Somewhere under the lights of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center over the weekend, Jabbawockeez danced during a TV special that would have been an email as part of “the most culturally relevant basketball experience on the planet.”
That’s what the streamers call it, anyway. This was the first-ever NBA game, and the league’s thriller, at Comic-Con. The basketball-themed Lollapalooza was a three-day medley of costumes, music, and basketball.
But from another perspective, the agreement was an interesting window into how the league sees itself as a company.
For the NBA, the stars are bigger than the games – the cultural presence off the ground. The NBA capitalized on this by holding the conference during the Summer League in Las Vegas, when dozens of stakeholders from the association, retired players, owners, general managers, players, sponsors, and fans descend on Nevada.
“When you ask people about the NBA, to them, it’s not a company,” said Mark Tatum, deputy commissioner of the league. “It’s life. It’s their culture. The NBA is a culture of music, fashion, entertainment and style.”
More than 25,000 fans attended, who mostly paid between $30 and $250 to enter. But really, the cultural significance is priceless, especially when it’s sponsored by Michelob Ultra. (they were there too).
Convention Hall was created to evoke the spirit of New York City, with park benches, jinga courts, cornhole, and pickleball courts. There were neighborhoods called Drip, The Collection, The Network, Park, and Convos.
The Drip, where sponsors set up shop, was the real crux of the convention.
Certainly, the agreement helps the league reach fans in a way it wouldn’t have at a time when LeBron James wasn’t playing every night. On Saturday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver detailed a new in-season championship during an oversized TV show. But throwing the NBA meant the league also created an opportunity for new intellectual property. She sold NBA Con products and created a new Twitter account, though the account had fewer than 2,000 followers on Monday compared to the league’s nearly 44 million followers.
There was an AT&T booth, where the sign read, “Get into the spotlight and show off your fiery suit.” Fans lined up and shot slow motion videos of their costumes under fancy spotlights.
Another booth, operated by a memorabilia company, MeiGray, sold game-worn T-shirts. The main podium showed a mannequin wearing a jersey worn by Denver Nuggets quarterback Nikola Jokic in Game 2 of the NBA Finals last month. Sold for $150,000. Besides, the podium was smaller with a jersey that was worn by Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler during the third game of that series. It sold for $17,500. To the victors – Nuggets – Go for the bigger boxes and higher prices.
In the back corner of the conference room was an exhibit called “Rings Culture” from jewelry store Jason of Beverly Hills. Several replicas of the championship rings were shown. It might have been the perfect setting for a heist in a movie like “Ocean’s Eleven”.
The night before the conference, the NBA organized a tour for reporters. Tristan Gass, a YouTuber known for trick basketball shots, showed off some of his skills on a makeshift court. But before that, he described his rise to fame.
“We just left a trail of inspiration all over the world,” Jas told the audience.
His first shot was from a spot by the court behind a chain-link fence. He missed the first two attempts, but hit the third. It was awesome. His second shot was a perfect shot from the opposite corner. This was not the case. After no less than 20 errors, some observers – clearly uninspired – moved on to the rest of the round. When the shot went off, Jas muttered, “Those hurt.”
The biggest draw of the weekend was a panel discussion with Victor Wimpanyama of the San Antonio Spurs and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moderated by former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas. There were a few hundred seats, but a long overflowing line for spectators trying to catch a glimpse of a basketball torch being passed. Wimpanyama was the vetted first pick in the NBA Draft last month.
There was even bigger background: Abdul-Jabbar chatting with Wimpanyama in that 30-minute panel was more time than he’d spent chatting with James in the past two decades together. Last month, Abdul-Jabbar told reporters in Los Angeles that he “never had a chance to talk to LeBron, except for two or three minutes.”
At NBA Con, Abdul-Jabbar said he was shocked by how much the game had changed.
“Different duties and what is expected of different players in different positions,” he said. “He really went through a massive change, and for more than a few minutes, I just sat there and wondered, ‘Will I be able to compete?'” “
Abdul-Jabbar spent 20 seasons in the NBA and retired in 1989 as the scoring leader. James surpassed his own record in February.
“It sure was nice to be able to travel from one city to another on a charter plane like these guys,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I didn’t. I could have played longer.”
To that end, the conference was not just a branding exercise for the NBA, but also for the players themselves. Scott Henderson, a 19-year-old drafted third overall by the Portland Trail Blazers last month, is part of a new generation of superstars with unrecognizable marketing reach to players from the Abdul-Jabbar era. Most gamers are active on social media, which has given them extensive ways to build an audience. Henderson was interviewed on a panel by former Knicks star Carmelo Anthony—providing a sign that the league views Henderson as the next in a lineage of superstars.
“I’ve been thinking of myself as a business for a minute,” Henderson said afterwards. “Name. Company – that’s who I am.”