Thursday, April 24, 2014

For the Brooklyn Nets, just 15,000 home fans is fine. In New Jersey, it wasn't.

The transformation of the forlorn, swamp-dwelling New Jersey Nets into the hip, urban Brooklyn Nets is one of great recent re-brandings in sports, right?

After all, the Nets have a buzzworthy new arena, a new look and logo, scads of sponsors, a valuable TV contract, and a deep-pocketed principal owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, willing to spend big to win now. Their first home playoff game this season is tomorrow night.

While the Brooklyn Nets have built a new fan base, both locally and beyond, they actually haven't had--though it's far less obvious-- that many more fans in the seats. In the first season, according to figures not previously released, gate count averaged approximately 14,974.

Different setting

Still, 15,000 fans in the Barclays Center, which seats 17,700 people, sure makes the Brooklyn arena feel more full than when 15,000 came to the cavernous Izod Center, which seats more than 20,000. It doesn't hurt that the Barclays Center deploys dark, theater-style lighting.

"We don't want the space to ever look empty," said MaryAnne Gilmartin, CEO of arena builder/operator Forest City Ratner.

So what if the Barclays Center isn't always packed. Brooklyn trumps New Jersey thanks to luxury suites, sponsorships, and higher ticket prices. No longer do the Nets just give tickets away to the general public (though there are periodic discounts).

But it's remarkable how attendance of 15,000 counted as a failure in New Jersey.

In July 2004, sports columnist Wallace Matthews suggested that developer Bruce Ratner, who bought the Nets to leverage a real estate deal in Brooklyn, was focused on the big-market future.

“Whether due to the outrageousness of NBA ticket prices, the location of the arena, or a general distaste for the product, the Nets could barely put 15,000 people in the building on any given night, even during the two seasons they went to the Finals,” Matthews wrote in the New York Sun.

On opening day in 2005, the Nets announced a full house, indicating all tickets were distributed. Given numerous empty seats, WFAN hosts Mike Francesa and Chris (Mad Dog) Russo flayed Nets CEO Brett Yormark for claiming attendance of 20,098.

"I was trying to be charitable at 15 [thousand]," Francesa said, claiming others estimated far less. "There were so many empty seats it was a joke.” The official gate count that game, it turned out, was 15,504.

Looking at the numbers

The Nets averaged 13,961 in their last season in New Jersey, 2011-2012, after drawing 14,179 in 2010-11, 13,103 in 2009-10, and 15,147 in 2008-09. In their first Brooklyn season, the official attendance was 17,187.

That was clearly a fig leaf, since announced attendance does not equal gate count.

A recent report by Empire State Development, the New York state agency that oversees the arena and larger Atlantic Yards development project, aimed to analyze the traffic impacts of the arena, noting, "Actual attendance during the 2012-2013  season (including Playoffs) averaged approximately 14,974."

Not once did 17,700 fans fill the seats. The game with the highest attendance drew about 16,900 people, according to Appendix C/Operational Transportation to the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. (Previously, a memo from transportation consultant Sam Schwartz suggested that average gate count was closer to 15,500.)

Sure, even accounting for no-shows, Brooklyn still trumps New Jersey, at least since the Nets drew 16,925 in 2006-07.

What if Gehry's design had stuck?

Still, the Brooklyn Nets might have to try much harder--or discount more--to fill the originally planned Brooklyn arena, an 850,000 square foot behemoth, aimed to accommodate basketball and hockey, designed by starchitect Frank Gehry.

In 2008, to save money and focus on basketball, Ratner dumped Gehry and commissioned a new arena, essentially plunking Indianapolis's Conseco Fieldhouse (now BankersLife) near the angular intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. 

After a leaked rendering of the arena, derided as an "airline hanger," surfaced in the press, Ratner hired the buzzy architecture firm SHoP to add the unique rusted-metal skin and signature oculus (oval opening that juts from entrance) to brand the Barclays Center as post-industrial Brooklyn.

The tight arena, some 675,000 square feet, puts attendees close to the action--though the cheap seats give some visitors vertigo. The arena redesign, a Forest City Ratner executive acknowledged, represented a conscious decision to preclude major league hockey.

Hockey coming

On that, the developers lucked out. After voters in nearby Nassau County voted down a replacement for the Nassau Coliseum, the NHL's New York Islanders, not wanting to leave the region and a lucrative local TV contract, will move to Brooklyn by 2015.

At the time, the Barclays Center was said to seat just 14,500 for hockey, with an awkward off-kilter layout. They've since increased up hockey seating up to 15,813 (or, now, 15,795), by selling obstructed-view seats. That's not much below the current capacity in Nassau of 16,170.

There may be better hockey sightlines in Nassau, but the market in the nation's media capital rules. So even if the Islanders don't sell out Barclays after they move--they were at 14,740 this year, after 13,306 last year--it's another reminder that fannies in the seat are only one measure of sports business success.

After all, the Nets have seen their value skyrocket, according to Forbes, from $357 million in 2012 (#14 in league) to $530 million last year (#9), to $780 million this year (#5), the largest increase in the NBA, thanks in large part to the new market and the arena.

The Nets, with a huge payroll, still lose money, and Forbes's numbers may be suspect, as sports facility maven Neil deMause suggests. Even if they're off significantly, they still indicate that Brooklyn trumps the 'burbs. Perhaps Islanders owner Charles Wang, who's said to put the money-losing team up for sale, has run the numbers too.

2 comments:

  1. Apples and oranges, Norm. The numbers you cite for NJ are paid attendance, not gate count.

    The paid attendance count for the first year in Brooklyn was 17,187, which is 96.9 percent of the 17,732 capacity of the arena. It is also about 3,000 more than the last year in NJ, or about 19 percent more. And as you have reported a thousand times, the Nets ticket sales in New Jersey were inflated by giveaways and inexpensive tickets. (Personally, I can attest to that. My first season tickets in the third deck at IZOD cost me $199.00. This year, similarly situated seats, cost me $1,770.

    This year, the percentage of tickets sold was slightly higher, at 97.3 percent.

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    1. Not quite. Mike Francesa was citing gate count, as was Wallace Matthews. Given freebies and no-shows, yes, BK Nets are ahead, hence my citation of 2006 as the last time it might have been close.

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