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When Will Milwaukee Get The NBA All-Star Game?

Fiserv Forum made this no longer an impossibility, but the league isn’t committing

2021 70th NBA All-Star Game Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Though the game itself might be forgettable, hosting an All-Star game is a big deal for a pro sports city. If you were around Milwaukee in 2002, you may recall the hubbub around Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game (I was there!) which went down infamously in a tie. Soon enough the city will get its chance to “redeem” itself since modern MLB stadiums are starting to see their second All-Star Game (Denver, Cleveland, Seattle), but there’s a new building in town that needs to see one first.

The Bradley Center aged pretty rapidly and never hosted an NBA All-Star Game, but the old Mecca did host the 1977 game. Things were a lot different before the stadium boom of the 1990s through the present day, though: now the league seems to favor a franchise’s location for their star-studded exhibition over their sparkling new facility, which is how MLB awards theirs. Rather than grant the event to cities that plunked down new arenas—many with public funding—the NBA has gone back to recent hosts over and over, resulting in some puzzling repeats in recent years. Staples Center has hosted three games, including two just six years apart, though I suppose that building represents two teams. Warm weather markets like Houston and Atlanta have hosted twice in their current arenas, the former opening in 2003 and the latter in 1999 (but with a recent significant renovation).

When I say location, though, it’s not about warm and sunny weather in February. Current arenas in Salt Lake City and Cleveland will both see their second All-Star Games this coming season and next, while Toronto finally got theirs in 2016 after two decades in the league. It’s not necessarily about the glitz either; Miami hasn’t hosted one in their current 22-year-old building, and neither has the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. New Orleans may not be a glamor NBA city—and is indeed a smaller market than even Milwaukee—but it has hosted three All-Star games since the Pelicans-née-Hornets moved to town. One of these was relocated from Charlotte in the league’s protest of North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom bill so it’s more like two actual selections, but props to the NBA for doing what it could to help the city recover from Hurricane Katrina.

For many years, this selection pattern has deprived other markets with modern arenas of the chance at more revenue. Local economies in Memphis and Oklahoma City stand to benefit far more from these festivities than Los Angeles or New York, plus their teams built venues in the 2000s. These cities are more recent additions to the NBA, but Sacramento opened the Golden 1 Center in 2016 and though Portland’s Moda Center was built in 1995, it has aged well: I certainly couldn’t tell when I saw a game there. All four of these cities have never hosted the event. Meanwhile, even non-NBA—and non-basketball—venues Cowboys Stadium in Dallas and UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas have landed games.

Thus, location is less about a city’s climate, sophistication, or market size. Remember that even the league’s smaller markets are only referred to as such relative to the rest of the league; these are still large cities with infrastructures for large events. The Big Easy has long been a popular convention and conference destination given its abundance of hotel rooms—high-end rooms at that. It’s also a frequent Super Bowl host. In order to host the Super Bowl and multiple NCAA Final Fours, downtown Indianapolis built up lots of capacity for major sporting events, and the sensational (I highly recommend a game there) Bankers Life Fieldhouse will finally see the NBA All-Star Game in 2024. Though many of its facilities have been repurposed or torn down, Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.

It’s more than just a large infrastructure, though. To the NBA, location is about amenities; amenities the NBA says it needs for All-Star Weekend. Though Adam Silver stated in 2018 that there was a “commitment” to bringing the game to Milwaukee, the main reason the NBA cited when Fiserv Forum opened—and in ensuing years—as to why it was not being granted an All-Star Game in the near future is a lack of four- and five-star hotel rooms. The market needs 6,000 total, many of which need to be at least “four-star quality.” Why do they need so many? It’s not for the players. Every NBA city has at least one fancy hotel where visiting teams stay; Milwaukee’s is usually the haunted Pfister (#HeatCulture!) or more recently the Journeyman in the Third Ward.

Are the rooms for celebrities and other big spenders coming to the game? If I recall correctly, I saw plenty of A-listers (Sheryl Crow doesn’t count) at GAME SIX OF THE NBA FINALS. There were the same amount of butts in those seats as there would be for that meaningless game in February. Where were they staying if there aren’t enough rooms for a freaking All-Star Game? Were Dave Chappelle and Kendall Jenner at the airport Four Points by Sheraton? Did Gucci Mane crash at Ersan’s place in Mequon? Kanye was apparently on the guest list; did he bail because Saint Kate’s bridal suite was booked?

Joking aside, the hotel capacity reasoning doesn’t really follow. Chicago’s United Center, for all its history since being opened in 1994, finally hosted the game in 2020. The Windy City is certainly not lacking in the boutique hotel rooms the NBA desires, so why the long wait? Miami is as posh a tourist location as anywhere and the NBA has one of its flagship teams there, so why haven’t they taken their talents to South Beach since 1990? Those franchises were bidding and their fans clamoring for the All-Star Game for much longer than the Bucks, but they each had the arena to justify it.

I’m not buying it, Adam. We’ll play your game, though. The NBA’s All-Star Game is not the Super Bowl and hosts half the fans as MLB’s, but apparently what was enough for baseball in 2002 is insufficient for the current NBA. Milwaukee admittedly does not have as many luxurious hotels downtown as some other small markets, but the revitalized Deer District has driven development as the team hoped for. Just last week, the Bucks and developers broke ground on a new nine-story Marriott Autograph Collection hotel directly across Juneau Street from Fiserv Forum to go along with the nearby Hyatt Place up the hill to the west and the Aloft two blocks to the east. A Tempo by Hilton has been proposed for Old World Third and Kilbourn, near the Mecca. These are all in close walking distance to the arena, plus there’s an entire empty patch of land where the Bradley Center used to stand.

More high-end infrastructure is coming, but the capacity for bigger events than the NBA could ever host already exists. Thanks in no small part to the Bucks ownership group’s efforts, Milwaukee landed the 2020 Democratic National Convention, centered at Fiserv Forum. Of course, a global pandemic meant the event went online, and the city missed out on tens (hundreds?) of millions in business. A political convention in an election year is about as big an event as a city can host: rooms are booked a year out, many residents rent their homes out as Airbnbs, and even cities within a short drive like Madison were seeing large hotel demand. DNC visitors maybe aren’t as selective with their accommodations as the NBA would be, but the convention’s influx of media and political visitors dwarfs the NBA All-Star Game. If the DNC went off as planned, it would have only helped with an All-Star bid.

The league has scheduled All-Star venues out to 2024 and tends to announce future years close to the beginning of regular seasons. While we can hope this year, there’s a pretty good chance the NBA doesn’t choose Fiserv Forum for a while. There are venues built between 1995 and 2002 in Boston, Miami, Dallas, and San Antonio that haven’t hosted yet: all have obviously strong basketball cities for a long time. Furthermore, Detroit and Golden State moved into new facilities since 2017, the latter being the NBA’s newest arena in a very high-income market. The Clippers will complete their ultra-modern, recently-named Intuit Dome in 2024.

Perhaps Milwaukee is in a better position to host than the likes of Memphis and OKC, but I’m not counting on a selection soon. This is pure speculation, but I’d guess San Francisco’s Chase Center probably has the inside track on a game in the near future and gets selected for 2025 or 2026. I think it’s more likely the league will place one or two in places like Miami and Dallas or go back to the well of LA before the Bucks get theirs. You could say the same for Sacramento and San Antonio, though, so Milwaukee is competing with them as well.

For their part, the Bucks are trying pretty much every year and are putting up the money for what the NBA wants. After a championship, there is no franchise that deserves it more.