Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Team Hype: At the Izod Center, noise and flash obscure the hoops

The Izod Center (ex-Continental Airlines Arena, ex-Brendan Byrne Arena) may be the venue that fans love to hate, but New Jersey Nets president and CEO Brett Yormark remains an unabashed booster. Earlier this month, on the WFAN talk show Boomer & Carton (audio), Craig Carton suggested that the Nets move to the Prudential Center in Newark, sharing a home with the New Jersey Devils hockey team, with “great access via train from Manhattan.”

Doesn’t it make sense, Carton asked, to move to the Rock?

Yormark was cool: “Craig and Boomer, when was the last time you were at the Izod Center?”

“I was there for Ultimate Fighting about nine months ago,” Carton responded.

“OK,” replied Yormark, gaining steam. “Over the course of the last two years, the state has invested like never before in that venue. During our Nets games, we have incredible lounges for season ticket-holders, the service is better than ever before. We’ve rebranded the entire arena, we’ve got greater technology than ever before. And it’s a perfect setting for us right now. One of the key things for me is that I want to be the main tenant. I want to be the big dog…. And the Izod Center… is having the most successful year it’s had in ten years now that the Devils aren’t there.”

Carton, who expressed skepticism about the Nets’ plans to move to Brooklyn and Yormark’s denial of talks with the Miami Dolphins, responded, “I was told by a very high-ranking official of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority… that if the Nets never played another game in the building it would be good for the state.”

“I would find that hard to believe and understand,” Yormark replied.

Team Hype

After gaining some very expensive tickets (for a song) to see the Nets last Wednesday night, I enjoyed watching the basketball, but I can’t say I’m eager to repeat the experience.

The game itself wasn’t bad--if you’re close enough, and we were, you can see professionals playing hoops at a high level. If you can get over the fact that the Nets are essentially fungible--a collection of players remixed at will, certainly no long-serving Brooklyn Dodgers--the team is rebuilding but promising.

But the wrapper around it, as with so much sports entertainment, is ever-increasing hype. Team Hype, the name of the Nets’ acrobatic pep squad, also describes the Izod Center experience—noise, flash, and a relentless marketing effort that can obscure the game.

As with my visit two years ago, the crowd seemed to get the most excited when “Team Hype” tossed free t-shirts, in a bit of a bread-and-circuses moment.

The loudest thing in the arena was the artificial noise generated on the public address system. The volume reminded me how music was used to drown at boos when, in October, Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin dropped the puck at the home opener of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Looking more closely

Let's go over Yormark’s claims.

During our Nets games, we have incredible lounges for season ticket-holders

No doubt season ticket-holders are treated well, but most people aren't season ticket-holders and won’t have a chance to see those lounges. (On Nets Daily, a ticket-holder commented that he's happy to have been able to meet players at parties.)

We’ve rebranded the entire arena

This suggests Yormark has spent a little too long in the marketing bubble. If new sponsors have placed their logos in new places, that may be good for the Nets’ bottom line--though the Star-Ledger quoted a Vonage spokesman as calling it a "minor" part of its marketing budget--but it doesn’t add to the visitor experience.

We’ve got greater technology than ever before

I guess that means that video replay and signage has improved. Perhaps. But that doesn’t help all that much.

And it’s a perfect setting for us right now

It depends on what you mean by “us.” If “us” means a team that doesn’t want to pay the fiscal and p.r. penalties to move to Newark at least temporarily (which likely would also increase revenue and generate positive p.r., too), maybe.

If it means fans, maybe not. Even the pseudonymous NetIncome (aka Bobbo), a Nets superfan and Atlantic Yards defender, commented last week on a fan message board, "The IZOD center is a horrible venue, annually voted the worst in the NBA."

The Izod Center… is having the most successful year it’s had in ten years

Well, the Daily News recently observed that attendance figures seem a bit inflated.

2.5+ or 3.5+ more seasons

Right now, the official line is that the Brooklyn arena would open in 2011, meaning that the Nets would play three seasons, including the partly-concluded current season, at the Meadowlands. (I think the more likely best-case scenario is 2012, given that it would take 30 months to build the arena, which would mean four seasons, including the current one.)

For now, parent company Forest City Enterprises, which is absorbing most of the Nets’ losses, is taking a punishing hit on losses, $22.4 million this year, while suspending the dividend to save $30 million.

A turnaround in revenues from the Nets would make a big difference. A move to the Rock likely would raise revenues from attendees and concessions, given its greater accessibility. However, given that the Nets would be a secondary tenant, the gain in sponsorship and suite revenue would be far less than expected in Brooklyn. And a big question is whether the $12 million penalty for moving in-state would be waived.

So for now Forest City is trying to hold on, to try to maintain fan base and revenues until the Brooklyn move, where access via public transit to a large new population makes it far more likely that the flashy new Barclays Center would be filled--and where the naming rights deal, other sponsorships, and lots of luxury suites would mean big revenues.

Even if the Nets don’t sell out in Brooklyn, it would be a lot easier to give away tickets and make sure that the ticket-holders actually make it to the game. The Barclays Center surely would represent Team Hype, albeit with a more fan-friendly design and greater accessibility via public transit.

This season’s toughest

If the Nets return next year to the Meadowlands, at least there should be a new public transportation option. This year, New Jersey Transit debuted a $10 rail-to-bus link, with a train from Penn Station connecting to a bus from Secaucus.

A new rail station at the Meadowlands has been in the works for years. In March 2004, New Jersey Transit announced that the Meadowlands rail link construction project “is scheduled to begin in the summer 2005 and conclude by the end of 2007.”

In January 2006, New Jersey Transit said that “[c]onstruction work is anticipated to commence on the project's first major contract by Spring 2006.” Last month, the Bergen Record reported that the rail link “is on track to begin accepting riders next spring.”

Forest City Ratner can’t build the Brooklyn arena--an impressive Frank Gehry structure with lots of luxury suites--without new subsidies and, probably, without new investors. The city and state, as of now, have no more money.

Perhaps the feds will step in, adding urban development funds that could be repurposed. Perhaps success in court would attract investment capital for the team and/or the project as a whole.

For now, it’s a holding pattern.

From Brooklyn, by car

A rail link sure makes it easier for visitors from Manhattan, but Brooklynites wanting to save the trip from Manhattan might try to go by car.

Last week, the round-trip from Park Slope took five hours, by car—and that’s with our group missing most of the first-quarter.

That was probably anomalous--there was a serious traffic jam at the Lincoln Tunnel--but it’s not encouraging.

Then came the parking. The parking lot for the Izod Center we used was a bit of a hike--more then ten minutes of brisk walking, through a long concrete passageway--just to get to the door of the building, much less reach our seats. I suspect that the parking lots for some other sports facilities are no closer, but there was something particularly grim about experience.

(At right, stills from some video I shot.)

“If you haven't been to the Izod Center lately, the parking is a mess--allow extra time for parking!,” wrote a commenter on Chowhound in October.

Inside the arena

The hype inside the arena can be a little strange. As I wrote, they were hyping Jones Soda, but it wasn’t available at the concession stand.

There was even a logo for sporting goods provider Spalding, which to Brooklyn eyes is a reminder of a Forest City Ratner-owned building that the developer has not yet chosen to demolish, likely because the renovated lofts could command a pretty penny if Atlantic Yards is scotched.

The building, as I estimated, was about 60% full, but I must admit that some of the photographs that show empty seats might be a little misleading. For one thing, photos taken late in the came may show seats emptied by fans getting an early trip home.

For another, it takes a while to get food and drink.

During the course of the game, despite sitting in some of the arena’s priciest seats, we were passed by exactly one vendor, hawking popcorn. For beer, hot dogs, soda, and more, we had to send emissaries to the concession stand.

Unlike at, say, local baseball stadiums, the Izod Center policy is that alcoholic beverages are “not vended in the seating areas,” which is defensible.

Also, according to the policy, guests “who appear to be under the age of 30 must provide valid proof of age.” That’s fine, as well, but a friend and I, both well over 40 (and look it), were carded, thus turning the Aramark employee into the arena equivalent of an automaton airport inspector and delaying the slow, slow line even more.

A boost in Brooklyn?

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the biggest booster of the Atlantic Yards project, can’t get over the Dodgers. He needs to reprogram his memories to encompass Team Hype.

Sure, big league basketball might be fun to watch. But this would give Brooklyn an identity? Arena rebranding?

As I wrote after my visit two years ago, we’re not in Dodgerland any more. No one is.

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