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Oedipus at the Garden

The Dolans, son Jim the CEO and father Chuck the chairman, in 2004.  

Throughout Jim’s tenure as CEO, there has been rampant speculation about who was really running the show. Especially early on, few believed that Jim, who had a history of substance abuse, a hair-trigger temper, and a taste for leisure-class pursuits like competitive yachting, was anything more than his father’s compliant proxy. In early January, when I asked Wall Street analysts who was really in day-to-day control of the company, the father or the son, few could answer with any certainty. “The problem is, we don’t really know,” said Richard Greenfield of Fulcrum Global Partners.

According to a source close to the board, Jim and Chuck had reached a kind of understanding over the years: “Chuck was perfectly happy having Jim run all the company, with the exception of the satellite—and Jim was perfectly happy for the father to dabble in the satellite.”

At Madison Square Garden, which Cablevision took full control of in 1997, along with its two resident teams, the Knicks and the Rangers, Jim has always been out in front. Cablevision has spent lavishly on both teams, but often in quick-fix ways that have failed to produce winning records; this year, the Knicks are floundering again, while the hapless Rangers aren’t even playing because of the NHL lockout. Dolan, as a consequence, has become a favored whipping boy of the sports press, alternately savaged and ridiculed, sometimes both at the same time.

That seemingly weak public stature did not, however, deter him from taking on Mayor Bloomberg and his football stadium. The project galls Jim. He can’t fathom the audacity of the mayor and his deputy Dan Doctoroff in proposing to build a publicly subsidized stadium for the Jets just a few blocks west of the Garden. It’s competition, Dolan believes, and if it were a private project, he would have no choice but to live with it. But how can he be expected, as he puts it, “to compete with your own government”?

On the Jets stadium, Bloomberg “smoked me,” says Dolan. “He basically rolled me up and smoked me. He said, ‘This thing is happening whether you like it or not.’”

As Bloomberg prepared to maneuver the stadium through a series of political loopholes, Cablevision responded with a barrage of hectoring ads and then crashed the party with its own plan for developing the site, throwing the project into doubt and turning the mayor into a sworn and possibly vengeful adversary.

When Jim Dolan was a young man, the last thing he wanted to do was follow his father into the family business. In fact, he didn’t want to be in any business at all, maybe because he sensed that it would prevent him from ever escaping his father’s shadow. His dream then was to be a rock star. Now, this dream deferred (though not dead—more on that below), he is on a very different kind of stage, sharing it with two powerful men, Michael Bloomberg and Chuck Dolan, who see him as an impediment to things they want very badly.

The Hollywood Reporter once described Cablevision as “the North Korea of the cable business. No one understands what they are doing, but everybody is concerned.” The House of Dolan is content to keep it that way. They make certain their senior managers who quit or are fired—and there have been plenty—are bound by severance packages from talking publicly about the company or the family.

In person, Jim Dolan is very direct; subtlety is not his art. He is five foot six, built like a fireplug, and has a well-groomed goatee. On the day I met him at his office, he was wearing dark slacks, a black polo sweater, and loafers with metal buckles. His voice is raspy, part Charles Rangel, part Sunrise Mall, and he speaks in an animated fashion, constantly shifting in his chair, smiling broadly one second, frowning deeply the next. Every now and then, a slight temper flashes in his eyes.

On the subject of his split with his father over Voom, Dolan chooses his words with extreme care. But about Bloomberg and the football stadium, he can hardly keep himself reined in. In a theatrical tone of sarcasm and disbelief, Dolan describes Cablevision as an innocent bystander, drawn into a fight it wanted no part of. “Even if your teams are doing lousy and you don’t have a good concert, you are still going to be Madison Square Garden, you are still going to be the ‘showplace of America,’ ” says Dolan. “The stadium threatens that in a way that nothing else does. And if we had not started shouting about it, I’m telling you, that thing would be being built right now.”