Heading into this season, one could argue about which two major off-season occurrences made bigger headlines in the world of the National Basketball Association—Kevin Durant’s free-agent decision to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State in an effort to build a team of superstars, or the league’s decision to move its All-Star Weekend from Charlotte to New Orleans citing North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law.
Not that the league doesn’t have other significant stories to report. Attendance rose once again last year to a record 21.9 million fans. In addition to the usual shuffle of stars to new teams, and the highly unusual effort to move one of its signature events on short notice, the October opening of the new Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, was the conclusion of a years-long effort to keep a team in a key West Coast market. And of course, fans are still talking about the big story of last season: the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first championship, a victory that has helped change the narrative of that city. Game 7 between the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors was watched by nearly 31 million viewers, making it the most-watched NBA Finals game since the series-deciding Game 6 in 1998 between the Michael Jordan–led Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz.
An All-Star Shift
While the NBA Finals amounted to a storybook ending for the league, at the time, NBA executives were dealing with a looming decision that would spill over into the current season: whether or not to change the location of the 2017 All-Star Game, which had been awarded to Charlotte in 2015. The issue began simmering in March with the passage of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, eliminating anti-discrimination protections for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. The league threatened to move the All-Star Game if the law was not rescinded. The issue remained unresolved during the playoffs, but by mid-summer, when it became apparent the law would stand, the NBA felt it needed to act to properly prepare for its popular mid-season event.
In July, with support from TV partners Turner Broadcasting and ESPN, the NBA decided to pull the All-Star Game from Charlotte. The league defended its stance in a statement that said, in part, “While we recognize that the NBA cannot choose the law in every city, state and country in which we do business, we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by HB2.” Other athletic bodies followed suit with similar decisions, including the Atlantic Coast Conference and the NCAA, which both pulled scheduled championship events from the state.
The NBA’s decision to move the game from Charlotte wasn’t without precedent among major sports organizations. In 1993, the state of Arizona felt the pinch of losing Super Bowl XXVII to Pasadena, California, after its state government was slow to make Martin Luther King Day an official holiday. However, the National Football League later awarded Super Bowl XXX to Tempe, Arizona, after the state changed its law. The NBA, too, is not ruling out the possibility of staging its All-Star Weekend in Charlotte in the future; officials have said it could move back in 2019 if the North Carolina state legislature reverses its decision.
As the NBA was contemplating a change of venue, the city of New Orleans had already gathered steam to submit a bid for the event. In fact, the owners of the Pelicans approached the commissioner about the possibility of entering the bidding process before it actually began. Owner Tom Benson already had the blessings from Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation.
Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, said that Benson and other interested New Orleans officials anticipating the move knew the NBA would be more inclined to go with a city that was experienced at handling the All-Star event—New Orleans hosted it in 2008 and 2014—and that could be counted on to help put everything together in what was ultimately a six-month time frame. Cicero felt confident because New Orleans, he said, has “a great relationship with the NBA.”
That said, the bid from New Orleans wasn’t submitted without extensive homework. The most important event on its calendar is Mardi Gras, a celebration that takes place over several weekends in January and February in 2017 and will culminate on Fat Tuesday, February 28. All-Star Weekend is scheduled to run February 17–19. While that represents one of the busiest weekends on the Mardi Gras calendar, the fact that the All-Star event wasn’t scheduled for the following week—the busiest weekend of the year for New Orleans—made the All-Star Game a possibility. In addition, the city’s big host venues, including the Pelicans’ Smoothie King Center, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, were all available, which helped the city land the event when the league decided on a new host in August.
And it’s quite the bonanza. “In 2014, it was somewhere around $100 million,” said Cicero about the economic impact of the All-Star event. But the money is just one benefit. “The national and international exposure for our city and the state of Louisiana is extremely important to us.”
The 2008 All-Star Game gave a boost to greater New Orleans, which was still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And a recovery story continues to unfold in the region this year after severe flooding in the Baton Rouge area. “To have this (All-Star Weekend) as a platform to keep the information out there in front of the general public and the media is also a great opportunity,” Cicero added.
On April 25, before the Oklahoma City Thunder eliminated the Dallas Mavericks from the first round of the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs, Mavs owner Mark Cuban was quoted as saying that Kevin Durant was the only superstar on the Thunder. At the post-game press conference, when Durant’s teammate Russell Westbrook was asked for his response to Cuban’s comment, Durant replied instead: “He’s an idiot,” he said of Cuban, as Westbrook sat silently. “That’s what we’ve got to say about that.”
That same day, the Golden State Warriors learned they would be without their own superstar, guard Stephen Curry, for an extended period during the playoffs due to a knee injury. It was a big blow to the squad, which had set a regular-season NBA record with 73 victories, largely attributed to Curry’s shooting power.
The Thunder and Warriors eventually squared off in the conference finals, a nail-biting series that went to seven games. The Thunder took an early 3-1 series lead, but the Warriors snatched it away with the final three wins. Game 7 averaged 15.9 million viewers on TNT, making it the most-watched program in TNT history and cable TV’s most-viewed NBA broadcast. In addition, the “Inside the NBA” post-game show drew a best-ever, 4.8 rating.
Little did Durant realize that he and Curry would be Warriors teammates this season. In July, when Durant’s move to Oakland, California, was announced, his popularity in Oklahoma City was reaching a high point. According to an nbastore.com report from January, the Thunder jerseys of Durant and Westbrook were among the highest-selling jerseys sold last fall, with Durant ranking No. 5 and Westbrook No. 7. (Curry’s jersey was No. 1.) Even with the prospect of Durant moving on after the season, his jersey sales during the playoffs were “strong,” according to Aaron Blum, the Thunder’s general manager of merchandise.
Without Durant, the Thunder struck with its own off-season news by offering Westbrook a contract extension. Despite Cuban’s perception, the Thunder will pay Westbrook like a superstar by stretching further a deal originally scheduled to run out after this season, allowing him to potentially stay on the team through 2020. And highly anticipated is Durant’s return to Oklahoma City with his new team on February 11 when the Thunder are scheduled to take on the Warriors.
Psyched in Sac
Much like how Reno Avenue in Oklahoma City closes for pre-game festivities outside Chesapeake Energy Arena before each Thunder home game, the Kings envision the same outside the $556 million Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento, the team’s new home. The venue replaces Sleep Train Arena on Sacramento’s outskirts, which offered 450,000 square feet of space.
In contrast, the 700,000-square-foot Golden 1 Center includes two practice facility courts, team offices and a sports medicine clinic. Both facilities have similar seating capacities—Sleep Train seats up to 17,317 whereas Golden 1 Center can seat up to 17,500—but at Golden 1 Center, two-thirds of the arena seating is in the lower bowl, a configuration that draws fans close to the action. That configuration, however, has put the upper-tiered seats at such an angle that the team was not able to include cup holders since they would either sit too low if attached to the seats in front or stick out too far in the rows if they were on an armrest.
The overall response, however, has been a positive one. And with Golden 1 Center’s central location, the city’s downtown transformation has begun. “The experience isn’t just inside the arena: It’s the whole footprint of the downtown area around it,” said Mike Sophia, director of the Sacramento Sports Commission.
The arena’s main entrance on the north end features five retractable doors—15 feet wide and 60 feet tall—that open to a community plaza where the 250-room Sawyer, a Kimpton Hotel, is scheduled to open in March in time for the first- and second-round games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. (The hotel is named after Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, recognized for making the first environmentally related decision in U.S. history while on the bench.) Restaurants, shops and offices are also part of a $500 million redevelopment happening within a three-block radius.
“I think it’s going be another great addition to the offerings we have downtown,” Sophia said of the hotel. “We’re looking at an expansion of the convention center, so I think more hotel rooms are going to be helpful with the new arena. One of the coolest things about the Sawyer is it’s going to be very iconic. It’s going to represent Sacramento in a really cool way. You’re going to feel the history of Sacramento.”
Ties to the city were also incorporated into the interior design of the 100 percent solar-powered arena. Six iconic neon signs on display represent businesses with strong city connections: Tower Records, Shakey’s Pizza, Franke’s Drugs, Newbert Hardware, Sleeper Stationary and Coronet Portraits. To reflect Sacramento’s proximity to the mountains, the arena has a base of Sierra limestone. And locals will certainly embrace the current 10-year partnership between the Kings and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company—included in the partnership is the new Sierra Nevada Draught House, an open-air lounge near the grand entrance—and the knowledge that much of the concession offerings will be “farm-to-court.”
Only a winning season eludes the Kings in their three years of ownership under Vivek Ranadive. But that doesn’t mean fan support is lacking. According to Sophia, who formerly served as executive director for the Miami-Dade Sports Commission during part of the LeBron James era with the Miami Heat, “The difference between Miami and Sacramento is it’s not as fickle a fan base as you have in South Florida,” he said. Sacramento has “a real die-hard, passionate group of Kings fans. I can’t wait to see the enthusiasm and what happens to Sacramento when the Kings are winning again.”
The address of Golden 1 also offers a nod toward victory, in a sense: 500 David J. Stern Walk, named after the former NBA commissioner who made a concerted effort to keep the Kings in Sacramento. “It was a long couple years getting through the process to keep them,” said Sophia. “Now we’re to the cool part.”
It has been two years since LeBron James has returned to play in Cleveland, less than five months since the Cavaliers won their first NBA championship and just three months since James penned his intent to stay with the team for another three years. By all indications, professional hoops is as hot as ever in northeastern Ohio.
“It’s hard to think that a major sports championship could have meant more to any community at a particular time,” said David Gilbert, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. “It’s not just because it’s been 52 years since any of our major sports teams won a championship. It came at this time of Cleveland finally getting back on its feet. It was a reflection of an entire community comeback, not just a sports championship.”
In September, the team’s media day on the eve of its training camp was overshadowed by the Cleveland Indians’ pursuit of the American League Central baseball title. Maybe the Cavaliers’ championship was just the beginning. The Cavs’ season opener fell on the same night the Indians wound up hosting Game 1 of the World Series. “It just feels like there’s something magical about this year for Cleveland overall,” said Gilbert. “Our area code is 216 and here it is, 2016.”
Three days after the Cavs won the title on the road at Golden State after capping their own comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series, the city celebrated with a 1.3-mile parade that was, coincidentally enough, attended by an estimated 1.3 million fans. It took about four hours for the championship Cavs to make their way through the masses down the parade route. At Mall B, the concluding point, ex-Cleveland Brown running back Jim Brown—the Hall of Fame centerpiece of Cleveland’s last sports championship in 1964—ceremoniously handed the Larry O’Brien Trophy over to James.
“The parade was led by the Cavaliers and the city, but we were one of a small handful of groups at the table in the planning,” said Gilbert. “We have a tremendous relationship with the Cavaliers. (Kerry Bubolz, the team’s president of business operations, serves on its board.) We’ve hosted over a dozen major national events in their building in partnership with them. It was really fun to be part of the family, so to speak, during the whole run.”
Behind the scenes, parade preparations were cautionary as locals can attest to several near-misses throughout the years in Cleveland sports history. The Browns lost both the 1986 and 1987 AFC championship games to the Denver Broncos; the 1997 World Series against the Miami Marlins turned into a Game 7 heartbreaker for the Indians; and the Cavaliers’ previous two trips to the NBA Finals resulted in runner-up finishes. When asked to reflect on the Cavs’ championship at the team’s media day, James was matter-of-fact. “What images come to my mind? I know we won the championship. I know we had a great parade. The fans were ecstatic for what we did,” he said.
But Gilbert remembered a lot of anxiety while he and his colleagues watched Game 7 at Oakland’s Oracle Arena on TV at the sports commission office. Even after the clutch three-pointer by Kyrie Irving with 54.9 seconds left that would seal the Cavs’ victory, there was skepticism. “My brother turned to me and said, sort of jokingly, ‘Golden State has us right where they want us.’ It’s typical of Cleveland. You finally put your heart on the line and you get it stomped on,” said Gilbert. Things feel different now, though. “I get this sense in the community that we’re no longer the bridesmaid and you can win.”
But everyone on the Cavs believes that a championship can happen again. “I’ll always look forward—I’m not a guy who dwells in the past too much,” said James. “There are going to be so many more challenges, so many different obstacles we’re going to have to face this year as a ball club. We have to be mentally focused and mentally prepared for it all. I think we will be. It will not be easy and it shouldn’t be.” The Cavs will host the Warriors once again on Christmas Day, kicking off ABC’s slate of games for the season.
The NBA Grind
While Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers made a flashy farewell with a 60-point performance in his final game last season and Tim Duncan quietly ended his stellar career with the San Antonio Spurs during the off-season, it’s hard to believe that a player of Irving’s caliber was only 24 when he helped deliver the championship to Cleveland. The bottom line is that the league is filled with several young stars just entering the prime of their careers.
To keep players performing at a premium level, the NBA remains conscious of its scheduling. Two years ago, the average number of back-to-back games in two different cities in two days was 19.3 per team. This season it has been reduced to 16.3 per team. Also, no NBA team will have more than one “four-in-five,” (four games in five days); instances of four-in-fives have been reduced by 26 percent from a year ago. Maybe that will give fans a better chance, for example, to see Spurs coach Gregg Popovich bring his full complement of players on the road instead of leaving certain players behind for rest, as he has done in recent years.
Time will tell if Golden State’s super team this year can match last year’s record-breaking effort. But with the NBA boasting two straight years of overall attendance records, interest in the league remains high, regardless of which teams may be at the top.