Hosting the NBA All-Star Game is a big deal for any city — but especially a smaller city like Salt Lake City. In short, for one weekend, one city becomes the pop-culture capital of America.
Old-time Salt Lake residents will remember the 1993 All-Star Weekend well. Basketball fans will remember how John Stockton and Karl Malone won co-MVP at the game, while music fans of that era might remember the appearances of Paula Abdul and Boyz II Men — absolute top-line acts at the time.
It’s only gotten bigger since then. I, truthfully, am too young to remember 1993, but I have been to numerous All-Star Weekends in my capacity as the Tribune’s Utah Jazz beat writer. I can tell you how the energy takes over a host city, as thousands of outsiders come to downtown for the NBA’s biggest gathering of talent. When it was announced three years ago that Salt Lake City would host the 2023 event, I was truly excited that my hometown would be getting this opportunity.
Now, there’s a year remaining until the event. That makes it a good time to dig in on what exactly is coming to Salt Lake City in February of 2023. While much has yet to be planned, I’ll outline what we do know is happening, along with some guesses on how much is still to be unveiled — for basketball fans and non-basketball knowers alike.
How much of an impact will hosting an All-Star Weekend have on our community? The NBA is publicly saying that they expect about $100 million of expected impact — what exactly does that mean? Where does that number come from? And how much of that is, um, marketing overexuberance, and how much of it will actually happen?
What to expect
To be honest, the majority of the 2023 All-Star Weekend has yet to be planned. According to Utah Jazz president Jim Olson, about 65% of the planning process for All-Star Weekend has yet to occur — with most of that remaining early 35% taking place in a series of “whiteboarding” meetings in Salt Lake last fall.
But that’s starting to change this week. Dozens of planners and representatives from Salt Lake City traveled to Cleveland for the 2022 All-Star game, in order to take part in the NBA’s Future Hosts training program and get an idea of what to expect. That includes representatives from the city’s planning, police, and fire departments. It also includes a representative from each of the 11 companies making up the “All-Star Alliance” — a group of local sponsors (America First Credit Union, Coca-Cola, Ford, Nu-Skin, Larry H. Miller Dealerships, Qualtrics, Toyota, University of Utah Health, Vivint, WCF Insurance, and Zions Bank).
Twenty employees of the Jazz will travel, and there will be an on-court “passing of the baton” moment to honor Salt Lake City’s upcoming hosting at a timeout during the third quarter of Sunday’s game in Cleveland. After the big planning meetings happen this weekend, there will be smaller planning meetings in Salt Lake City starting in March.
The tentpole events of the All-Star Weekend stay relatively consistent from year to year. Three big events take place at the host city’s main arena — in our case, Vivint Arena. The All-Star Game is on Sunday night. The NBA’s Rising Stars game, in which rookie and sophomore players play, happens on Friday. The name of the All-Star Saturday Night event — where the 3-point contest and dunk contest happen — reveals exactly what day you can expect that to happen.
There are a bunch of smaller basketball events that will happen at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center. If Cleveland’s schedule of events is any guide, you can probably expect the annual Celebrity Game to happen up there on Friday, the HBCU Classic on Saturday, and the G-League “Next Gem” game on Sunday. The “practice” for each of the games could also happen at the Huntsman Center.
Ticket prices to all of these events will vary, with Sunday’s All-Star Game being the most expensive. As of Thursday, the cheapest ticket on the secondary market to attend the All-Star Game itself was $376; for All-Star Saturday Night, it was $238. But tickets to the HBCU game or G-League game started at $10.
Meanwhile, there will be dozens of other events taking place during the weekend that will occur at the Salt Palace Convention Center, as well as at other hotels and local venues. The Basketball Hall of Fame’s finalists are announced annually at the host city, as well as the NBA Legends Awards.
On Thursday, before the festivities really begin, the league holds a “Day of Service” charity event; no details yet on which local charities they’ll be working for in Utah. Cleveland’s hosting an “NBA Crossover” fair daily, which features NBA panelists, pop-culture presentations, and the all-import buzzword of “activations” — really, NBA sponsors marketing their products. And there will be multiple concerts taking place, too.
The league wants to do more Salt Lake and Utah-themed events, too. When the game was announced in 2018, the team teased a tie-in with the Sundance Film Festival; we’ll see if and to what extent a movie-themed event takes place. You can bet that the NBA’s Tech Summit that usually takes place at All-Star Weekend will be even bigger than normal, thanks to the impact of Silicon Slopes.
More league-sponsored events will be revealed in the coming months. But there will also be numerous “unofficial” events hosted by sponsors, agencies, players, and other NBA-adjacent organizations. In Charlotte, the host of the 2019 All-Star Game, there were 36 league-sanctioned events, but approximately another 150 unofficial events tied to the NBA in some manner.
How many people will come?
The NBA says that 100,000 people will attend one of All-Star Weekend’s events in Cleveland. Among that, they say 40,000 folks are expected to be non-local. They also say expect a similar number in Salt Lake City next year.
I’m a little bit skeptical of that number. For one, the event organizers have said that they require about 6,000 hotel rooms in the host city; Charlotte’s analysis also found that, at peak, about 6,000 hotel rooms were used in that city in the 2019 All-Star game. (Meanwhile, downtown Salt Lake City has about 7,275 hotel rooms and the new convention center hotel under construction on the corner of 200 South and West Temple is expected to add another 700.)
Frankly, it’s hard for me to get 40,000 people into using 6,000 hotel rooms at peak. In 2017′s New Orleans All-Star Game, 78% of surveyed overnight guests from out of state stayed in hotels (while the rest stayed with friends or family, or in AirBnb-style accomodations). 67% did not bring children. Some number of people surely stayed for different parts of the All-Star weekend.
But 40,000? I suspect that includes some double-counting. LSU’s analysis of 2017 suggested 18,911 outside visitors to at least one of the All-Star events. Some people might come in to Utah and not attend any event, but I don’t think it’s going to reach 40,000.
Regardless if it’s 10,000 or 40,000, it’s a lot of people coming into town from out of state, and some large further number of Utahns descending on downtown Salt Lake City in particular that may well approach six digits. Cleveland is closing sections of eight streets for the weekend, and limiting parking on many more. You should expect some of that in Salt Lake City as well.
What economic impact will this have on SLC and Utah?
What is economic impact, anyway? The idea is to measure the amount of spending that happens in the economy due to a certain event taken place — in short, so you can decide whether or not to bend over backwards to host that event.
Economic impact studies are famously easy to massage in order to tell a story. One prominent sports economist, Vanderbilt University’s John Vrooman, says that “The basic rule of thumb in judging cost-benefit analyses is to simply move the decimal point one place to the left to correct for the money-for-nothing self-promotion bias.” In other words, if the NBA says that the All-Star Game is worth $100 million, make that $10 million.
After looking at the numbers, I’m not that bearish on it, though. I think there are a couple of worthwhile looks at the endeavor that suggest lower-but-more-reasonable numbers for the economic benefits of hosting an All-Star Game.
One comes from the previously-cited LSU study of the 2017 All-Star Game. Earlier, we saw that they estimated how many people came to New Orleans for the festivities. Then, they asked how much each person spent on average, and split that depending on whether they attended The Big Event or if they attended some other small event instead.
They multiplied the number of Louisiana visitors by the amount of money they spent, and got $23.7 million. To me, that makes sense as an approach!
What would you expect from a similar calculation in Salt Lake City? On one hand, inflation means adding on 15% from 2017, right from the get-go. Thanks to the lower supply of hotel rooms in Salt Lake compared to New Orleans, it might be reasonable to expect higher average lodging costs. Visitors to Utah might be inclined to ski, a high-dollar activity.
On the other hand, well, there’s no gambling in Utah. And while we might be making some liquor law concessions, there’s little comparison to New Orleans. People might be more willing to extend their stay in party-oriented New Orleans than community-focused Utah.
Beyond the $23.7 million, the LSU study also added in the $18.7 million that the NBA spent to host the event, the $1.4 million media spent on the trip, and about $3.9 million of spending of sponsors who didn’t attend the games. Those may seem like high numbers, but I actually believe that they’re accurate or somewhat close: these are big-spending events for the league and its partners.
In total, we get $44.9 million in initial spending, direct economic impact from out-of-state visitors.
Then — and essentially every economic impact study does this — they take a big leap: not only did those companies that received the $44.9 million get that money, but, the thinking goes, they’re likely to spend their newfound profits on something else local — a restaurant might buy new tables, for example. Then, the table company might go buy more local Utah wood and make more tables from it. Therefore, more rounds of spending occur that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, all as a result of the event. The LSU economists estimate a total of $82 million of economic impact, across all of the rounds.
It’s a little bit specious to me. Look at that table above again; a big percentage of spending is on hotel accommodations. Are the big hotel chains likely to spend the money they got from the All-Star Weekend in that same locale? No way! They’ll keep the money or build a new hotel in Aruba or someplace. Ditto with meals eaten at chains — I know that the Cheesecake Factory will be packed in City Creek during next year’s All-Star Game, but it’s hard for me to believe that we’ll see significant knock-on effects in Utah. Much of the “Shopping” spending, for example, might realistically go to pop-up stores that will last in Salt Lake City for a week.
Interestingly, the people studying the Charlotte All-Star Weekend calculated economic impact in the other direction: they used real tax figures from the city and county governments, and then used the difference in All-Star Weekend vs. a normal weekend to calculate the direct economic impact. They found that the 2019 All-Star Weekend was worth $48 million in direct impact. It gives me confidence that two different approaches returned similar results.
Overall, I’m going to bet that $50 million is a pretty good guess for the direct economic impact you can really expect from the 2023 All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City. Note that the actual Utah Jazz see very little or none of that money: tickets are sold by the NBA, and they keep the profits.
How does $50 million stack up to other benchmarks? The Tribune reported back in 1993 that the All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake led to an estimated $10 million in direct economic impact, or about $19 million in 2022 dollars after accounting for inflation. However, All-Star Weekend is smaller than the annual Sundance Film Festival, which estimated $135 million from out-of-state visitors for the 2020 festival. Those rich movie-industry folks spend a lot of money, it turns out.
And $50 million in impact does lead to increased tax revenue. The 2017 All-Star Weekend was estimated to lead to $2.5 million in sales taxes in New Orleans, while 2019′s festivities led to an estimated $4.7 million in local sales taxes in Charlotte.
There is, too, a cost to hosting the game. Because we’re still in the early stages of planning, we don’t have figures on how much Salt Lake City’s hosting will cost — we’ll be sure to report it out at The Tribune as we learn more. But Charlotte, again, can be a guide: the city there spent $600,000 on police and transportation services, and waived $1.5 million in sales taxes on tickets for sponsors and something in their books called the “NBA All-Star Host Fee.”
Slicker liquor — and Salt Lake City’s reputation
One of Utah’s primary worries during the 1993 Salt Lake City All-Star Game was what the assembled masses would think of the liquor laws.
Then, drinkers couldn’t enter bars unless they were either beer-only or a “member” of the “private clubs.” But in 1993, tourism and government officials passed out thousands of special “visitor passes” that allowed a person and up to four friends to get in a bar. Those who didn’t get one handed to them could buy one for $5.
And it did change some minds about Salt Lake City, even if those who visited were always pretty aware that the locals were trying their darndest to please them. As Chicago Tribune columnist Bernie Lincicome wrote then, “If Salt Lake now thinks more of itself than it did before the NBA’s finest passed through, no harm done. The town certainly treated the entire weekend as if it were being authenticated for actual civilization.”
To be clear, changing the rules for a weekend is something that most cities end up doing for All-Star, in order to take as much advantage of the incoming crowds as possible. In Cleveland, for example, selected hotels are being allowed to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. for the weekend. I don’t think you should expect similar measures taken in Salt Lake City this weekend.
At least in 2023, bars are, thankfully, open to the general public. But Utah’s liquor laws still are a bit strange — in particular, the necessity to buy alcohol at a local state-run liquor store can trip visitors up. Utah’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is reportedly “exploring” the idea of pop-up liquor stores in downtown Salt Lake City in order to meet the higher demand of the folks coming into Salt Lake.
“Our current store infrastructure in that footprint will have a lot of that record volume visitorship,” DABC Executive Director Tiffany Clason told Fox13. “It’s not sufficient to meet the needs of those travelers and tourists.”
They’ve asked for $200K from the state legislature to operate the pop-up stores, which they project will return about $600,000 in investment. Mostly, Clason said, “the last thing she wants is a visitor tweeting about how Utah has ‘Russian-style bread lines’ at liquor stores.”
That’s something important to consider, too: the role of local authorities isn’t just to increase economic investment in the area, but to consider their citizenry’s happiness, too. Events like the All-Star Weekend and Olympics are fun! Even if you don’t think so, they can increase civic pride — it matters to me that I’m proud of the place I’m from.
Jazz president Jim Olson wraps it up. “Our expectations are very high. They’re that everybody leaves Utah, saying, first of all, that was a great All-Star Weekend. Secondly, saying that Utah is just an absolutely incredible place and I’m coming back.”
And if visitors do come back, they’ll find that downtown Salt Lake City is less busy than the weekend they visited.