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Watching the Nets in Newark: an inexpensive trip, but not necessarily a bargain

The hype mounts for the Barclays Center, though less so for the team that will play there.

With an interior based on the basketball-first Conseco Fieldhouse (now Bankers Life) in Indianapolis, it's supposed to be a great place to watch hoops, though if the talent on the court isn't much, the novelty of a new building will wear off faster. (See some snark from Orlando, as well as doubts even from Nets fans.)

And recently, as even the fan site NetsDaily acknowledged, it was a Bad Day For Nets Front Office, with the team, widely described as the frontrunner in the race to sign superstar Orlando center Dwight Howard, was unable to land Howard, who will stay for one more year. Though the team traded for a solid but aging player in Gerald Wallace, the likelihood that star guard Deron Williams will decamp for Dallas has grown.

(Imagine: what if the sports press, with its willingness to report rumors and other unverified, not-quite-sourced statements, turned its focus, for just one day, to try to clarify such things as the Carlton Avenue Bridge timetable?)

But the team's "Jersey Strong, Brooklyn Ready" slogan has not done the trick, as the Prudential Center has drawn small crowds and, as noted by the Daily News' Stefan Bondy, the focus on Brooklyn has taken its toll on the team.

Last night, the Nets had a big win, but they drew only an announced 10,187 (55%) in a building that seats 18,500 for basketball.

Nets/Newark vs. LIU/Brooklyn

Several news cycles ago, before the Howard discussion crested, and before (and after) the Linsanity hype, I traveled with a Brooklyn friend to the Prudential Center in Newark on Friday night February 3, when the Nets played the Minnesota Timberwolves. I do like basketball, and I wanted to see how things were going in Newark.

The game wasn't bad, and the tickets were cheap. I got two-for-one $30 seats, plus a $10 handling charge, for $40. But two $10 concession cards were thrown in. So each seat--decent but not great location-- essentially cost $10. For even less popular games, the cheapest seats have been available on StubHub for a penny, plus handling.

For a Brooklynite using public transit, I can't say the experience, even at the low prices, was really worth it. The trip takes a while. The team is uneven. And the relentless hype that characterizes the Brett Yormark Nets has been amped up another notch.

As a control, the same friend and I took a much shorter trip to watch Long Island University host Brooklyn rival St. Francis College, on February 12. LIU's nifty Wellness Center gym seats 2500, but was about 80% full, which--given the freebies (like I got, thanks) and the local rivalry--seemed not quite full enough. LIU will get exposure at a couple of Barclays Center games next season, but I can't see how they'll sell out.

At the smaller LIU court, just five minutes from the DeKalb Avenue subway stop, the game was good fun. No one searched our bags. Every spectator was close enough to see--and feel--the action and the stomp of "Dee-fense." No sponsor intruded, other than a minimalist Ruby Tuesday banner. The dancers could throw t-shirts to the crowd without using a cannon. And the LIU Pep Band was rocking.

So playing at the Barclays Center will boost LIU's name--and perhaps build the basketball program so the team goes beyond the first round in the NCAA tournament. But I can't imagine the experience will be much better.

Getting to Newark

The trip to Newark from Brooklyn, even starting in Park Slope/Gowanus, is not a simple one. Yes, the R train from Union Street does go to Cortland Street relatively near the PATH station at the World Trade Center site, but it's a ten-minute walk to the PATH tracks.

The PATH train took 22 minutes to Newark. It was about a seven-minute walk to the arena. The Brooklyn arena will surely be a step up, with an underground walk and one long staircase from one end of the subway hub, at least for subway riders. (Those on the LIRR will have to go outside.)

The return trip was a lot tougher--less so on the PATH (though Forest City Ratner's Ashley Cotton had her frustrations at a more recent game), but the long wait for the R. Obviously the MTA has not been pushed to accommodate the fractional number of fans returning from Newark.

In Newark, the walk to the arena through a not-thriving part of downtown seems safe, though the comparison with Brooklyn, where thriving retail/residential streets border the arena, is significant. Newark has been little changed by the arena. The urban site is still surrounded significantly by parking lots, and neither gentrification nor full occupancy has come to the arteries of Market and Broad streets.

Newark streets bordering the arena are still shut down for events--a situation that has alarmed Brooklynites who wonder, despite assurances to the contrary, that a lane of Flatbush and/or Atlantic Avenue would shut down. And yes, people walk in the street after games--another issue for the Brooklyn arena.

Before entering the Prudential Center,, loudspeakers greeted visitors with various warnings and advice, including that there is no re-admission for those who leave. That kind of announcement must be why New York City requires a 200-foot distance between sports facilities and residences, a zoning provision that the state has overridden in the case of the Brooklyn arena. Folks living on Dean Street--sorry.

Despite promises that it stays open before every Devils and Nets home game, the legendary Hobby's deli, located on a grungy corner two blocks west of the arena (which means those walking from Newark's Penn Station must overshoot it), was not open that night. Maybe Nets games don't deliver enough fans.

There was at least one new restaurant since I last visited Newark a few years ago, for a Nets exhibition game. About a year ago, Uber Burger opened in the southwest corner of the arena complex.

(It wasn't clear to me that it was part of the building.)

The food was marginally better/cheaper than inside the building. The beer? Well, $7 for a bottle at Uber Burger seemed steep, but the cashier explained that they have "event pricing."

That's annoying. Even more annoying, and possibly violating consumer protection laws: Uber Burger did not list individual beer prices on the menu or other signage.

At the game

The announced attendance of 15,069, or 81.5% of capacity, had to be overstated. There were lots of empty seats, as well as sections all over the place--especially at the suite level. The photo above was taken at the beginning of the game, before everybody had taken their seats; the section did fill up a good deal more, though I'm not sure if whether that was only latecomers or whether some lucky fans got an upgrade.

Several concession stands at the second level--serving two levels of seating--were closed, a sign they're just not doing enough business. It made for a listless feel.

The Prudential Center is not a bad place to see a basketball game, but it's not a great place, either. The floor is clearly built for the main tenant, that New Jersey urban sport of hockey. When Brooklyn arena boosters say the arena is built for hoops, they're right. (And that's why it'll be hard to shoehorn the Islanders into the Barclays Center, though it's not out of the question.)

A large segment of attendees were not paying full price, or perhaps not even paying. Various civic groups get free tickets, thanks to some player charities and other promotions.

Another group welcomed: those arriving via Living Social, the Groupon-like half-price (or more) marketing effort. There were virtually no mobile vendors in our section.

What did $20 in concession cards (+ $1.25) buy? One sausage sandwich (mediocre), one small (but large) fries (very salty, not bad), one small (but large) lemonade (very sweet), one soft ice cream sundae (decent).

The Beers of the World (also planned for Brooklyn, though likely with a different array) seemed uninspiring, as indicated in the photo below.

New ways to hype

Uber-marketer Brett Yormark, yes, has figured out even more ways to attach sponsorship.

Would you believe that every time the Nets Dancers performed, we were told the name of the spa credited for doing their hair?

Did the pep squad Team Hype have its own sponsor the last game I saw? Not sure. (As the screenshot below indicates, the Nets Dancers now have three sponsors.)

The Nets' new announcer, David Diamante, was suitably energized when the home team scored and studiously neutral when announcing, say, the name of an opposing player who just hit a three.

And while it's understandable that the public address system shows replays of excellent home team plays, it's annoying that arena-goers--unlike those watching on TV--could not get a replay of a great play by the visitors.

Diamante sounded especially smooth when he announced the Nets Dancers. Was I hearing a tiny trace of his experience DJing at strip clubs? Well, given the look-at-me brassiere-tops worn by the Danders during one number, the association wasn't a stretch.

Oh, the basketball game? It was pretty good. The Nets' Anthony Morrow had his best game ever, the shorthanded Nets clawed back, the Wolves' backup center dominated inside, and the Wolves' heralded rookie point guard Ricky Rubio--now injured--made more spectacular passes than he threw away.

Then again, I missed a bunch of the action because I was on line buying refreshments and there were not screens positioned for all of us waiting.

It'll all change, right, when they come to Brooklyn?