NBA All-Star Utah hiccups illustrate importance of WNBA getting it right culturally

Photo Credit: Lamar Carter

NBA All-Star weekend in Utah has come to a close. 

The last time we at Beyond The W wrote about All-Star Games, it pertained to how the WNBA’s All-Star logo was country miles better than that of the NBA or even the NFL’s Super Bowl despite the fact that the latter two leagues operate with much bigger budgets than the W.

This time, we are talking about the All-Star Game itself. It was what one would have expected – another midseason exhibition completely devoid of defense but with no shortage of entertaining moments. 

Team Giannis defeated Team LeBron by a final of 184-175. Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics put 55 points on the scoreboard – the most in NBA All-Star history and took home MVP honors. Notably, Tatum’s MVP trophy was … a bit bigger than Kelsey Plum’s that she won for her 30-piece she had at last season’s WNBA All-Star at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena. 

The problem was not the game itself. It was not even NBA All-Star Saturday. It was also another All-Star that had a significant WNBA presence. After all, Salt Lake City used to be home to a team – the Utah Starzz – who are now in Las Vegas as the Aces.

The issue with this year’s All-Star festivities is that they seemed completely out of place. And the problem was not the NBA. The problem was the city. 

Anyone who knows anything about Salt Lake City knows it is not exactly a mecca of Black culture the way Atlanta, Washington, Chicago and New York are. Granted – Salt Lake City is 21% Latino – a plus. It is also home to a large portion of the LGBTQIA community – also a plus. But there was a lot about the NBA having All-Star in Utah that presented trouble spots visible to virtually anyone with a pair of eyes and a brain. 

The performances by 21 Savage, Burna Boy and Tems were on-point as always. But anyone looking at the stands can tell that the crowd at Vivint Arena was not exactly a 21 Savage, Burna Boy or Tems crowd. Imagine either of those three gifted musicians performing in virtually any of the WNBA cities – especially Atlanta, Washington, Chicago or New York. Or even a non-WNBA city (for now) like Miami. The crowd would have looked like Summer Jam or Birthday Bash. 

And must we say more about the fact that the NBA thought it was a good idea to bring out Karl Malone and John Stockton for the All-Star introductions (or Malone being a judge for the Slam Dunk Contest)? Yes, we get they are both Utah Jazz legends, but between rape charges, conspiracy peddling and overall questionable (that’s putting it nicely) political views, it may be better for the NBA to shy away from these two. 

Let us also remember not too long ago what Donovan Mitchell said shortly after he was traded from the Jazz to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He basically said that living in Salt Lake City was awkward and that going to Cleveland was a relief. Mitchell was basically saying that he feels more comfortable in Cleveland because it is more of a Black city than Salt Lake City was. 

In addition, let us also remember that Mitchell is a native of the New York City area (Westchester to be exact) and played his college ball at Louisville – also a big Black city. 

One can imagine that there were not too many NBA ballers that were too enthused about the idea of the Association’s mid-season festivities taking place in Utah. And that is where the WNBA’s All-Star festivities come in. 

The last few seasons, the W has tried to make steps to make All-Star more of an event as opposed to a standalone game. It has added skills competitions as well as the 3-point contest to its offering. Last season, the WNBA’s All-Star festivities in Chicago were seemingly put together at the last minute. 

WNBA All-Star Saturday was essentially sequestered at the McCormick Convention Center and was only available to be viewed in person by AAU kids that were in town for the many travel events Chicago was hosting – including the Nike Nationals. While it was a good idea to incorporate the AAU element into last year’s All-Star festivities (Zoe Brooks who co-won the event with the New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu is a McDonald’s All-American honoree and NC State commit), it seemed that there was something missing. 

The concerts that were booked by the WNBA (Chance the Rapper, Latto) should have been available to the broader public that was at WNBA Live – which was right outside the convention center and a stone’s throw from Wintrust Arena. Hopefully they do a better job with organizing these plans for this season’s All-Star given it is returning to Las Vegas. 

The 2019 All-Star Game featured a concert by Teyana Taylor. That is called the WNBA getting it culturally correct. One can only guess what the WNBA’s plans are for All-Star this year but hopefully it resembles more like that of 2019. 

Not too long ago, Kehlani mentioned that she is a fan of the women’s game – particularly UConn. Immediately, someone in the WNBA should have attempted to get her team on the phone to possibly talk turkey about performing in Sin City this July. 

Or what about Anita Baker – who herself is a fan of the W, particularly the Aces. Or Usher? He does have a Las Vegas residency after all. Given the WNBA, who knows if either one of them are in its budget – but they need to be. 

The good thing is Las Vegas is a more diverse city than even Salt Lake City. The former may have large LGBTQIA and Brown populations that add to its diversity but Las Vegas has notable Black and Brown populations. Plus, Las Vegas is said to not have segregation problems the way other major Black cities – such as New York, Washington, Atlanta and Chicago encounter. 

So our guess is any of those acts the NBA booked for its All-Star would have received much more rousing receptions in a city like Las Vegas – where WNBA All-Star is returning to this season. But it also represents why it is critical that the WNBA continue to get its marketing correct from a cultural standpoint.

And all the W needs to do is watch how the players themselves brand themselves on social media. It is on social that we see a clearer picture of the DiJonai Carringtons, Lexie Browns, DiDi Richards’ and Michaela Onyenweres of the world not only as players, but as smart, vibrant and multi-talented Black women. 

To the WNBA’s credit, it has done a great job with doing this these past few years. But how various media outlets – particularly independent media outlets such as Girls Talk Sports TV and Made For the W – have managed to cover the WNBA from more of a cultural perspective has been particularly helpful in growing the league. 

It is somewhat ironic because the NBA constantly and habitually lifts idea from the WNBA without the W always getting a consistent bouquet of flowers. This time, the NBA may have given the W a blueprint on how not to do All-Star like many onlookers say the W did last year in Chicago. Those NBA ballers probably could not get out of Utah quick enough. 

For the NBA, there were a lot of airballs that went with this year’s All-Star festivities because it had the right idea, wrong city. For the WNBA last year, it had the right city, just the wrong ideas. If they put the correct ideas with the right city in Vegas for its festivities this year, there will be lots less airballs and plenty more halfcourt shots that will find their mark.