N.B.A. Is Having an All-Star Party (and You’re Not Invited to the Main Event)

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The N.B.A. is doing just fine these days. The game is in the hands of immensely popular stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. New contenders, like the Golden State Warriors and the Atlanta Hawks, have added appealing story lines to the regular season. And the league’s owners will soon be reaping the benefits of a new television contract that will pay out $2.66 billion a year, nearly triple the amount of the current deal.

Now come the N.B.A.’s annual All-Star Game festivities, which are taking place in New York City this week and serve as a sustained advertisement of the league’s appeal. What used to be a single afternoon exhibition has increasingly expanded into what is now a five-day happening, flush with fan festivals, open practices, a celebrity game, caravans to local schools and Manhattan fashion parties for the American sport most closely identified with personal style.

f the event are largely restricted. Tickets for the All-Star Game (on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden) and for the slam-dunk contest and other competitions (on Saturday evening at Barclays Center) were not made available for public sale for the fifth straight year. Only a small percentage of the seats were even offered for purchase by season-ticket holders of the two host teams, the Knicks and the Nets.

AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, was the site of the 2010 All-Star Game. (Credit Tim Sharp/Associated Press)

Fans, of course, can still buy tickets for Saturday and Sunday night from secondary-sale sites like StubHub. However, those prices have soared, averaging close to $2,000 per ticket this week, a lot more than they would have cost if purchased at face value.

In effect, the N.B.A. has created something of a closed-access party. Two-thirds of the available seating (or more than 10,000 tickets) for the events Saturday night and Sunday were claimed by the league to distribute to its long list of broadcast and marketing partners, other affiliates, players, the players’ association and N.B.A. alumni. Those commitments encompassed a vast portion of the lower sections of both arenas.

In addition, close to 20 percent of the seats in both arenas were claimed to accommodate production and staging needs for the TV broadcasts and to accommodate a large news media contingent.

The rest of the tickets? They were divided among the 30 N.B.A. teams to be distributed to fans and others, with the Knicks and the Nets getting special dispensation. The overall formula meant that average fans around the league, the ones who actually voted on who should be the starters in the All-Star Game, had virtually no chance of attending.

“If this was back in 1983, when the game was shown on tape delay, this would not be an issue,” said Bill Sutton, a sports marketing consultant, who worked for the N.B.A. from 1999 to 2006.

At the heart of the N.B.A.’s quandary is the issue of size. Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, the most seriously competitive of such events, is also an automatic sellout, but fans have a chance to purchase tickets online because the games are held in far bigger stadiums. Unlike the N.B.A., Major League Baseball sees fit to claim only about a third of the All-Star tickets in a given stadium for its own use.

Then there is the N.F.L., which presides over the most popular sport in the United States. It also has the biggest stadiums, which means its corporate needs take up less overall space than other sports; in the recent Super Bowl in Arizona, for example, the N.F.L. claimed just 25.2 percent of the tickets. (The N.F.L.’s all-star game, the Pro Bowl, has long been viewed as an afterthought, although the game did sell out this season.)

As for the N.H.L., the league most directly comparable to the N.B.A. because they share some of the same arenas and the same basic calendar, its All-Star Game requires that about 40 percent of the seats be delegated for league purposes, substantially less than the N.B.A.’s needs. Then again, the N.H.L. does not have as broad an appeal as the N.B.A.

And it is not only in recent years that the N.B.A. has created a featured event that is so hard to get into. In 2002, a month before Philadelphia was the home city for the N.B.A. All-Star Game, Ed Snider, the 76ers’ chairman at the time, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he never again wanted to be the host because of the issues, and local resentment, created by the fact that there were so few tickets for his own fans. He said the league had given the 76ers 3,000 tickets to sell to a season-ticket base that numbered 15,000. Demand, he said, was overwhelming supply.

“People think it’s our game, but it’s the league’s game,” Snider, who sold the team in 2011, told The Inquirer. Through a spokesman, Snider declined to be interviewed for this article.

Joe Favorito, a former strategic communications adviser for the Knicks and the 76ers, a sports media consultant and a professor at Columbia, said the N.B.A.’s global draw, with television partners around the world, made an event like the All-Star Game something all sorts of corporate clients wanted to attend.

“It is a necessary evil,” he said of reserving so many seats for corporate interests. “It’s hard to justify making more tickets available to every fan when you’ve got corporations looking to spend a lot of money with you and grow the game.”

Kobe Bryant being introduced at the 2010 All-Star Game, which he did not play in because of injury. (Credit Eric Gay/Associated Press)

As Sutton noted, the N.B.A. All-Star Game and its related events were not always this popular. The first full weekend was held in 1984, and David Stern, then the commissioner, fretted that attendance might be embarrassingly low when the new slam-dunk contest was held on Saturday night. Tickets went for just $2.

But the notion of a full weekend quickly caught on. That was no problem in 1989, when the All-Star Game took place at the Houston Astrodome and was watched live by an announced crowd of 44,735. Tickets could be had.

The next year, though, when the game returned to much smaller confines, at Miami Arena, the N.B.A. needed to do something about its promises to sponsors, licensees and teams. The league designated 5,000 of the arena’s 14,000 available seats to the Heat to distribute to season-ticket holders via a lottery. No tickets were sold publicly, showing how far back that practice extends.

This strategy was bypassed in 2010, when the game was played at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys. With more than 100,000 seats available, there was enough space to accommodate the N.B.A., the Mavericks’ 10,000 season-ticket holders and any others who wanted to pay their way in.

Asked this week whether the N.B.A. might schedule more All-Star Games at large venues to accommodate more fans, Tim Frank, a league spokesman, said it was not the model the N.B.A. preferred.

“In addition to allowing our host teams the best opportunity to showcase their arenas to a global audience, we like the intimate setting,” Frank said.

That leaves, at least in most years, the current system. As of Tuesday, 855 tickets for Sunday’s All-Star Game were available for purchase on the secondary market, and the average cost was $1,835, according to data compiled by TiqIQ, a site that analyzes ticket data. That was down from a high of $3,770 on Jan. 24. Tickets for the festivities Saturday night were averaging $2,556, with the cheapest tickets going for more than $500.

Tickets were made available to the public for Friday night’s Rising Stars game (for first-year and second-year N.B.A. players) at Barclays Center and for the celebrity game, the same night, at the Garden. Both events sold out quickly, and both are averaging close to $400 on the secondary market.

And if you just want to watch the All-Star teams practice Saturday afternoon at the Garden? Prepare to shell out at least $40.

One Knicks fan who will not be at the Garden on Sunday is Dennis Doyle, an ironman of sorts who has attended every one of the team’s games this season, home and away, despite the Knicks’ awful record.

On Dec. 22, Doyle said, he received an email from his “dedicated experience manager” with the Knicks, who offered a chance to buy All-Star tickets.

He would be placed in a lottery, he was told, with other season-ticket subscribers, with tenure being a priority. Tickets would be available at two price levels, $250 and $350, but only in a few sections of the Garden. There would be no refunds.

A month later, Doyle was told he had missed out. Not enough tenure. That left secondary ticket sites. Too much money, Doyle concluded. Instead, he decided he would spend his All-Star break in Florida, where he could watch Saturday’s and Sunday’s big events on television. No ticket required. (Courtesy of NYTimes.com)


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