The Battle For Gotham…NBA Style

There have been times in the past 20 years where the Nets brand has made attempts to solidly establish itself in the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of Madison Avenue. Jon Spoelstra trying to change the name of the team to The Swamp Dragons, the time when the team made their runs to the NBA Finals with mega-talent like Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, the coaching genius of Larry Brown and the late Chuck Daly, all made the Nets more of an interest and a curiosity to casual fans than a real threat to the brand of the Knicks and their seat atop Penn Station in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” The Knicks are a New York institution, the Nets are a basketball team.

In the last few years ownership change, two moves, first to Newark and now to Brooklyn, have given the Nets more substance to their bluster than before. Gradually the team would add sponsors never seen before in an NBA circle, try new “influencer” ideas, boast of “record” increases in attendance and sponsorship without really ever getting into the numbers to see what the “records” actually were. However they  did get attention. The Knicks? The continue to operate as an established brand. Never doing a constant barrage of news but ann ouncing large scale partnerships as their renovated home evolved over quiet summers, finding a more international fan base who would come to MSG at very high prices like they would go to a Broadway play, and bringing in bold face names both on and around the court to keep the franchise in the lexicon of popular culture that matches what even casual fans deems to be  interesting. Interesting like watching a train wreck or a reality TV show sometimes? Yes. But interesting enough to keep people engaged.

So while the Knicks fire back with a salvo of news every once in a while, the Nets continue to go all out in screaming about the Barclays Center, its innovative lights, its first ever in Brooklyn events, to anyone who will listen. Only now the difference is that the screaming is being heard by a more national audience, almost as if the franchise is an expansion team. Deron Williams is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Nets gear is a hot seller, the arena is state-of-the-art, and most importantly, their long-awaited new home opens at a time where Brooklyn has become the destination of more high net worth thirtysomethings who can pay premium prices than ever before.  The new arena also has had the benefit, one of the few, of being able to book a large number of events this fall while MSG (and The Prudential Center in Newark and Nassau Coliseum) continue to sit largely idle because of committed and unused dates due to the NHL Lockout. While that doesn’t directly effect the battle for hoops fans, it does give Brooklyn a boost in added interest, which ultimately leads to exposure for the Nets brand. More people in, more thoughts about Nets basketball.

Now none of this means the Knicks are hurting with exposure in the public eye. Their team may be older, but they have established names. Their building may not be new, but it is renovated and state of the art. They may not have an aggressive new owner but they have one with deep pockets. they may not have to boast of new fans but they have thousands lined up to purchase tickets , and have a large corporate base within minutes to draw from. They may not have new subway lines with sparkling stations, but they  sit atop one of the busiest transportation hubs in the world, which means MSG is an easy stop for high net worth commuters on their way home, or even for those coming from the north or south who are making Manhattan a destination.Whether you love or loathe the Knicks, they are still prime water cooler talk.

Sports fandom is also tribal, and those tribal loyalties just don’t turn overnight. The Nets have been courting the urban fans for several years, and can now play in front of them. However that casual courting is much different from a marriage. Sure people will come by for a visit, but will they come back again after they sample the new digs? Or will they go back to old habits in a part of New York (Manhattan) where they spend more of their waking hours? Yes the Nets will again be more affordable, but will affordable mean profitable,, or do you need mega-prices to make it in a very tough business environment? yes the Nets by default will have more people who can go to games in the urban environment that is Brooklyn…younger, hipper and more vibrant than Newark or the Meadowlands. But will those people keep coming back? Yes the Nets have brought in new sponsors looking to engage in a new building, but will all those sponsors be able to lure very busy clients away from Manhattan and into Brooklyn? They still have to cross a river, not a street.

These perceived battles have happened in other cities. The Clippers have risen up to try and challenge the Lakers in the eyes of the local fan, and the result appears to be a market which can love both at least for the short term. New York has its own caste system with Jets/Giants and Mets/Yankees, each appealing to a certain core fan. There are Cubs/White Sox loyalties that rarely change. The biggest difference here is that both the Knicks and the Nets are trying to appeal to a more elite audience with deeper pockets than probably ever before. Both like the casual fan, both both need big bucks to make this work.

Then there is also the ultimate litmus test, what happens on the court. The Knicks are older, and established at least with name players. The Nets are younger and looking to challenge with new names (which is not different from other times the team has tried to grab fans). So in order to fill the void of distressed tickets each night, the team needs to win.  The Knicks larger base means they have less tickets to sell, at least for the short term. The Nets, a smaller base which leads to larger expanses of open seats. That eats into the bottom line.

In the short term, it appears the market can bear out both efforts. Opening night will see “sellout” for both. Over time, can the Nets plan push them into new fans who will change loyalties or bring in fans who never really followed basketball? That new immigrant, one raised on soccer and cricket and rugby vs. baseball, is in full force throughout Brooklyn. He and she is prime to be converted and join their more local team from time to time. But that will not happen overnight.  the Nets have always been about the quick headline, the Knicks the slow and steady build with the brightest of lights on their side, win or lose. Which strategy, or maybe both, will ultimately win out is worth watching. It will make for interesting times for both fans and brands, as a full NBA season tips off in a few weeks.