Atlanta is site of this year's NBA All-Star Game

By Sarah K. Spencer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
A general view of State Farm Arena during the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Detroit Pistons in November 2018 in Atlanta, Ga. The venue will b the site of this year's NBA All-Star game.

ATLANTA - The NBA All-Star Game typically is a robust, three-day affair, with several fan and community events taking place in the host city.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, though, when State Farm Arena hosts the All-Star Game March 7, it will be on a much smaller scale, for a much shorter time period.

"This is as far from typical as possible," Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said. "Players will arrive Saturday night, they will leave Sunday night."

At long last, the one-day All-Star event, which will include a skills challenge, 3-point contest and dunk contest, was officially announced Thursday afternoon, though rumors of the event have been swirling for weeks. The game will feature local healthcare heroes and HBCUs, with the NBA and Players Association committing more than $2.5 million in funds and resources toward HBCUs and "support and awareness around equity and access to COVID-19 care, relief and vaccines," the league said in a statement.

"NBA All-Star in Atlanta will continue our annual tradition of celebrating the game and the greatest players in the world before a global audience," Commissioner Adam Silver said. "In addition to the festivities on the court, the All-Star Game will honor the vital role HBCUs play in our communities and focus attention and resources on COVID-19 relief, particularly for the most vulnerable."

One of the biggest differences from years past? The game will not be a ticketed event open to the public, with attendees consisting of 1,200-1,500 local healthcare workers, local students/staff of HBCUs and family/close friends of All-Star players. The Hawks are encouraging people to watch the game from home, and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has asked fans not to travel to Atlanta "to party" for the event, as the country tries to limit the spread of COVID-19.

"I think the big thing we want people to understand, this is for television, it's Sunday night, it's not All-Star weekend," Koonin said. " 'All-Star Game comes to Atlanta' is a true headline, but it's not really what's happening. A COVID-19-protected All-Star Game is coming to Atlanta ... There's not going to be a ticket market for fans and spectators, so we want people to enjoy the game where it's intended and that's on television."

With more than 25 games postponed this season due to players testing positive for COVID-19, contact tracing and the league's health and safety protocols, bringing players from teams all around the country to one location has been met with criticism, including from some of the NBA's biggest names in LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Hawks guard Trae Young, who was a starter in last year's All-Star Game, has said he understands the backlash but would be happy to play.

But, the Players Association and the league ultimately came to an agreement, with Atlanta the default host city since it's also home to Turner Broadcasting. The Hawks weren't part of the discussion between the NBA and Turner on whether or not an All-Star Game would take place, Koonin said, until a few weeks ago, when timing, dates and a loose plan was already in place.

"The biggest driver of it is Turner Broadcasting," Koonin said. "TNT has the All-Star Game, it's one of their marquee events, and by doing it in Atlanta, this allows Turner to not have to travel hundreds of people to another site. So there wasn't a competition, there wasn't an application process, there wasn't a bid process, this was literally (selected) by the NBA, Turner, and then asked if our building was available, which of course we're going to make available to our partners."

When approached about hosting the game, there was no hesitation on the Hawks' side of things.

"While we compete on the court, we're part of a league and this is an important piece," Koonin said. "This is one of the showcase events of the year on a global basis and to be able to help the NBA fulfill that, is something we're very excited about... It's exciting to be a part of this and help this (happen), but our hope is in the near future we get to do this 100 percent."

The Hawks will be an "aggressive bidder" to host All-Star weekend again in the next couple years, and will work with the Atlanta Sports Council and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. They're hoping they can host the event again soon and have it be a full-fledged long weekend of events, which would bring business and visitors to the city.

Even though the circumstances mean they won't get the typical exposure that comes with hosting, the Hawks are still excited to have a national spotlight on the city of Atlanta. The All-Star Game is one of the top drivers of fan engagement all season long, with Koonin adding that fan voting is up 70% from last year.

"We're very excited for the plain and simple fact that it does shine a spotlight on Atlanta, that we do feel we have the capabilities and the experience to pull off an event flawlessly," Koonin said. "... We're excited to be part of something on a global platform like that, and I think it's going to be great for our city. I think that our building is new and spectacular and I think players and guests who will be there will enjoy the evening, and I think the format's fabulous to have everything in one super great night of basketball. I can't wait."

Usually, cities and staff know years in advance that they'll be hosting the All-Star Game. This came together in a matter of weeks, but the Hawks already had some of the necessary infrastructure in place, since they are one of a handful of teams permitted by local ordinances to host fans at games.

They've been allowing 8% fan capacity at State Farm Arena for home games since late January, with safety precautions including mask mandates, contactless entry and security screenings and rapid-response COVID-19 testing for those sitting within 30 feet of the court. The same protocols will be in place for the All-Star Game and events.

Usually the league staffs much of the All-Star Game, but the Hawks will help out more so this time around.

"The protocols have been very effective and have worked," Koonin said. "They're not flawless, but they're effective, and the plan is solid. It's very good. So we're very comfortable. We have a tremendous amount of talented people on our staff who will be taking responsibilities that normally the home team doesn't, things like game operations, security, etc., because the NBA wants to limit flying people, as well. So this will be a great opportunity for a lot of our people to do something they've never experienced, and that's running an All-Star night."

This is a tamped-down event not just from a fan perspective, but from the players' point of view, as well. They'll arrive by private plane, be taken to a hotel where all their needs will be met, in a "mini-bubble" environment of sorts, participate in the game and then fly back home to their respective markets. There will also be enhanced PCR testing, per the league.

On March 7, State Farm Arena won't be filled with your typical sponsors and fans, but obviously finances are a factor in putting on an All-Star Game.

"The NBA All-Star event is one of the largest events on the calendar and it generates a tremendous of ad revenue dollars for our media partner, Turner Broadcasting, and that's important, because media's the No. 1 economic driver of the NBA," Koonin said.