter jets from city to city like they did,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I couldn’t do that. I could have played longer.”
To that end, the tournament served as a branding activity not only for the NBA, but for the players themselves. The 19-year-old Scoot Henderson, who was drafted third overall by the Portland Trail Blazers last month, is one of the stars of a new generation with marketing power unrecognizable to players from the Abdul-Jabbar era. Most players are active on their social media, which gives them more ways to reach their audience. Henderson was interviewed on a panel with former Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, indicating that the league sees Henderson as the next player in the star’s lineage.
“I’ve been thinking of myself as a business for a little while,” Henderson said afterwards. “Name. Enterprise, that’s me.”