|Thursday, November 13
New York still not sold on Knicks
By Darren Rovell
NEW YORK -- The opening-night crowd was announced at that familiar capacity of 19,763. But those sitting in sections 427 and 428 near the upper rafters of the world's most famous arena knew the real story.
Up there, two friends who purchased New York Knicks tickets had the opportunity to spread out, lay their jackets on empty chairs and put their cardboard food trays on any one of 500 vacant seats in the nosebleed seats.
Relatively speaking, the Knicks are not suffering at the gate. They will still finish the season among the top 10 teams in home attendance. But missing the playoffs for the past two years is now forcing team executives to worry about filling Madison Square Garden again. No matter how hard they market the team, dividends won't be seen unless the men in orange and blue start winning again.
"It's depressing that the Knicks' season now ends in April," said Jon Byrnes, a 42-year-old from New Jersey who pays less than $500 a year for his season ticket in the very last row in the arena. "If they don't win soon, they can forget about the walk-up crowd they used to get because the only reason why people would come to a game is to see the other team."
Byrnes says he still pays for tickets because he enjoys the atmosphere, something hundreds of people who cancelled their partial or full season ticket plans before this season could obviously do without. But that doesn't mean those still in the crowd are giving their Knicks, who were soundly defeated 94-80 by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday, a free pass.
Fans are expecting a playoff run, especially with the Knicks having a league-high payroll for the second time in the last three seasons. The Knicks' payroll is approaching $90 million, which is at least $35 million more than San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt paid last year's champions. The Knicks' 2003-04 budget doesn't even include the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax -- an amount that will equal $33.7 million, according to the latest estimates by luxury tax guru Dan Rosenbaum.
"You can't just throw guys on the floor and expect to have a chance," said Knicks Hall of Fame guard Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who played in New York from 1971 to 1980 and helped the Knicks win the championship in the 1972-73 season. "It's a matter of the management and the players getting together and understanding what needs to be done. We understood what winning was about and how to do it, but the group they have now doesn't have that understanding yet. It's kind of hard when you have a bunch of guys that haven't really played together that much."
The success of their neighbors in New Jersey doesn't help things. The Nets have beaten the Knicks seven out of the last eight matchups and have made two straight appearances in the NBA Finals. Two Nets castoffs became the Knicks' biggest offseason pickups: Keith Van Horn and Dikembe Mutombo. Gone is fan favorite Latrell Sprewell, who was dealt to Minnesota in a multi-team trade that netted Van Horn. Mutombo was signed by the Knicks after being bought out and released by the Nets, as New York continued its search for size with Antonio McDyess starting his second straight season on the bench due to another knee surgery.
"I don't think the Nets or Yankees winning means much to a Knicks fan," said John Starks, who played for the Knicks from 1990 to 1998. "There's a very rich team history that was built on a lot of success and right now they are going through the growing pains."
With season-ticket sales down, the Knicks organization will borrow a page from the marketing playbook of the Chicago Bulls, who have not made the playoffs in five straight seasons after winning six championships in eight years. The Bulls were also forced to work for a crowd after their NBA-record 13-year, 610-game sellout streak ended at the start of the 2000 season.
"In Chicago, 2,500 to 3,000 seats per game are sold on a group ticket basis," said Steve Mills, president of Sports Team Operations for Madison Square Garden. "That's never been a part of what we do, but we are definitely paying attention to that strategy now. It's not about changing how we sell tickets, it's about who we market to."
Unlike the Bulls, who now typically have 3,000 to 6,000 empty seats at home games, the Knicks don't have thousands of tickets to sell and Mills is comforted by the fact that those available are the most affordable -- including some $10 seats that the team was required to offer following the lockout five years ago.
But the amount of purple and teal seatbacks visible to the Knicks' faithful and those watching on TV could grow if the team doesn't return to its winning ways.
Over the last 10 seasons, teams that win less than 30 games lose an average of 640 fans the following season, according to sports business analyst Hadrian Shaw. The Knicks have won 30 and 37 games, respectively, the past two seasons.
"If they don't start winning soon, they're going to have to get much more creative in order to get fans through the turnstiles."
Knicks rookie forward Mike Sweetney says he senses the urgency to win right away among the players during practices and games. When he walks around town, fans who already recognize the Knicks' first-round pick don't just say, "Welcome to New Yawk."
"It's the beginning of the season and I've already heard from many people on the street," Sweetney said. "They tell me, 'We want to get back to the playoffs' or 'We want a ring.' "
Mills is confident that the fans will be somewhat patient, but the Knicks organization will be buying time by interacting with the fans more than ever before.
"We are embracing things that teams in smaller markets have done in the past, such as raising the level of customer service, getting our players involved in the community more than any previous time in our history and creating fan forums for our season-ticket holders," Mills said. "In years past, we weren't in a position where we had to do things like this."
In focus-group sessions, some fans have said they'll continue to show up if the team embodies the New York identity.
"They connected with Latrell because he was a guy who worked hard and played hard," Mills said. "That's respected in New York, where -- given the pace of life -- it's harder to live here than in other places."
Focus groups aren't needed to find out that the more the team wins, the more likely it is the Knicks will embark on yet another sellout streak.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.