The NBA made a $100 million decision this summer when it moved the 2017 NBA All-Star Game Weekend out of Charlotte, NC. The game relocation came after the state passed HB2, referred as the “Bathroom Bill,” which did far more than dictate which bathrooms North Carolinians should use. The far-reaching bill eliminated anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals in the state and also stopped local municipalities from creating their own anti-discrimination policies. By moving All-Star Weekend, the league showed a commitment to inclusion, led other leagues to do the same, and encouraged a wave of companies using their power of the purse to hold partners accountable.
The NBA has long touted its commitment to diversity: 81% of its players, 47% of its head coaches, and 36% of its league office staff are racially or ethnically diverse. The league office and its teams also have a number of LGBTQ staff. The NBA is also proud of its record on, and commitment to, inclusion. They were the first major sports league with an openly gay athlete, Brooklyn Nets player Jason Collins, who said he is “extremely proud” of the NBA’s decision to move the game. “Their decision is an extremely poignant one and shows that discrimination of any kind is not welcome in sports and is not acceptable in any part of our society,” Collins said to USA Today. “The NBA has set the best kind of example and precedent moving forward for all to follow.”
Openly gay NBA executive Rick Welts, the President and COO of the Golden State Warriors, had a key role not only in the creation of All-Star Game Weekend in 1980 but also in inspiring the move from Charlotte. Through international exhibitions and his work on the 1992 Dream Team, Welts helped bring NBA basketball to an international audience. Welts, who has worked in the NBA for decades, began as a ballboy, worked his way up through the league office, and is among the most respected and accomplished executives in sports. Welts told other NBA leaders that he and others wouldn’t feel comfortable attending All-Star Weekend in Charlotte because of the state’s controversial law. If Welts and many like him were not comfortable attending All-Star Weekend, keeping it in Charlotte would have been tone-deaf. Despite possibly investing millions in marketing, travel, and through its partners – the league relocated All-Star Weekend.
By taking a stand against LGBTQ discrimination, the NBA builds its position as a leader in the fight for diversity in the sports industry. ESPN stood with the NBA’s decision, noting its own support of inclusion. Weeks after the NBA’s progressive decision, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) announced it is moving seven championship games out of North Carolina, including the opening rounds of the 2017 Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, part of March Madness.
Days later, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) joined the NCAA in relocating all neutral-site championships this season. These organizations all stand to lose money they have already invested and risked upsetting partners who have committed to spending big on the events. But, their decision was made much easier by the NBA being first out of the gate, and giving the others cover to announce similar decisions.
As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver put it, this was a business decision, but it was also a safe bet. Charlotte officials estimate the economic impact of losing the All-Star Weekend could be around $100 million. Though some costs are not recoverable, the cost of doing nothing could have been much greater. Not only would the NBA’s reputation be on the line, but cheerful photos of the NBA/WNBA/NBDL athletes may have been replaced on front pages by community protests. Indeed, there is a good chance that the NBA’s own players and staff would have participated in thoughtful protests. Instead, the NBA has received positive press with players and staff praising the league’s decision in earned media.
The NBA league said it is trying to effect “positive change” with its decision. Perhaps the league will do more than just get good press and highlight its own core values of “not only diversity, inclusion, fairness and respect for others, but also the willingness to listen and consider opposing points of views.” Perhaps the NBA will spur other corporations to use their power of the purse to influence agencies, suppliers, and partners. Perhaps the NBA will remind everyone of the true point of All-Star weekend – athletes and teams putting aside their differences to come together, embrace the community, and put teamwork and a love of the game above all else.
Pauly Rodney is Vice President, Raines International, and co-head of the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Practice.