All-Star Game 2021: Behind the NBA’s Decision

The NBA All-Star Game is an annual tradition dating back to 1951. In normal circumstances, the weekend is a highly-anticipated event for fans and players alike. Besides the exhibition game showcasing the league’s best, the voting, slam-dunk contest, and parties make the game one of the most interactive and exciting annual weekends for sports fans. In-person interactivity is something that has been out of reach for almost a year now, so as one might expect, the excitement surrounding the All-Star Game has dwindled during the pandemic. So much so, that some of the league’s highest-profile players have issued statements expressing their disinterest. Earlier this month, Giannis Antetokounmpo told The Athletic, “The Big Dog (LeBron James) says he has zero excitement, zero energy for the All-Star Game. I’m the same way; I really, right now, I don’t care about the All-Star Game. I got zero energy, zero excitement.” Between the Orlando Bubble last spring, the league’s heightened health and safety protocols, and game postponements, a collective sense of pandemic-induced moral fatigue is understandable. Despite some player apprehension, the league officially announced last Thursday that the Game will take place in Atlanta on March 7th. Additional travel for players and staff presents an increased risk of infection, making the decision to go forward with the game seem rather counterintuitive during an already challenging season. ESPN’s Bontemps and Wojnarowski report that each time the NBA has returned from a break (in June, before the start of the bubble, and in November, before the start of training camp), there has been a significant spike in cases across the league. Therefore, the pros of holding an All-Star Weekend during the pandemic must outweigh the cons. Let’s take a look at the considerations the league may be looking at. 

NBA, ESPN, Turner Sports Media Deal 

In 2014, the NBA announced a nine-year extension deal with its long-term partners ESPN and Turner Sports, keeping the Association on the networks through the 2024-25 season. Although the terms of the agreement remain undisclosed, the deal was reportedly at $24 billion and nearly triple the previous contract’s annual value. Consequently, the NBA All-Star Weekend is a big one for Turner-owned TNT and TBS. Last year’s game averaged a 4.1 rating and 7.3 million viewers across TNT and TBS Sunday night (an 8% increase from 2019). Additional All-Star programming is exclusive and spans across the entire weekend, while Turner makes approximately $30 million in ad revenue alone. The New York Times estimates that for the NBA, the event is worth about $60 million. In the event of cancellation, the NBA would have to make up this amount to Turner later. 

Here, we can start piecing together that canceling the game would present some financial concerns thatfor the leaguemay outweigh the cons of canceling. As Sacramento Kings Point Guard, De’Aaron Fox pointed out, “money makes the world go ’round, so it is what it is. “Due to COVID-19, the NBA suffered losses of around $1.5 billion in 2020, and losses of such magnitude affect staff across the league — not solely the players. Therefore, one may consider that the decision to give the All-Star Game the green light comes from the NBA needing to maximize revenue…but what about that aforementioned apprehension from the players?

Labor Relations, HBCU funding, and Vaccine Confidence

This is where the league’s labor union, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), comes in. The NBPA’s mission is to ensure that the rights of NBA players are protected and that every conceivable measure is taken to assist players in maximizing their opportunities and achieving their goals both on and off the court. The most important document between the league and the labor union is the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the language of which explicitly notes that players do not have much choice on whether to partake in the game. Article XXI of the collective bargaining agreement states that any player selected to play in an All-Star game must attend and participate in the game and every other event conducted in association with All-Star Weekend. Additionally, a player will not be required to participate only if he has been excused from participation by the Commissioner at his sole discretion. 

Chris Paul, current NBPA President and point guard for the Phoenix Suns, expressed in an interview, “the job for the union has been to try to make sure our players are healthy and safe” while making it clear that players’ opinions are not a big factor in the league’s decision. Per ESPN, the NBA sent out a memo to its teams on Monday detailing its agreement with the National Basketball Players Association for health and safety protocols during the All-Star break, both for selected players and those who are not. 

Players selected to play are allowed to travel solely to their out-of-market home before going to Atlanta strictly by NBA-provided private transportation. Negative PCR tests are mandatory on March 6th and 7th, and each player can bring a limited number of guests who are to follow the same protocols as the players. Non-selected players can enjoy greater flexibility in travel as they can stay in their market home or go anywhere within the United States; however, staying at and using public accommodation is prohibited. Regardless of whether selected as an All-Star or not, all players have to undergo daily PCR testing. 

Notably, both the league and the NBPA have emphasized that the Game will feature a philanthropic component to benefit historically Black colleges and universities and COVID-19 relief efforts while featuring a campaign to urge fans to take the coronavirus vaccine. Thus far, NBA leadership has withstood the test of a global pandemic. In fact, the league has seen some weeks since the season’s start where none of the players tested positive, indicating that their protocols work. Here’s to hoping this holds true through All-Star Weekend.