The Pro Bowl. The “Midsummer Classic.” Whatever gimmick the NHL comes up with this year. The competition isn’t all that stiff. but the NBA’s All-Star weekend, which kicks off this evening with a performance by Kanye West in New York City, is the last remaining all-star event in professional sports. It's the NBA's answer to SXSW and, like that over-covered conflagration, it's impossible to ignore.
Perhaps it’s popularity is due to the time of the year, the doldrums of the sporting calendar between the Super Bowl and spring training, where America looks for anything to focus on besides the eventual heat death of the universe. Or you can point to the weather: Most of the country is so cold that a five-hour dunk contest seems preferable to shoveling. But, while those are factors, they’re not the central reason for the all-star game’s popularity.
The central reason is that the whole thing is cool.
The NBA, unlike the MLB or the embattled, but insanely popular, NFL, is ascendant. Basketball is more popular than ever, and its alignment with popular culture and fashion lends its mid-season break an opportunity for the league to distill itself into a very marketable essence. While the playoffs stretch into infinity and provide countless highlights and excitement, the NBA, always looking for cross-promotional opportunities (perhaps more so than any other league), uses All-Star weekend to please their corporate partners as well as their many celebrity admirers. In a sense, All-Star weekend has become less about the actual game (which, by the way, is a bad game) but more a celebration of NBA culture.
So what is NBA culture? Throw corporate hip-hop (the music and the fashion), celebrity worship, and the ballet together and that’s kind of close to NBA culture (Big Boi was so very, very close). Hip-hop artists still want to be basketball players and basketball players still want to be hip-hop artists. This isn’t a theory; this is physics.
All-Star weekend throws in the corporate dynamism of the NBA to create a juggernaut of an event, where anyone who’s anybody comes to the home town to party, gawk at celebrities, and attend countless concerts that are somehow vaguely related. While, at its core, it’s a corporate event, the outer fringes of all-star weekend resemble Mardi Gras more than the dunk contest, where the host city plays host to a party scene where every club from the biggest venue to the smallest strip joint promises that your favorite rapper or NBA star will be in attendance (and you know what? They’re sometimes right).
In terms of cross-promotional opportunities transforming a city into a focused marketing and party event, NBA All-Star weekend is the only thing that now comes close to the Super Bowl. And in many ways, it’s much much cooler. Oh, and there’s some basketball too. But man, that dunk contest takes way too long.