NBA All-Star Weekend gives Cleveland neighborhoods, small businesses a chance to shine


NBA All Star Weekend. Courtesy Destination Cleveland.

Like many small businesses in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, and the city as a whole, local popcorn company Crosby Corn was derailed hard by Covid-19.

Owned by husband-wife duo Jana and Marc Crosby, the no-additives popcorn boutique had been raking in about $75,000 a year. Then, when the pandemic delayed their search for a brick-and-mortar location, the Crosby’s income was halved, to $39,000 in 2021. Then, the Crosbys and their corn were introduced to Emily Lauer, Vice President of Public Relations at Destination Cleveland, through a diversity-focused community input session. 

Their 37 flavors, from Green Apple to Banana and Barbecue, made an impression. Last week, Lauer purchased 400 bags of Crosby Corn to serve top-tier media and MVP guests at the NBA All-Star Weekend

Jana, an accountant before helping to start the business in 2008, was overjoyed.

“We were surprised that they reached out to us,” Jana Crosby said. “I thought, ‘This could give us the opportunity to get in the hands of individuals that aren’t in Cleveland.’”

An overlooked benefit


Jana and Marc Crosby of Crosby Corn. Contributed photo.

Following the national draw of the MLB All-Star Game in 2019, 2021’s NFL Draft, multiple Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, and the infamous 2016 Republican National Convention, the NBA’s All-Star Game is an undeniable chance for Cleveland to showcase its assets on a national court. 

While hyped as generating $100 million in economic activity, hosting four separate games (including the main stage on Sunday) and some 400-500 private parties, All-Star Weekend offers another, possibly overlooked benefit. That is, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into neighborhood nonprofits, community centers, and local businesses like Crosby Corn. 

David Gilbert, CEO of Destination Cleveland and head of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, believes that although All-Star Weekend will not top the crowds of the RNC, the opportunities for local community benefit may top previous events. He points to events like The Block at Gordon Green, a three-day block party sponsored by Ruffles and Mountain Dew, centered in Detroit Shoreway, as vehicles to attract attention outside of downtown.


David Gilbert. Courtesy Destination Cleveland.

Check out all of the NBA All-Star Weekend events in Cleveland here.

“We really believe Cleveland is the best city in America for doing this – using major events as a platform for other community change,” Gilbert told an interviewer with the Cleveland Leadership Center in early February. 

“We’re lucky that we have this NBA All-Star Game coming to town, and tens of thousands of people, but with most cases that’s where it ends in most cities,” Gilbert added. “What’s critical for us is to look at where there’s every opportunity to expand the reach of the effectiveness of that on the community.”

Although an economic impact study by the Sports Commission will later quantify the All-Star Game’s economic impact, he says the tax dollars generated can also be used by the Bibb administration for community benefit. “Those go into the general fund of the city, the general fund of the county,” Gilbert said. “And those of course can be spent in neighborhoods.”

Flexing philanthropy 

After beating out a dozen other U.S. cities, including Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, and Charlotte, Cleveland secured the bid for the NBA’s 75th All-Star Game after a grueling four-year process. (Having a flashy new Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse helped, Gilbert has said.) 

Besides the business boost, the hip-hop showcases at Harry Buffalo, and the all-star celebrity party at Windows on the River, securing such an event is critical due to the ability for behemoths like the NBA—valued at $2.48 billion in 2021—to flex its philanthropic muscles. 


Merrick House in Tremont. Contributed photo.

And inject those dollars, Gilbert notes, into business and nonprofits that need it the most. This includes everything from $1 million donated to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, to $200,000 donated to area HBCUs (in tandem with the first ever NBA HBCU Classic game), to hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants supporting minority mental health and education. 

Harriet Hadley, the director of Merrick House in Tremont, was one of the beneficiaries of the corporate-led investment. Since the 1920s, when Merrick House was established on Starkweather Avenue, they’ve been using more or less the same gym. During Covid, while hosting after-school activities for 100 kids and teenagers a week, Hadley knew a major uplift was long overdue. Their equipment was outdated. The scoreboard routinely malfunctioned. 

“I’m not kidding, the floors hadn’t been stripped down or waxed in 70 years,” Hadley said.

View the NBA All Star Weekend’s touted social impact here and neighborhood reach here.

Then, three weeks before the All-Star Game, Hadley received an email. A group of three corporations, including Microsoft and Mobile 1, said they wanted to remodel Merrick House’s dilapidated gym in time for the NBA spectacle. As of February 18, they had succeeded. Hadley is set to show off their new digs the first day of the All-Star weekend.

“We have big, beautiful rims and backboards now,” she said. “It’s a place my kids can feel proud of.”

Small business boost

As for the small business world, Gilbert knows that not every entity will see great surges in income. Even for the 191 local businesses recognized on the NBA’s official events app, profits generated from out-of-town fans may not wow across the board. 

“Some will be upset, and say, ‘I didn’t see much extra business,’” he said. “And of course, some will knock it out of the park.”


Backattack Snacks. Contributed photo.

Those who had their product lined up for official NBA consumption, like Lauren Back, of Backattack Snacks in Brook Park, know the perks of partnership. Though Backattack won Best in Show at the 2021 International Jerky Awards, Back said her business suffered at Covid’s hands. Especially because, she said, 70 percent of their income relies on markets and public events. 

Yet this weekend, they’ll be serving up their product to athletes from around the country. “As a healthy snack brand, we target athletes,” Back said. She prays that her jerky or famous Almond Wistachios gets into the palms of Stephen Curry or Darius Garland – for that coveted-but-rare sponsorship deal. “One person that has celebrity status? That could be big.”

Over at Crosby Corn, the sentiment of that dreamy product placement is felt equally. Hoping to recoup 2021’s losses, and fast track herself and her husband to their first retail store in 2022, Jana Crosby knows how pivotal this weekend is for her and her city.

It showed her that the right-place-right-time mentality – talk up your product wherever you’re at – could mean big bucks.

“I feel like we’re on cloud nine now,” she said. “I’m hoping the players say, ‘Where’s the Crosby’s corn? I had it when I was in Cleveland.’”

 

 

Mark Oprea is a Cleveland-based independent journalist who has written for National Public Radio, Pacific Standard, and many others.

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