The Utah Jazz will get a half-million-dollar helping hand in hosting the 2023 NBA All-Star Game after Salt Lake County officials redirected public money to the effort.
In return for the contribution, approved last month in a 5-3 County Council vote, the county will get an ensemble of community engagement events associated with this assemblage of the league’s brightest stars.
“This is an opportunity to inspire the youth of our community,” Mayor Jenny Wilson said in an interview. “It’s an opportunity to showcase our state.”
Proponents say the spending is a safe bet for the county because the revenue from the All-Star Game at Vivint Arena and related events the weekend of Feb. 18 and 19 will far outweigh the investment.
Opponents, however, soured on the idea of funding a wealthy business’s private venture, and said the money would be better spent elsewhere.
The $500,000 county officials are reallocating was collected through a room tax that visitors pay when they stay in hotels.
The money was originally pegged for a Salt Lake Community College hospitality program but became available after the program proved unpopular and the school returned the unspent funds.
Wilson said the Jazz approached the county for the cash.
What could the county get?
The mayor told council members that the investment would help those who can’t afford a pricey All-Star Game ticket participate in the festivities.
County officials have discussed hosting a reading program — complete with appearances from NBA mascots — that could give kids opportunities to win prizes like stickers, merchandise or tickets to smaller events during All-Star weekend.
The county also hopes to put money into youth basketball games at the Salt Palace Convention Center, pay former NBA players to appear at a county-owned recreation center, and create art installations that would be free for the public to experience.
Team President Jim Olson told council members that community engagement programs would eat up $165,000 of the county’s contribution. The remaining $335,000 would be the team’s to use for the overall tab for hosting the game.
It’s unclear if the $165,000 Olson noted includes the cost of an “exclusive All-Star hospitality experience” for County Council members and leadership. That possible event was the only idea listed in agenda backup materials that was not discussed during the meeting.
Wilson said none of the community engagement ideas has been finalized.
“Nothing at this stage,” she said, “is set in stone.”
Wilson said the proposed hospitality event wouldn’t be an opportunity for the parties to wine and dine with elected officials and that such an event would be inappropriate. But part of being in a leadership role, she said, is hosting.
“There will be people coming into the county that are part of the games that we would want to engage with,” she said. “ ... I don’t see it as a negative if it’s done in the right way and for the right reasons.”
Frank Zang, a spokesperson for the Jazz, said the team has been in talks with the county, state and Salt Lake City since 2019, when the league announced Utah’s capital as the host city for the game.
Now that the funding from the county has been approved, Zang said the community engagement ideas could be fleshed out.
“We appreciate the support of (Salt Lake) County to help bring this marquee NBA event to our community for the first time in 30 years,” Zang wrote in an email, “so a new generation can have the experience.”
Proposal runs into opposition
The three council members who voted against the funding — Republicans Richard Snelgrove, Dea Theodore and Dave Alvord — questioned whether backing the All-Star Game was the best use of county money.
“For me,” Theodore said during the meeting, “it seems a little elitist in some ways to put money towards this when people are out there struggling, and the county’s putting so much money into basketball, potentially.”
Snelgrove said he wants to look at how room tax money could be spent on existing items in the budget to stave off tax hikes in the future.
And Alvord has his doubts about whether contributing to the overall cost of staging the game matches the intent of the law that governs how room taxes can be spent. (The county says the spending essentially amounts to marketing and is aboveboard.)
The council member said he would have proposed giving the team $165,000 to pay for community engagement events only, but he was unable to officially propose the idea under council rules.
“I wasn’t comfortable handing a blank check,” Alvord wrote in a text message.
The room tax the county reallocated is restricted to promoting the community. Alvord said he didn’t think the team had a sufficient explanation for how it would use the extra money.
Publicly backed on the promise of a big payoff
Rusty Cannon, president of the business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association, called the council’s decision a reasonable, prudent use of room tax money.
“As far as we can tell, no NBA host team has ever made a profit by hosting the All Star Game,” Cannon wrote in an email. “The rewards and benefits actually accrue to the host city and surrounding areas that collect a large amount of increased sales tax, (room) tax and related economic activity from the event and those coming to the event.”
The county’s approval of funding is only the latest contribution of public money to hosting the event.
The state kicked in $3 million through the Utah Sports Commission, and Salt Lake City is setting aside $1 million for public safety staffing, blocking off streets and marketing.
Governments tend to be eager to help fund major events like the All-Star Game because of the expectation of massive economic payoff.
Olson, the Jazz president, said the 2022 All-Star Game and its associated events in Cleveland drew 121,000 attendees, the equivalent of 47,000 room nights, $250 million in spending, and generated media coverage worth about $50 million.
He said he expects the benefits of Salt Lake City’s game to last for years.
“Everyone that comes to Utah, they come back,” Olson said. “It’s who we are. It’s what we have to offer.”
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