NBA Con hit Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas last weekend, the culmination of a four-year project vying to take the fan experience global.
For more than four years, the NBA looked to improve upon and globalize its fan festival concept NBA Crossover, which debuted at the 2017 All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. Led by Joey Graziano, the NBA’s senior vice president of business operations and strategy, the league looked at its own events and other industry conventions like Comic-Con to bring fans closer to the game in one-of-one ways they were never going to experience anywhere else.
The first-ever NBA Con finally came to life last weekend inside the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, where 25,000 fans over three days saw everything from the unveiling of the new NBA in-season tournament, appearances from more than 125 players, including seven from the 75th-anniversary team like Jerry West and Ray Allen, musical performances from artists like 2 Chainz and Toosi, and unique installments and activations from league partners both new and established.
The goal is to make NBA Con an international franchise with multiple fan-centric conventions a year all over the world, including at tentpole events like All-Star Weekend, the NBA Draft, preseason games in cities like Abu Dhabi, and regular-season games in cities such as Paris and London.
For Graziano, his main objective was for fans to leave the event and say they couldn’t have experienced anything like this without showing up in person.
“You’re asking them to get off the couch and to come here. So you have to raise the bar and deliver them more,” Graziano told Boardroom. “Whether that’s a piece of merchandise they want to acquire, something they want to collect, a photo that they couldn’t have gotten or they want to meet another fan or they want to see a conversation, I want our fans to leave and say, ‘that was worth it.'”
The NBA partnered with Emerald — which runs more than 50 trade shows, from Advertising Week and The Pizza Show to Surf Expo and cannabis conference MJBizCon — to plan and scale the event to hundreds of thousands of square feet. For Ron Walden, Emerald’s senior vice president of strategic partnerships, his job is to bring his expertise to help the NBA reach consumers and create immersive environments via non-endemic partners not directly related to basketball.
The league ended up bringing 46 exhibitors and global partners, including AT&T, ESPN, Amazon, Michelob Ultra, Pepsi, New Era, Mitchell & Ness, iHeart, and CrunchyRoll. But Emerald’s trade shows are largely B2B, connecting manufacturers with retailers. Here, the NBA was trying to connect the culture of basketball to the fans themselves.
“Basketball is one of the few sports that really translates well and transitions off-court into a lifestyle,” Walden told Boardroom. “For trade shows, we try to imagine conceptually of what the experience would be.”
In these types of convention spaces, Emerald starts with a giant physical square and then divides those spaces into different neighborhoods. Each of these incorporated elements of the NBA culture, focusing on fashion, art, music, and technology, to name a few.
The Park included a court where NBA teams held practices, courts for kids and adults to play, a store powered by Amazon Music, a pickleball court, and an autograph stage. The Drip offered exclusive drops and opportunities to buy streetwear and merch from brands like Cross Colours and Wararie Boswell. The Collection gave fans the chance to take a photo with an NBA championship ring and buy game-worn jerseys and card drops from Panini.
AT&T also had space at The Drip, expanding the company’s Fit Cam from All-Star Weekend celebrities in Salt Lake City to fans who wanted a taste of the red-carpet treatment. For Andrea Wilson, AT&T’s director of sponsorships and experiential marketing, she felt like the company had to be there.
“We want to make sure that we are finding ways to elevate the experience for these fans that are here,” she told Boardroom. “These are the most passionate NBA fans, the ones that live the culture day in, day out. We wanted to find a way to complement their experience that they’re going to have here in a way that’s giving them something like social ready video for them to post online when they get their new merch.”
To bring the NBA Con concept to life after years of iteration and ideation, Graziano and his team looked to not just the league’s own events, but industry sensations like Comic-Con for exclusive collaborations and moments fans couldn’t possibly get elsewhere. For Comic-Con, he said, it’s the way in which they bring people together and provide not just products but conversations. For the NBA, it was a mix of live podcasts, panels, and special conversations between unprecedented combinations, like when Victor Wembanyama chatted with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“They had to be not just about the right time and place, but also the right moment,” Graziano said. “Things that only really make sense at this bespoke moment. That’s the type of thing we learn when you look at what Comic-Con has done so well. People show up for those types of moments and conversations because they know if they miss this one, it won’t happen ever again.”
For Graziano, Walden, and Wilson, putting on this event was complicated by the short runway everyone involved had in order to pull NBA Con off. Circumstances dictated that the league, Walden, and partners only had 90 days to set up this inaugural event.
“This is unprecedented in event business, to put on an activation and event of this size and scale in less than a year,” Walden said.
For partners like Wilson, the window was even smaller. She said she found out about full details 60 days out, but AT&T is in the live event business all the time and was able to produce a fun fan experience under a tight deadline.
Graziano acknowledged asking everyone to make sacrifices to come to Las Vegas under tight timelines, one of the challenges the NBA faced in launching this new business, but he told partners that NBA Con was a franchise and platform with sticking power.
“So if you miss the first one, we’ll see you at the next one,” he said. “For some of the brands that couldn’t come out for this first NBA Con, we know they’re going to have a brand new identity for the next one and we hope to see them there.”
Graziano believes there’s a desire to make NBA Con a commercial, profit-driving entity, and its partnership with Emerald is crucial in that regard. What Walden and Emerald were telling prospective exhibitors, sponsors, artists, and celebrities was “Look at what we’ve been able to do in 90 days.”
And while it’s hard to bring live games around the world, it’s a lot more feasible to bring something like NBA Con to audiences in far-flung continents. Now, it’s up to Graziano and the league to ensure each edition of the event has its own distinct vision where fans and partners can experience and curate a bespoke environment that’ll never be seen again.
Walden said Emerald’s intent is to be back again for the next NBA Con in December, likely in a US city that doesn’t have an NBA team. And whether it’s a net promoter score or a fan poll, this first event will be judged by whether promoters and attendees are happy with how things turned out.
“We want to know if the fans had a good time and found value in the propositions,” he said. “I don’t know any place else in this city or any other city where you get to meet with players, get to watch players play, have most of those conversations with players and other influencers, while also having full-blown concerts.
“Ultimately, the fan will tell us if it was done right.”
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