Somewhere under the lights of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center over the weekend, the Jabbawockeez danced during a TV special that could have been an email as part of the “most culturally relevant basketball experience on the planet.”
That’s what the signs called it, anyway. It was the first NBA Con, the league’s riff on Comic-Con. The basketball-themed Lollapalooza was a three-day smorgasbord of fashion, music, and basketball.
But seen through another lens, the convention was an intriguing window into how the league views itself as a business.
For the NBA, the stars are bigger than the games: cultural presences far beyond the court. The NBA took advantage of that by holding the convention during its summer league in Las Vegas, when scores of union stakeholders, retired players, owners, general managers, players, sponsors and fans descend on Nevada.
“When you ask people about the NBA, it’s not a business to them,” said Mark Tatum, the league’s deputy commissioner. “It’s life. It’s their culture. The NBA is this culture of music, fashion, entertainment and style.”
More than 25,000 fans attended, most paying between $30 and $250 to enter. But really, cultural relevance is priceless, especially when sponsored by Michelob Ultra. (They were there too.)
The convention floor was installed to evoke the spirit of New York City, with park benches, Jenga, cornhole and pickleball courts. There were neighborhoods titled El Goteo, La Recaudación, La Red, El Parque and Los Convos.
The Drip, where the sponsors set up shop, was the true hub of the convention.
Sure, a convention helps the league reach fans in a way it might not otherwise at a time when LeBron James isn’t playing every night. On Saturday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver detailed a new tournament during the season during a bloated television special. But launching an NBA Con meant the league also created an opportunity for new intellectual property. He sold NBA Con merchandise and created a new Twitter account, though the account had fewer than 2,000 followers on Monday compared to nearly 44 million for the league account.
There was an AT&T booth, where a sign read, “Be the center of attention and show your fire shape.” Fans lined up and took slow-motion videos of their outfits under a fancy spotlight.
Another stall, run by a memorabilia company, MeiGray, sold jerseys used in the game. His main podium featured a mannequin wearing a jersey Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic wore in Game 2 of the NBA Finals last month. Sold for $150,000. Next to that was a smaller podium with a jersey worn by Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler during Game 3 of that series. It sold for $17,500. For the winners, the Nuggets, go the biggest boxes and the highest prices.
Tucked away in a back corner of the convention space was an exhibit called “Culture of Rings,” by Jason’s Beverly Hills jewelry store. It displayed various replica championship rings. It could have been the perfect location for a heist in a movie like “Ocean’s Eleven.”
The night before the convention, the NBA held a tour for journalists. Tristan Jass, a YouTuber known for his basketball tricks, showed off some of his skills on a temporary court. But before doing so, he described his rise to fame.
“We just left a trail of inspiration around the world,” Jass told the crowd.
His first shot was a jerk from a court-adjacent spot behind a chain-link fence. He missed the first two attempts, but hit the third. it was awesome of him the second shot from him was a full court shot from the opposite corner. This one didn’t fare so well. After at least 20 errors, some observers, clearly uninspired ones, carried on with the rest of the tour. As a shot went off, Jass muttered, “Those hurt.”
The biggest draw of the weekend was a panel discussion with the San Antonio Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar moderated by Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons star. There were a couple hundred seats, but a long, overflowing line for spectators trying to watch a basketball torch go by. Wembanyama was the much-heralded No. 1 pick in the NBA draft last month.
There was also a bigger backdrop: Abdul-Jabbar’s conversation with Wembanyama in that 30-minute panel was more time than he had spent chatting with James in the past two decades combined. Last month, Abdul-Jabbar told reporters in Los Angeles that he “had never really had a chance to talk to LeBron, beyond two or three minutes.”
At NBA Con, Abdul-Jabbar said he was surprised by how much the game had changed.
“The different duties and what is expected of various players at various positions,” he said. “She’s really gone through a tremendous change, and for more than a few minutes, I sat there and wondered, ‘Would she be able to compete?’”
Abdul-Jabbar spent 20 seasons in the NBA, retiring in 1989 as his career scoring leader. James surpassed his record in February.
“However, it would have been nice to be able to fly from city to city on a charter plane like these guys do,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I didn’t get to do that. I could have played longer.”
To that end, the convention served as not only a branding exercise for the NBA, but also for the players themselves. Scoot Henderson, the 19-year-old who was drafted third by the Portland Trail Blazers last month, is part of a new generation of stars with a marketing reach players of the Abdul-Jabbar era would find unrecognizable. Most gamers are active on social media, which has given them broader ways to build an audience. Henderson was interviewed on a panel by former Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, giving a signal that the league viewed Henderson as the next in the all-star lineage.
“I’ve been thinking of myself as a business for a minute,” Henderson said afterward. “The name. A corporation, that’s what I am.”