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Oedipus at the Garden

There are not many owners, however, who have also gotten mixed up in as many team-related spats as Jim. At practically every step, he has been feuding with somebody. The company has battled the Yankees and Mets, arguably costing Cablevision opportunities to be partners in the teams’ new regional sports channels. He also dumped the Garden’s signature voice, Marv Albert, opening the door for the Nets to scoop up the legendary play-by-play man. (When they move to Brooklyn, having Marv onboard will be an enormous aid in competing for New York fans.) And he is once again warring with Time Warner Cable, which has resulted in Knicks telecasts being unavailable in much of the New York market.

“You have to sit back and wonder: Do these fights make sense?” Ganis says.

In the Garden executive suites, Jim is known for blowing up at subordinates, and there has been a steady exodus of senior managers who have quit or been pushed out the door. Just last October, Jim erupted when presented with the estimates for the hockey broadcast costs on the MSG Network in 2005, which projected a fairly dramatic increase. What his managers tried to explain, as he bellowed at them, was that the 2004 figures had been artificially low because of the NHL lockout (no hockey games to show), and the expectation was that games would resume in 2005.

Soon after the meeting, Mike McCarthy, the president of MSG Network, resigned.

Dolan does not deny his volatile temper, but insists that his behavior at the Garden be viewed in context. When he took over, he says, it was a sclerotic organization with recalcitrant employees who considered themselves lifetime appointees. “Going through a reorganization of this place, I compare it to giving your 5-year-old a fishing rod and reel,” says Dolan. “You turn away for ten minutes and then you turn back and there’s a rat’s nest that used to be the fishing reel. Now it’s your job to unravel it. Trying to reorganize this place was like that. We struggled with it for eighteen months. We had McKinsey in here; they couldn’t figure it out.”

In Dolan’s view, the situation called for “a ton of change,” and that “when you have change, there’s always going to be people who are unhappy.” The run-in with Mike McCarthy was partially about that. “Mike and I didn’t always agree on everything,” he says. “And there was a meeting in here that got loud. Mike and I met right afterward. And I apologized to Mike for getting loud, and I apologized to everybody in the room. It just so happened that it came at one of those times where I had spent an insane amount of effort trying to get people to change. And they just came back to me with the same-old same-olds.”

McCarthy, who now works for Cablevision as a consultant, downplays the significance of the incident. “I made my decisions for a lot of reasons,” he says. “I had a great run. It was just time for a change.”

Dolan felt decidedly less terrible for letting Marv Albert walk, which stung longtime Knicks fans. To them, Albert represented the continuity of the team, the precious link between past and present. He was the fan’s advocate, not a company man, and he held the team to a high standard. To Dolan, Albert was an overpaid ingrate who loved trashing the team. “His basic attitude toward the entire company was ‘Screw you,’ ” says Dolan. And that’s how Marv Albert became history.

Jim has always taken pains to construct a vigorous life outside the office. He seems driven to rack up accomplishments that might distinguish him from his father. He became, for example, a sailing fanatic, entering serious competitions, including one where he spent fourteen days skipping across the Atlantic in a stripped-down craft that had no windows, beds, toilets, or running water. He poured millions of dollars into the effort, hiring the best boat designer and builder, assembling a crew of about twenty sailors, and flying them on the Cablevision jet to regattas around the world. (He says the company was reimbursed.) Unlike many of the tycoons who assemble racing teams, Dolan “liked to steer his own boat,” says Chris Kam, a crew member. But not long after a frustrating regatta in Sardinia, in which he dropped out in the middle of the last race, Dolan disbanded his crew, got rid of the yacht, and quit the sport.

He switched back to his first love and eventually formed JD & the Straight Shot, a blues-rock band filled out with a bunch of employees from the Garden and Radio City, which Cablevision also owns.This he has pursued with the boundless zeal of a teenager, albeit one with spectacular resources at his disposal. He bought a house adjacent to his own in Oyster Bay, converting it to a studio and arranging for band members to fly in on the Cablevision helicopter for practice. In January, just as the fight with his father was reaching full throttle, they opened for the Marshall Tucker Band in New Jersey, and Jim reports, with giddy delight, that he has just signed a distribution deal with Warner Bros., which happens to be owned by his good friend Edgar Bronfman Jr. “They’re not, like, showering me with money,” he admits, proudly handing me a shrink-wrapped CD. “But you know what, it doesn’t matter to me. You have to listen to the CD. Then you will make a decision how real the music is. That’s what a musician wants. So you listen. If you like, we’ll put it on for you now.”

For Dolan, the music has also been a useful distraction from the chaos of his business life. Not that all the news has been bad. His battle with the mayor is going pretty well, proving that in politics, unlike in, say, basketball, money really can buy results. Cablevision has spent more than $22 million on advertising and lobbyists fighting the stadium, plunging Bloomberg’s and Doctoroff’s neatly conceived plans into disarray. While the Knicks stumble and the Rangers sit idle, Jim seems to have found a game he’s good at.

But in other crucial respects, he lives in a state of uncertainty that did not exist only a few months ago. When Chuck remade the Cablevision board, Greenfield, the Wall Street analyst, laid out the implications in a research note to clients. “Jim Dolan in limbo,” he wrote. “With his father essentially overruling him via board member changes, Jim Dolan’s power has been minimalized.”

Jim won’t reveal much about the family dynamics now. Contrary to some reports, he says that it’s not true that his father and he aren’t talking. “When we got angry with each other, we had little cooling-off periods,” he says. “Never anything that lasted more than a day or two.”

His brother Tom, who runs Voom, is, he admits, “a little difficult to deal with.” And his other brother, Patrick, though he voted to keep Voom going, is “trying to stay on the sidelines.” If tomorrow were Thanksgiving, would he be able to join them? “Tomorrow would be awkward,” he says, “but maybe by Thanksgiving we’ll be able to.”

Jim and his father are trying to work through this. Even with the friendlier makeup of the board, Chuck needs to find an alternative means to finance Voom, and Wall Street is practically clamoring for him to sell the cable system. In late January, the analyst Craig Moffett wrote a note that analyzed the situation this way: “Cablevision’s stock has been buoyed by speculation that the disagreements around the Dolan dinner table will lead to Chuck deciding to wash his hands of the whole business, selling Cablevision off in pieces to the highest bidders.”

In a brief phone interview, this is how Chuck characterized his son’s performance as CEO: “He has done a good job for shareholders, and anybody around here who does that, his job is secure.” He also acknowledges the differences they’ve had, saying, “People become impatient with each other. [But] I think that is how a company our size ought to work.”

As for the status of Voom and whether he might break up Cablevision, he did not rule it out. “I think the company has really made up its mind, and I don’t foresee Voom as being a distribution activity of Cablevision in the future . . . Could there be changes? Could the whole company be sold? Could parts of it be sold? Of course.”

If Chuck is really mad, he could strip Jim of his CEO duties, but still leave him with the Garden. Or he could strip Jim of everything. Nobody really expects that to happen, but then nobody has ever really understood what goes on inside Cablevision.

I asked Jim what he thought of the possibility that his father will dissolve the company.

“It’s completely up to him,” he said. “It won’t change what I do.”

You have no insight into what he might be planning?

“I can tell you my father really likes the satellites. I don’t have much more insight than that.”