Clock’s ticking on NBA’s All-Star Game decision

NBA commissioner Adam Silver on HB2

NBA commissioner Adam Silver on next steps regarding the All-Star Game and North Carolina's House Bill 2.
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NBA commissioner Adam Silver on next steps regarding the All-Star Game and North Carolina's House Bill 2.

On Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league hasn’t yet decided to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte over the league’s opposition to North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2.

But the time to make a decision is running out, and relocating to a different city is very complicated.

“This is a very difficult issue for us, and we’re trying to be extremely cautious and deliberate in how we go about making the decision,” Silver said at the conclusion of an owners meeting Tuesday in Las Vegas.

At issue is the bill signed into law March 23 by Gov. Pat McCrory reversing a Charlotte ordinance that extended some rights to people who are gay or transgender. The NBA has said the law goes against the league’s values.

With the clock ticking, here is a look at the issues confronting Silver as he weighs whether to move the NBA’s premier annual event to another city with about seven months to go.

What has the league been waiting for?

Addressing the media Tuesday, Silver cited the legislative process as part of the reason why the league’s decision hadn’t been made yet.

At the beginning of the month, when the state legislature adjourned, the only changes the N.C. General Assembly made to HB2 included restoring residents’ right to bring claims of discrimination in state courts. It left in place a provision that requires people in public schools and government facilities to use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificates.

“We were hoping that they would make some steps toward modifying the legislation, and frankly I was disappointed that they didn’t,” Silver said.

Welcoming environment

The NBA has been accused of trying to force its values on North Carolina by lobbying for the change or repeal of HB2 and potentially moving the Feb. 17 game and its accompanying events. Silver says the All-Star Weekend is the largest event the NBA runs annually, and the city the NBA chooses should make all the league’s fans and sponsors feel welcome.

“The question for us becomes in this situation, given the controversy, given the amount of discussion, given how hardened the views are there, is this the place we should be in February 2017 as the epicenter of global basketball where we can go and celebrate our game and our values?” Silver said.

A person with knowledge of the discussions the NBA has had with legislative, city and business leaders notes that although Charlotte may tout itself as a welcoming city, it is still part of North Carolina and bound by the state’s legal definition of discrimination.

“It’s unfortunate there’s only so much the city can do to actually ensure the safety, security and comfort of all of its fans free from discrimination,” said the person, who asked not to be named to protect relationships.

Silver also noted Tuesday that HB2 was passed in North Carolina after the NBA had awarded the All-Star Weekend to Charlotte last summer. In other words, the league might never have chosen Charlotte had HB2 existed during the selection process.

Finding another location

Silver has said that the league has begun looking at alternative cities that might be able to step in as host for the four-day event.

That’s not an easy ask. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority estimates hosting the event here takes an upfront investment of between $5 million and $6 million. Executing the event takes an additional $5.9 million, including police services and a host fee paid to the NBA. In Charlotte, the game already has 28,000 rooms contracted.

Moving the game is “complicated, but it’s not insurmountable,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business.

The league has year-round staff available to work on contingency planning in the event that the game has to be moved. The criteria for a replacement city, then, are whether it has an available venue and whether the city meets the expectations of the league and its partners.

Part of what complicates this situation for the NBA is that Charlotte is not the only market in the league with political issues regarding the LGBT community. Houston, which has hosted a Super Bowl and an NBA All-Star Game in the 2000s, defeated a local ordinance intended to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights by a wide margin in 2015.

Silver was asked at his news conference Tuesday whether the HB2 situation has caused the league to investigate policies in other NBA cities. Silver said that while some aspects of HB2 are unique, “Yes, we have been looking closely at the laws of all the jurisdictions in which we play.”

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory was in attendance at BB&T Ballpark on Wednesday for the 2016 Triple-A All Star Game. Prior to the game, he met with media members to discuss the NBA All-Star game and the releasing of police involved videos.

Impact on Hornets

Silver said Tuesday that no vote of the league’s owners was taken on whether to move All-Star Weekend and that the decision would be made by the league office (ultimately Silver).

There are numerous implications that go into that decision, including how much lead time another city would need to successfully host the event, and what message the NBA might be sending by uprooting the All-Star Weekend on short notice.

And what sort of fallout, if any, would this have on the Charlotte Hornets.

From the first time Silver voiced concerns about HB2, he noted one factor in the league’s position has to be its “ongoing business” in North Carolina: the Hornets, a team owned by Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player in NBA history.

Since buying majority control of the franchise from Bob Johnson in March 2010, Jordan and his staff have worked closely with the NBA office to achieve best practices. Jordan has involved himself with league politics, advocating for small-market teams in negotiations leading to the last collective bargaining agreement.

The Hornets have made gains on both the business and basketball sides of the operation of late. Season-ticket sales are up, and the Hornets won 48 games last season, tying for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.

The name change from Bobcats to Hornets has been a huge marketing success.

So it’s fair to assume Silver is concerned about not damaging the Hornets’ recent momentum by moving the league’s premier event out of Charlotte.

Moving the game “has the potential of being perceived as a slap in the face to supporters of the team,” said Chicago-based sports business consultant Marc Ganis.

Historical precedence

It is not unprecedented for one of the major leagues to pull an annual event out of a city where it was originally awarded over social issues.

Perhaps the best example was Super Bowl XXVII (the 1993 game), which was moved from Tempe, Ariz., because of Arizona’s vote against adopting Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday.

“Civic leaders told us the holiday would be accomplished and knew we wouldn’t play it there if it remained an issue,” NFL spokesman Joe Browne later told The New York Times.

An Arizona referendum failed to add the holiday, and the NFL owners reacted in 1991 by voting to move the game to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

The parallel here goes beyond the obvious: The Super Bowl is to the NFL as the All-Star Game is to the NBA. Most tickets to both events go, not to local fans, but to sponsors and patrons of the league. In each case, it’s the biggest marketing platform in that respective sport.

What’s happening in court?

It’s possible the fight over HB2 could be decided in court soon. That could potentially be an out for the NBA to avoid moving All-Star Weekend.

Last week, the Department of Justice asked a federal judge to suspend HB2 pending the outcome of a trial. McCrory and the other targets of the Justice Department complaint now have two weeks to respond to the filing. Government lawyers would then have two weeks to reply to what the state submits. That means U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder could order a hearing on the case by the end of August, if not sooner.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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