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The Minnesota Timberwolves' deep playoff run is infusing downtown Minneapolis with national publicity and tourism dollars. And this time, city boosters didn't have to pay for it.

Though Minneapolis has in recent years played host to major sporting events including the Super Bowl and Final Four, this NBA playoff series — which could last up to seven games, including four possible home games — required no upfront investment from the city, just some stellar basketball from the Wolves. Meanwhile, it cost Minneapolis about $50 million to put on the Super Bowl.

"Every new dollar is unanticipated and certainly is going to benefit a lot of folks: It's going to benefit the city with its tax collections; it's going to benefit the businesses being able to keep their employees on the job, perhaps more hours or perhaps even more staff people," said Meet Minneapolis President and CEO Melvin Tennant, noting the city still has thousands fewer hospitality workers than it did pre-pandemic. "This is an opportunity to see us gain some lost ground."

From hotel room bookings to packed bars for watch parties, the Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks, which began Wednesday night at Target Center, is a shot in the arm for downtown at a time when the city's core, like many across the country, is still working to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. But quantifying the impact is tricky, especially since it has been 20 years since the Wolves last played on such a big stage.

Visit Milwaukee estimated a $30 million economic effect from the Bucks' Eastern Conference finals run in 2021, including $16.3 million in direct spending. The NBA Finals, which the Bucks won, brought in $28 million, with a total estimated economic boost of nearly $58 million at the height of the pandemic. Denver expected to net $25 million in boosted spending for each NBA Finals game it hosted last year and up to $100 million of "indirect" spending. Playing host to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis in 2018, meanwhile, brought more than $370 million in new spending to Minnesota through a week, with visitors spending an average of $600 per day.

While this series is "just" the conference finals, the buzz around the Wolves might have longer-lasting tourism effect. The team's success has put a national spotlight on Minnesota, especially after star shooting guard Anthony Edwards told former pro basketball player and commentator Charles Barkley to "bring ya ass" to town for the series. The website now redirects to Explore Minnesota's website and has generated headlines around the country.

While officials often tout the influx of money flowing into town, University of Minnesota marketing Prof. George John said the greater benefit is social, not economic.

"These things do have a positive effect, and there is money coming in, though when you count it all up, it is marginal," he said. "I think we look at it as bigger than that, a social event and how people feel about it. I think we should enjoy it."

Downtown boosters said they're expecting visitors from across the region and nationwide, as well as some international attention as major media outlets descend on the city. The series is also an opportunity to woo locals who might have stayed away from downtown in recent years because of safety concerns or simply because they're now working from home.

Though downtown hasn't recovered the hundreds of thousands of office workers that were once a staple of its economy, Downtown Council President and CEO Adam Duininck said leisure visits are on this rise. Last year, more than 9 million people attended downtown events, "the highest it's ever been," he said.

"It's so essential for people to see downtown for what it is, which is a great place to connect with people, to come down, have an exciting night on the town that's based in culture, arts, entertainment, you name it," Duininck said. "Maybe fans of these sports teams have been the same people that have been slower to come back downtown or not been as excited to be there often. And so the sports teams become a way for them to come downtown."

Early-arriving fans staked out their seats at Gluek's before the game late Wednesday afternoon before the Timberwolves faced Dallas in Game 1 of their Western Conference finals series.
Early-arriving fans staked out their seats at Gluek's before the game late Wednesday afternoon before the Timberwolves faced Dallas in Game 1 of their Western Conference finals series.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

A combination of events has proved a winning strategy, Tennant said. Last summer, for example, Taylor Swift's sold-out Eras Tour brought 500,000 people downtown the same weekend the city hosted a national convention and celebrated Pride.

"That's really what makes us successful, short of an event the size of the Super Bowl," he said,

At the beginning of May, early NBA playoff games at Target Center drew nearly 100,000 people, Tennant said. That, combined with other downtown events including a wind-energy convention, garnered $11.5 million in total guest hotel room revenue May 6-8, a 41% increase from the same time last year, according to Meet Minneapolis. The 10,036 rooms occupied May 7 were an all-time high for Minneapolis hotels.

Daniel DeDecker, general manager at the Royal Sonesta in downtown Minneapolis, said business was "definitely picking up" heading into the conference finals, including at the hotel's restaurant. He declined to provide specific numbers.

"We've seen huge growth year over year with our business, and an event like this is substantial to sustaining our business and moving forward," he said. "Fingers crossed the Timberwolves make it into the final, and we're playing here in June, and it will definitely make our month for June."

Still, DeDecker is keeping his expectations reasonable.

"It certainly isn't Taylor Swift," he said.