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Q&A: N.B.A. Event Chief Gail Hunter on Producing the All-Star Game, What Fans Want, and the Lockout

Gail Hunter, senior vice president of events and attractions for the N.B.A. Photo: Courtesy of N.B.A.

Gail Hunter, senior vice president of events and attractions for the N.B.A.

Photo: Courtesy of N.B.A.

Orlando is buzzing with activity as the city prepares to host the N.B.A. All-Star game Sunday night at Amway Center. Visit Orlando estimates 100,000 people will come to Central Florida over the next several days to attend the game and take part in related activities such as N.B.A. All-Star Jam Session—four days of basketball games, clinics, autograph sessions, and attractions inside the Orange County Convention Center.

Gail Hunter is senior vice president of events and attractions for the N.B.A., overseeing production, operations, sponsorship management, marketing, and advertising for both the game and Jam Session. She spoke to us about bringing the events to Orlando.

How did the N.B.A. lockout last fall affect your planning?
Things did not go on hold. We continued to plan. We continued to visit Orlando. We had regularly scheduled local host committee meetings where we kept things moving. And realistically, we just couldn’t put it on hold. We just kept moving forward, and that’s obviously been key.

Last year, the All-Star Game was in Los Angeles; in 2010, it was Dallas. How has it been different to produce it in Orlando?
No challenges. I’ll be quick to say that. One advantage has been the overall infrastructure of the city and county and working with the Orlando Magic. We started planning last year in L.A., and it has been an incredible working relationship that has made it a very smooth process. Everyone has been excited and helpful. In no way is it smaller. We have the same basic schedule of events. And we’re looking forward to an extremely successful week of activities.

The $380 million Amway Center opened in the fall of 2010. How much did the construction of a new, technologically advanced arena have to do with the N.B.A.’s selection of Orlando as the host city for 2012?
Orlando is a great destination. It makes it even more exciting for our guests and people coming in that it is such a great place for out-of-town visitors. Amway had a great deal to do with it, but it’s also the range and breadth of hotels and entertainment facilities throughout the area.

You are producing Jam Session at the convention center on International Drive, several miles from the downtown arena. What will be going on there?
Every city is different. In the Orlando market, people are used to going where the events are. Whatever city we are in [Jam Session] has to be in a venue that is 500,000 square feet of space, so it’s the size that we need, and the Orange County Convention Center is perfect for this event. We’ll have more than 30 different basketball-themed attractions. Any fan who wants to come play the game, we have numerous courts where we'll be doing clinics and seminars. You and I can go slam dunk on seven-foot rims. There's a huge kids zone and players interacting with fans. We have a large exhibit that comes from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for fans of the history of the game. It’s truly designed for fans of all ages. It’s a family event, and it expands the reach of All-Star. Obviously not everyone can get a ticket to go to an event at Amway, but Jam Session brings it together under one roof.

Tell us more about the arena you are creating inside the convention center for Jam Session.
It is 4,000 seats. It will have a regulation-length N.B.A. hardwood court inside. It will have all the bells and whistles, scoreboard, lights, interactive entertainment that we have at an N.B.A. arena, but it is obviously much smaller and more intimate. The Sprint Celebrity Game will happen there Friday night. The N.B.A. All Stars will practice there Saturday. Our D-League will have their all-star game on that center court. So again an opportunity for fans to get up close and personal with the full breadth of N.B.A. talent. We bring two brand-new hardwood courts to Orlando; one goes to the Amway Center, one comes to Jam Session. It’s a brand new floor and it’s got branding that is specific to the events that happen there. It obviously makes it a very special event.

Are the events for N.B.A. All-Star Weekend largely the same from year to year?
The schedule of events is fairly similar every year, but what goes inside the events and obviously the entertainment, the theming, changes. We always have an event Friday night. The last few years, the rookies have played the sophomores. This year, it is a new format, but again it’s a Friday night event with rookies and sophomores, but there are blended teams this year that are going to be drafted by Charles [Barkley] and [Shaquille O’Neal]. The events are tweaked a bit. Saturday night with N.B.A. All-Star Saturday, the four main events are similar, but the participants change from year to year.

N.B.A. All-Star Weekend involves multiple events and gets worldwide media coverage. What is the most exciting part of it for you?
Putting it all together and working with the local team, the city, and the county, and the collaboration that goes in to making it work. It’s a relationship that started when the first group of people came out to L.A. last year, and we walked them around. We started talking about things, getting their ideas about how can we make this right for Orlando, knowing the physical layout, what’s needed. We reached out for volunteers. They are the key to making Jam Session successful, and we had the most energetic group from Orlando that we were basically sold out of our volunteer opportunities within days. [More than 1,300 people have signed on to volunteer during the four-day event.] It’s exciting to work in an environment like that.


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