Saturday, December 02, 2006

“It’s all about being here”: the energy and emptiness of a Nets game

The attendance at the New Jersey Nets-Seattle SuperSonics game on November 13 was announced at 14,392, or 72% of the 20,098 capacity. Don't believe it. The stands at the Continental Airlines Arena at the Meadowlands were less than half full, so there were fewer than 10,000 people present.

(Photo at right and game photo taken near the end of the first quarter.)

Many season ticket holders didn’t show. The cheap seats were nearly empty. And virtually no one had come from New York City, at least according to the traffic heading back to the city on a rainy night.

New arena needed

For the owners, led by Bruce Ratner, the message must have been clear: the Nets need to move to a new arena near public transit. They’re losing millions. A new arena would have luxury boxes for corporate clients, nicer restaurants and bars for corporate expense accounts (my ticket offered access to the Dewar's 12 Winners' Bar, which seemed generic) , and numerous naming opportunities. (Forget the corporate name Brooklyn Arena; remember, Citigroup just signed a lucrative deal with the Mets).

A new arena would have better signage and more comfortable chairs, all the better for logo opportunites. If more accessible by transit, the arena could be filled up at the last minute with tickets sold or given away. Indeed, Forest City has already pledged to provide at least 2000 low-priced "screecher seats" for all Nets games.

Though the Meadowlands slogan is “It’s all about being here,” there's an inherent tentativeness to the Nets' commitment. After all, the team logo eschews New Jersey--a decision which predates the Ratner consortium's 2003 purchase. Most National Basketball Association logos embrace the home city.

The ___ Nets

And the Nets offer a decidedly two-faced presentation. In Brooklyn, as we know, Forest City Ratner relentlessly promotes the "Brooklyn Nets" and even (right) offers a Brooklyn logo on the AtlanticYards.com web site. (Still, it's quite possible they could change the name of the team if it moves.)

At the Meadowlands, with the emphasis on maintaining the Jersey fan base until the team's eventual departure, there was hardly any mention of Brooklyn. Yes, a page in the Nets’ “magazine” ($5) offered another account of a Brooklyn fifth-grader "taking" Nets star Vince Carter to school. And the singer of the national anthem that night happened to be from Brooklyn. But that was about it.

The Brooklyn-based drumline wasn't in the house, and there were no announcements or mentions of the pending move. The blog on the Nets' web site didn't mention it. It's as if Atlantic Yards vaporizes when you cross the state line.

Still, uber-marketer Brett Yormark has managed to get sponsorships from companies like Izod, Siemens, and T-Mobile to "brand" certain sections of the arena. So that's why there were cloth "Izod" sleeves on the otherwise pedestrian folding chairs near courtside.

Banking on Brooklyn

As we know, the Nets owners plan to move the team into an arena at the Atlantic Yards project developed by Forest City Ratner. And a newly designed arena would be a vast improvement over the current one.
(Logo from 2004 flier.)

But the move is hardly certain—especially with a pesky eminent domain lawsuit—so Ratner must be thinking of other options, other arenas that would not be surrounded by a sea of parking.

Maybe the arena under construction in Newark, which has only a hockey tenant. Or a spot in Coney Island. Maybe even a plan for the Sunnyside Yards, ripe for a megadevelopment, as well as Long Island Rail Road access.

In the back of the free program--props to the Nets for handing them out--was a Restaurant Guide listing four restaurants in New Jersey that offer discounts to ticketholders. The first of the four: Hooter’s.

Should the Atlantic Yards project get built, could we expect a new Hooter’s to emerge near the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, perhaps in one of Forest City Ratner's malls? Or would Junior’s and Applebee’s pick up the slack?

Knowing the score

The Nets are a good but not excellent basketball team, led by point guard Jason Kidd. On November 13, without star forward Richard Jefferson and facing a good rebounding team--Seattle got 20 offensive boards--the Nets played porous defense and lost 119-113.

After the Nets fell behind by 20 early, the crowd booed. Sports fans know the score. When the team clawed back, and the scoreboard and music pumped up the crowd, the cheers returned. But the crowd didn't have that much confidence. With the Nets down by seven and 45 seconds to go, fans streamed out to the parking lot.
(As for the photo, the upper decks behind the baskets were far emptier than those behind courtside.)

Loyal fans?

Maintaining the loyalty of those fans is key to the fiscal success of the proposed Brooklyn arena. Sports arenas are notorious fiscal bad bets, according to economist Andrew Zimbalist, who in his Ratner-paid study, estimated that the Brooklyn arena would be different, since it would capture tax revenue from New Jersey. Zimbalist assumed that 30 percent of Nets fans from New Jersey would make the trip to Brooklyn. So did the Independent Budget Office, which calculated a modest fiscal gain for the city--about $1 million a year--from the arena.

However, it you tweak the assumptions, observed sports facility analyst Neil deMause, the arena becomes a net loss.

Coincidentally, the game came just a week after Seatttle citizens voted overwhelmingly to end subsidies for sports facilities. The referendum's proponent was the Citizens for More Important Things, which argued that subsidies for the Sonics' arena would divert from other city priorities. The Sonics soon may be leaving.

The Nets have hedged their bets, with an option to extend their lease at Continental Airlines Arena through the 2012-13 season. By then, if the Brooklyn arena isn't built, there might be other options.

Finessing the issue

Meanwhile, Nets brass do their best to appeal to dual fan bases, albeit with different tactics in different states. A May 2006 New Jersey Monthly article headlined The Optimist noted:
Brett Yormark, president and CEO of the (don’t call them New Jersey) Nets, wants fans as passionate as the NASCAR faithful—never mind where the future leads.

USA Today found Bruce Ratner on message in a 9/12/05 article:
"My answer is we're a regional team," Ratner says. "People have to get over this idea of Brooklyn or New York over New Jersey. We're only going to be 12 miles away. So instead of fans coming to 41 games, maybe they'll come to 20.
"I don't think we'll lose the fan base. I hope we can get 50% of the fans from New Jersey. We're building the fan base now."


Endless energy

Like most professional sports events, the Nets game featured the gimmicky lameness (or, you might say, perpetual energy, a word featured on Nets tickets), with an unwillingness to allow dead air. The Sly Fox mascot (below) mugged for photos. (Why sly and why fox? I'm not the only one wondering.)

The Nets Dance Team--somewhere between wholesome and stripperific--bounced around. Perhaps the most exciting part was when “Team Hype,” the Nets’ crew of male and female acrobatic pep squadders. tossed t-shirts to an eager crowd, in a bit of a bread-and-circuses moment. There were a couple of contests--a puzzle, shooting baskets--but that's when I left for the surprisingly short lines at concession stands.

The owners are proud, claiming:
By featuring upgraded halftime shows, improved Nets Dancers, an interactive pep squad, Sly the mascot, the Nets Kids Dancers and the Nets Drumline, along with improved lighting, music and a special pre-game opening, the organization is striving to produce the league's most fan-friendly environment.

The ushers' buttons say "It's all about the fans." Still, it's hard to fully believe that when bottled water costs four bucks.

Dodgers redux?

Basketball remains my favorite sport, enough so that I'm peeved that the New York Times just dropped full box scores of NBA games. And Brooklyn, with 2.5 million people and some large populations nearby, likely could support a big league team, and events at an arena. (Well, the volume of other events also depends on the competition; Zimbalist's projections assumed no Newark arena.)

But it's hard to believe that the Nets could be a 21st century incarnation of the Dodgers, who left in 1957, as Borough President Marty Markowitz seems to think. For one thing, basketball is a game played by very tall and very rich men, while baseball--now also played by rich men, if not tall ones--in the 1950s was far closer to earth. Could you imagine J-Kidd taking the subway to work, the way some Dodgers did? The Nets players and brass would have their own special parking lot.

I don't doubt that some Brooklyn fans--fueled by some good marketing and an arena with snazzy special effects--could work up affection (and loudly so) for a home team. But instead of "Hit Sign, Win Suit" (a beloved staple of Ebbets Field, from local clothier Abe Stark), this is the era of corporate deals. We're not in Dodgerland any more. No one is.

I'd probably go see the Brooklyn (or Queens, or Newark) Nets about as often as I see the Knicks or Liberty, which is once every few years. (I prefer the Nets to the Knicks--that's hardly a stretch--but I haven't been much of a partisan fan for a while.) I'd rather see hoops up close, and high school, college, and semi-pro games offer a much better opportunity for affordable close-in seats.

Sitting in the "screecher seats," even at an NBA game with Team Hype and the Sly Fox, may be less fun than watching a game on TV. On TV, you can tune out the endless noise and just watch the game.

Brooklyn in the house?

At the Nets-Sonics game, I wore, as I often do, a hat that said “Brooklyn,” but it wasn’t easy to stimulate casual conversation about the Atlantic Yards project. A couple of Jerseyites said it was too far a trip. Another didn’t even know about the plans. An arena worker said he worked for the building and wouldn’t move. A concessionaire said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Still, that's not scientific sample, so we really don't know how many would make a move.

I lucked into some near-courtside free seats from a source that has nothing to do with the Atlantic Yards debate. Thinking it would provide some fodder for my analysis of the Nets and the team's posture toward Brooklyn, I invited a couple of Atlantic Yards opponents to accompany me.

But there wasn't that much to decode. Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn later observed at a community meeting that it's clear the Nets need to move--but that Atlantic and Flatbush wouldn't work. I expect Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play to offer some fan-centric analysis of his own, building on his extensive argument about why the Nets could never be the Dodgers.

Given the conspicuous absence of Brooklyn in the house, it might have been more instructive to have invited some Brooklyn boosters of the Atlantic Yards project. Should such tickets fall into my hands again, you’re on the list, Mr. Caldwell.

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