They have rarely been on the same page on the court, the Knicks and the Nets. While Ewing, Johnson and company were steamrolling the Eastern Conference, the Nets were trying to find ways to rebuild around Kenny Anderson and Armon Gilliam. When Kenyon Martin and Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson were dunking and intimidating their way to a pair of NBA Finals, the Knicks were trying to make do with Stephon Marbury and Tim Thomas.
On the business side, the two have never been equals in any way. Even in their best years, the Nets struggled to fill the Meadowlands, and later the Prudential Center, while the Knicks, with one playoff win since 2001, continue to be the strong draw for brands and fans sitting in Madison Square Garden, high atop Penn Station, the area’s primary commuter hub.
Now the Nets in recent years have never been short on hype. CEO Brett Yormark and his publicity and sales machine push every deal, every promotion, every community program on both sides of the Hudson River harder than anyone in sports or entertainment. Nary a day goes by with the Nets announcing some kind of program to drive awareness. The Knicks on the other hand, operate largely in stealth. Partnerships and community programs are large and placed on a pedestal, not fired with an “announcement du jour” style that the Nets have as they battle to be more and more relevant in the New York marketplace.
Part of that battle has been an occasional firing of a marketing salvo across the river by New Jersey into the Knicks backyard, in preparation for the team’s much-anticipated move to Brooklyn this fall. The opening of a Times Square showroom, billboards within view of MSG, more and more community programs in and around the five boroughs, all of which drew attention if not yet fans to the upstarts from New Jersey, even as New York went out and pulled in high profile stars like Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony and returned to the playoffs, while the Nets slid back again in the standings and missed the playoffs in their two transition years in the Prudential Center in Newark.
However that is all in the past. Today Knicks vs. Nets is more about New York City, with the Barclay’s Center just months from opening and the most fierce free agency period in a long time for the NBA well underway. While the last offseason was more about the heated rivalry between the two Staples Center tenants, the Clippers and the Lakers (who also have made some key moves themselves thus far), the storyline thus far in July appears to be more about Gotham and the one-upsmanship the Brooklyn Nets and their mid-town Manhattan foes are creating for off-season relevance in the biggest media marketplace in the world.
The big question is will the Nets and their move to the Barclay’s Center, combined with their personnel moves (re-signing Deron Williams, trading for Joe Johnson, chasing Dwight Howard) be more hype and hope or good business for the long-term? In the first part of the past week, the Nets appeared to have ruled the day, as their surprise acquisition of Johnson and all-but-confirmed signing of Williams drove a record season ticket day of over 500 sales, according to reports. However as the week went on, the Knicks grabbed front pages with the signing of veteran Kidd to a contract still to be announced. All of that movement is against the backdrop of the continuing saga of Jeremy Lin, who may or may not bring his marketing dollars and surprise basketball skills back to New York as well. If Lin does return, at least on paper his popularity combined with Kidd’s presence at MSG may again trump the Nets best efforts to steal the limelight in Brooklyn. Ironically it could be one of the Nets brightest stars, now in his twilight years, that could end up being the biggest brand boost for the orange and blue against their now black and white clad Brooklyn foes.
“Madison Square Garden is perhaps the biggest stage for any professional athlete. While his profile with the Nets was significant, Jason Kidd as a Knick is much more valuable to a potential sponsor,” said longtime sports marketing executive Ed Horne, now CEO of Madison Avenue Sports and Entertainment. “And in an era of fleeting fame and short term celebrity, Jason is a proven commodity, more so even than earlier in his career.”
In terms of brand attraction and the ultimate goal of filling seats, the newly renovated MSG, with Anthony and Stoudemire in tow last season, had no issue, even with the stratospheric cost of tickets. New York is New York, and the brightest lights, in terms of hype and glitz, get the biggest prices. However the Nets, now gleaming with a new building and brand identity of their own and also on top of a transportation hub (albeit one that is better for those heading east to Long Island vs. to other parts of northern suburbia), will also look to use their limelight to solve their long-standing issue of distressed seating inventory. We all like new, and the Nets are all about a new start. It appears that this year’s free agent period is giving both teams lots of hype to move ahead in the battle of New York hoops. “Free agency in any sport can be a time of excitement for some fans and disappointment for others,” Horne added.
“What is clear is that the movement of a Steve Nash to the Lakers or a Jason Kidd to the Knicks recreates interest, ticket sales and media coverage during a time of the year that might otherwise be devoid of basketball talk.”
So who will win the offseason business battle for New York? The Knicks don’t have many tickets to sell short-term in a well-established building that is finishing off a high tech facelift. The Nets have a ways to go to match the Knicks in filling seats in a building with many new partners eager to see what their ROI will be. Both franchises appear to still be holding player cards yet to be played, and with all “official” moves still on hold until mid-next week, so the long-term path as to who will be playing where appears to still be cloudy. It does come down ultimately to wins and losses to match the hype that both franchises are pushing out daily. The bottom line is that basketball in New York appears to be the ultimate winner this summer, as the City’s now two franchises duke it out for offseason attention in the tabloids and with their pocketbooks.
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