Friday, July 11, 2008

When Ratner says it's 100% about basketball, it's time to check the b.s. meter

As the famous (mis)quotation goes, "Whenever I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my revolver." Well, whenever real estate developer/New Jersey Nets principal owner Bruce Ratner says something is only about basketball, as he did this week regarding the Nets' acquisition of China-born hoopster Yi Jianlian, it's time to check the b.s. meter.

Remember the fundamental lie on which the Atlantic Yards project is built? Upon the 12/10/03 announcement of the AY plan and effort to buy the Nets and move them to Brooklyn, the New York Times reported:
"This started with basketball, a Brooklyn sport," Mr. Ratner said. "This was always the site. But it became clear it was not economically viable without a real estate component...

Given that neither Ratner nor his company had any experience in sports, the b.s. meter should've gone off. Atlantic Yards was a real estate deal first, as Chuck Ratner, CEO of parent Forest City Enterprises on 9/9/05 told investment analysts:
I will confess that it was less than two or three years ago we were sitting around in New York wondering where the next deals were going to come from. We had finished a whole bunch of office and we completed MetroTech and we didn't have the next great site in Brooklyn. That was one of the reasons we got so aggressive and creative, Bruce and his team did in this Atlantic Yards project. We saw that land sitting there for this last 10 years, realizing it would be a great opportunity if somebody could turn it on.

And what about Yi?

Yi, traded with Bobby Simmons from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Nets star Richard Jefferson and his large contract, is seen widely was part of an effort to both generate buzz and increase cap space for the 2010 class of free agents, including (fractional team owner) Jay-Z's buddy LeBron James, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"We now become a real international team, with East and West," Ratner said at the press conference. (Video here.)

The press was curious about the exact reasons for the move. The Record's Al Iannazzone reported:
Principal owner Bruce Ratner was asked if this deal was done because of Yi’s skills or because of the money he could make the Nets.

“It’s 100 percent about basketball,” Ratner said. “It is. Part of the way in which I operate is letting the two men to my right – Vandeweghe and Thorn - make the basic decisions about what we do and they are about basketball and winning. I’m glad to have them.

“The fact that along with a great player like Yi comes marketing opportunities is a wonderful thing, but it’s secondary to basketball. This franchise is about basketball and that is the most important thing. It set up that way, and organized that way.”


Iannazzone also reported that the Nets were happy with the media buzz:
They had more than 60 media members and more than half were Asian or Asian-American. Comparatively speaking, there weren’t nearly as many here last week for the press conference introducing Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts.


The marketing effort

Well, the Nets are eagerly marketing Yi jerseys, even though he's hardly the best player, and NetsDaily reports:
The team has begun a Chinese language advertising campaign in local newspapers and on local radio stations... and anticipates becoming heavily involved in Asian and Asian-American community affairs.

Some skepticism

Still, columnists weren't buying the 100% basketball line. The Post's Jay Greenberg cited Yi as "a marketing tool in a lame-duck situation" and the Times's Harvey Araton commented:
But there is no doubt the organization is hoping Yi will rouse some nationalistic fervor within the sizable north Jersey Chinese-American community, especially if the young, unproven Nets quack like very lame ducks while nesting in the Meadowlands for at least the next two and a half years.

Also, the Record's Ian O'Connor noted the Chinese-American hoopla and observed acidly:
Lost in translation was this unforgiving fact: The Nets will be near impossible to watch from here to Brooklyn.


Not to mention that the team owners' shifting promises about the Brooklyn move--now, perhaps, promised during the 2010-11 season--have prompted skepticism from sportswriters; the Daily News's Julian Garcia noted that moving "in the middle of a season would create a tough situation for fans in New Jersey."

Teams or "sports entertainment corporations"?

I suspect that Bruce Ratner does, in fact, let his basketball pros make (at least most of) the basketball decisions. However, the line between basketball and marketing, between sports and business, as the Nets have shown with their sponsor-stuffed web site, is virtually non-existent.

In testimony (PDF) before the 10/10/07 hearing of the Subcommittee on Domestic Policy, chaired by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Bettina Damiani of the watchdog group Good Jobs New York used a term that should be deployed far more widely:
Although sports entertainment corporations have an entire section of every day’s newspaper devoted to them, the Yankees and the Mets are, we must always remember, privately owned entertainment corporations. It’s discouraging that officials are confusing teams with public goods like parks, water and transit that are essential to the city’s public health and economic vitality.
(Emphasis added)

When teams are seen more accurately as "sports entertainment corporations"--another term for the Atlantic Yards lexicon--anything 100% about basketball is thus 100% about business.

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