In Brooklyn, Yormark is certainly selling a lot more than just pro basketball. The Nets ownership group—sorry: “Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment,” and it’s worth noting that Yormark always, always includes the “entertainment” when discussing the Nets’ business plan—has certainly booked the place so far, signing deals to host the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (previously at MSG), the Atlantic-10 postseason tournament (previously in Atlantic City), and three other college-hoops tourneys. It also has deals with Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Entertainment to host boxing, Live Nation concert promotions (which features Knicks owner Jim Dolan on its board of directors, by the way), and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Within the first six months, Barclays Center will host not just Jay-Z, Streisand, and Dylan, but Rush, Journey, the Who, Neil Young, Andrea Bocelli, Leonard Cohen, and Disney on Ice. (And of course Bieber, who has taken to wearing Brooklyn Nets gear on Jimmy Fallon.)
Essentially, Ratner and his partners are betting that New York is the one city in America that requires two major event venues. Ratner believes the whole area is underserved. “The Garden has so many events booked, whether it is the Westminister Dog Show or St. John’s games or three professional sports teams. Truthfully, they do not have a lot of available dates. I think there’s a clear demand.”
That’s why Ratner and Yormark downplay the importance of the Nets to the bottom line; if the team ends up stinking, or the Brooklyn “brand” doesn’t take off the way they’re expecting, they insist they can do just fine bringing in shows the Garden can’t book. That would be an accomplishment. The Garden, for example, derives the vast majority of its income from sports, not other events. (One thing Ratner can bank on, regardless of how the team fares, is a decent cache of cable-TV money. The Nets reportedly have a deal with the yes Network that currently pays them $20 million per season, and will increase from there, until the deal expires in 2032.)
Just the same, it would help if the Nets are good. That fate is hardly assured. Since he bought the team, almost every move Prokhorov—whose infrequent appearances at Nets games and occasional side projects of, say, running for president of Russia have done little to reassure fans that he’s anything but an absentee owner who still doesn’t quite understand how NBA salary caps and roster construction work—has made has proved wrong. He seemed to think the NBA was like Major League Baseball, and that the Nets would be the new Yankees: Whoever was willing to pay the most would win. That might work in Russia (ironically enough), but in the NBA, the superstars rule. For everything the Nets owner said the basketball team was going to be, it became the opposite. Prokhorov thought he had a chance at LeBron James or Chris Bosh or even Amar’e Stoudemire for 2011; he ended up with Travis Outlaw and Johan Petro. He went after Tyson Chandler and Nene last off-season; he ended up with Kris Humphries. The Nets haven’t finished over .500 in six seasons.
This year, the team’s most coveted off-season acquisition was Howard, at the time the Orlando Magic’s superstar center. Although Howard has told his representatives that the only team he’d sign a long-term contract with is the Nets, the team was not able to trade for him, despite arguably offering a better package to Orlando than the Lakers put forward. At the beginning of June, general manager Billy King, who admitted to me back in November that “I don’t really know this area at all, to be honest with you,” basically had three players on his roster and was in danger of opening the building with a team that was actually worse than last year’s, which was 22-44 and irrelevant all season. To King’s credit, he traded for Johnson, a solid player who’s nevertheless overpaid. That, along with the re-signing of small forward Gerald Wallace and about $75 million, persuaded All-Star and Olympic point guard Deron Williams to stick around. (Howard will still be a free agent at the end of the season, but the Nets no longer have the salary-cap space to land him.)
Even without Howard, the Nets are now at least a respectable team, and possibly playoff caliber. Still, the failure to get Howard leaves them well behind the league’s elite teams (Miami, Oklahoma City, Chicago, San Antonio) and without the kind of superstar sizzle that a team with a new home and new stadium desperately seeking relevance would find ideal. (While Williams is a terrific player, his jersey isn’t even in the top fifteen in sales; the Knicks, if you count Jeremy Lin, had three players in the top fifteen.) It took teams like the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Clippers, and New Orleans Hornets years to overcome a negative first impression, and some still haven’t gotten there. The New Jersey Nets were perpetual losers; the Brooklyn Nets have to be something different, instantly.