SBJ/October 11 - 17, 2004/SBJ In Depth

Battle for the New York sports fan

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Walk the streets of Manhattan late on a sunny afternoon and you are struck by the shadows. Walk Park Avenue while the sun is highest and you may break a sweat, even in the dead of winter. Get stuck in the shade for a few blocks in midtown and you might think that winter has come back to stake its claim on June.

Shadows change the way you feel. They alter what you see.

This is true not only for actual shadows, but for those cast as metaphors.

In the daily lives of the New York Mets, Jets and Islanders, and the New Jersey Nets and Devils — the five teams that share the market with New York’s old-line pro sports franchises — the shadows can be overwhelming.

In 2003, the Nets made the NBA Finals and the Devils won their third Stanley Cup. The Knicks and Rangers both missed the playoffs. Yet the two tradition-rich Manhattan teams each outdrew their brethren from across the river by about 4,000 fans a game.

The Jets rose up to become the city’s darling when they won the Super Bowl with Joe Willie Namath 35 years ago. But a recent Harris Interactive poll showed that the Giants are the most popular team not only in New Jersey, where both teams play their games, but also in New York and Connecticut.

The Mets and Yankees both drew better than 35,000 a game in 2000, when they ended up sharing the World Series spotlight. But the Yankees eclipsed the Mets at the gate, outdrawing them by about 4,000 a game. When both teams are winning, that’s typically the way the scale settles.

“[We benefit from] the size of the market and the passion of the New York sports fan,” said Dave Howard, senior vice president for business and legal affairs for the Mets. “But it’s a particularly challenging city in which to market because of the competition for the discretionary entertainment dollar. That’s been compounded in the last seven or eight years by the fact that we are sharing the market with a very strong Yankees team that is arguably in one of its best periods in an otherwise legendary history.”

Ask the owners of the Yankees, Rangers, Knicks and Giants to identify their market and they will lay claim to every last street corner in the city and every last blade of grass in the suburbs. It’s the birthright of teams that have lived in the city this long: the Yankees since 1903, the Giants since 1925, the Rangers since 1926 and the Knicks since 1946.

They assume — often correctly — that sporting preferences are genetically embedded; that fans will remain fans even as their lives take them out the Long Island Expressway or over the George Washington Bridge.

The other teams, all of which came along between 1960 and 1982, have been forced to try to carve out niches, searching for the combination of image, geography and demography that will allow them to escape from the shadows.

To market sports in New York is to understand what Louis Armstrong was getting at when he croaked, in trademark fashion:

Grab your coat and get your hat

Leave your worries on the doorstep

Life can be so sweet

On the sunny side of the street

Carving a niche

New York remains home to multiple teams from all four leagues for the simplest of reasons: its overwhelming size.

Defined by demographers as the five boroughs within the city limits, along with the suburbs of Long Island, northern New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, the market is home to about 14.4 million residents, most of whom live within an easy subway ride or a reasonable drive of a stadium or arena.

See also:

 

New York metropolitan area demographics

 

Breaking down New York sports fans

 

Turnkey Sports Poll

 

How New York sports fans stack up

 

The story — and the juice — on New York area sports teams

 

Tabloids generate buzz on the street

 

“We don’t really directly compare ourselves to the Yankees, primarily because, as the year 2000 showed us, there is more than a sufficient number of fans for this market,” said Howard, whose Mets drew 2.8 million while the Yankees were pulling in 3 million that year.

Within that dense pocket of 14.4 million there are geographic divisions that make it easier to patronize one team or another.

Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx are older boroughs that are well-served by the subway system, which links the three of them and makes it convenient to move from one to the next. Thus, it is easiest to get to Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium from those three boroughs, along with the suburbs of the Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey.

Queens and Long Island are heavily populated, but the mass transit options there are less extensive. While Queens is a New York City borough, its residents travel by car more often than others in the city do. As a result, Shea Stadium and Nassau Coliseum, with easy highway access and loads of parking, have made the most sense for those people.

The Mets and Islanders — and in their early days at Shea, the Jets — have proved that you could make waves in this city simply by taking hold of the right piece of it. By itself, Queens has 2.3 million residents. Brooklyn has 2.5 million. The Long Island counties, Nassau and Suffolk, combine for 2.8 million.

Taken separately, they’re the size of the metro areas of Denver, Tampa-St. Petersburg and St. Louis. Combine any two of them and you’re in the range of Atlanta or Houston, two of the nation’s 10 largest markets.

The three New Jersey counties that are included in the New York market combine for a population of 2 million, making them slightly larger than Cincinnati.

It makes sense to divide and conquer. It’s also important to try to distinguish yourself from the old guard.

The Jets did that in their early days, thanks in large part to Namath and a Super Bowl upset that cast them as the cool guys who turned the establishment on its ear. Sharing a Giants Stadium for the last 20 years, the Jets have struggled to maintain a strong identity. Recently, they’ve revived their white helmets from the Super Bowl days. They’re in their second year of a Saturday morning kids show designed to cultivate a new generation of fans. They trot out Namath whenever they can.

Howard sees significant differences between the two New York baseball teams that date back to the Mets’ origin in 1962, soon after the city lost both of its National League franchises, the Dodgers and the Giants.

“We’re NL baseball in New York,” Howard said. “We always position ourselves as being fan-oriented, fan-friendly. Campy and offbeat. We do things like Mr. Met; more fun things that the Yankees would do differently because of their tradition and branding.”

No easy basket

The Knicks play in the NBA’s largest and most lucrative market. Fabled Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station in the heart of midtown Manhattan, drawing a sophisticated and wealthy fan base. Combine those factors with the team’s long and storied history and it’s no wonder the Knicks recorded 433 consecutive sellouts from 1993 through 2003.

But in the last two seasons, the Knicks have had to do like the rest of the

"We’re spending more money and for the first time in our history we are using telemarketing.’"
Anucha Sanders,
New York Knicks
NBA and adopt an aggressive marketing effort — a sharp departure from the team’s customary way of doing business. Beginning in the 2003-04 season, the Knicks for the first time were forced to roll out a major marketing initiative to counter an alarming drop of fan interest after two consecutive years of missing the playoffs. By the start of last season, the number of season-ticket holders dropped to 12,600 from 14,100 while the number of vacancies in the team’s 89 suites increased. Sponsors increasingly questioned their sizable investments in the Knicks. The team’s once impressive 15,000-name season-ticket waiting list vanished.

The marketing effort — along with a playoff appearance — helped the Knicks stop the bleeding. Average attendance last season edged back toward capacity. The number of sellouts increased to 27 from 17.

This year, the Knicks are continuing to market, boosting their budget by 10 percent over last year and stretching beyond the city’s five boroughs, making a more aggressive foray into New Jersey.

For the first time, the Knicks are using players as the cornerstone of their “All Ball” marketing campaign, are planning a series of “college night” promotions to attract younger fans, and are participating in the league-sponsored “Hardwood Classics” nights to help drive attendance and sell merchandise.

“The moves we made last year were positive and we are getting more aggressive,” said Anucha Sanders, senior vice president of marketing for the Knicks. “We’re spending more money and for the first time in our history we are using telemarketing.”

Sanders won’t disclose the Knicks’ current season-ticket base levels or even the team’s season-ticket renewal rate, but insists that the Knicks are on their way to a return to the glory days when tickets were a prized possession and games were events where the town glitterati gathered.

Seven miles across the Hudson River are the New Jersey Nets, a team that despite its recent superior performance is still seen as the red-headed stepchild to the Knicks. The Nets were sold this spring to a group headed by real estate developer Bruce Ratner, who plans to move the historically undermarketed franchise to Brooklyn when a new arena opens there, supposedly by 2008.

The Nets have always been seen as the cheaper, more accessible option compared to the Knicks, but after raising ticket prices by 36 percent in the Continental Airlines Arena lower bowl and losing star Kenyon Martin to free agency, the Nets must try to persuade an alienated fan base to buy into a team that will be on the move.

The Nets, citing the transition in ownership, would not comment on any marketing initiatives, but the team will be hard-pressed to improve attendance, even after averaging 14,952 fans a game — third from the bottom of the league.

Even with the team’s recent success, the Nets haven’t averaged more than 16,000 fans a game since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.

It’s easy to see why Ratner is attracted to Brooklyn. Not only would the new arena provide an anchor to a $2.5 billion real estate project that he is pitching, but the borough is in the midst of an economic resurgence, attracting scores of young professionals who have been priced out of Manhattan but want to remain close to all that it offers.

Facing off for fans

The hockey landscape is the best example of how geography fits into New York’s sports marketplace.

While the Rangers, Islanders and Devils have equal access to television viewers across New York, northern New Jersey and southern Connecticut, the locations of their respective arenas set them up to divvy up the market in a way that would seem sufficient to support all three teams.

The Rangers have been around for nearly 80 years and, like the Yankees and Giants, they always dominate attention in the city when they’re on top — and sometimes when they’re scraping the bottom.

Still, there should be plenty of fans and dollars to go around.

If you consider the Islanders’ market to be nothing more than the two Long Island counties — Nassau and Suffolk — they draw from a population of 2.8 million that is generally more affluent than the New York market as a whole.

Long Island is about the same size as the entire St. Louis metro statistical area, which ranks as the 18th-largest market in the country. It is bigger than eight NHL markets: Pittsburgh, Denver, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Columbus, Nashville, Buffalo and Raleigh-Durham. And that’s when you don’t count any of Queens, where the Islanders developed a decent hold when they were winning Stanley Cups.

Playing in a suburban enclave far away from the media center of the market, the Islanders have fallen somewhat out of the public eye across the rest of the metro area. During the club’s four-Stanley Cup glory days in the early 1980s, Islanders fans could be found all over the tristate area. But today, the fan base is largely limited to hockey hard cores in Nassau and Suffolk.

The Islanders have used gimmicks such as the Ice Girls to draw fans to Nassau Coliseum.
You can easily distinguish the Islanders brand from the Rangers using two words — or one photograph. Ice Girls. The Islanders were the first NHL franchise to put tightly clad women on the ice between periods, ostensibly to shovel ice shavings.

While the Rangers have followed suit with the Rangers City Skaters, it’s the sort of gimmick they never would have come up with on their own, or even piggybacked on if they weren’t in such dire straits on the ice.

For many years, the Rangers did not believe they had to market themselves. The team had a long waiting list for season tickets. The bulk of its advertising was devoted to attracting TV viewership.

But after missing the playoffs for seven straight seasons, the Rangers no longer sell out all their home games. They come close, averaging 18,081 per game last season, good for 99 percent capacity and eighth in the league. Indeed, the team still has a loyal and deep-pocketed fan base. The Rangers have the third-highest prices in the league for premium tickets, and eighth-highest overall.

In recent years, the Rangers have gotten slightly more aggressive, advertising tickets on occasion, both in print and on air. An ice rink in Manhattan has an advertisement for the team’s Web site. Dodge sponsors a “Rangers Road Tour,” vehicles that travel the area and set up interactive hockey activities.

It may not sound like much, but it’s a skywriting campaign compared to the approach they used to take.

Across the river, the Devils and their team president, Lou Lamoriello, have been criticized broadly for their marketing efforts. Although the team has been arguably the best in the league over the last decade, winning three Stanley Cups, its home arena seldom sells out and its TV ratings are minuscule.

In recent years, the team has tried to step up its marketing presence through fairly ubiquitous billboards on major highways in New Jersey.

Lamoriello, when questioned about the club’s marketing efforts, has said in the past that the team is aggressive and has actually increased its advertising budget.

But there remain several issues with the Devils. One is that Lamoriello does not believe in singling out individual players. So superstars like Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur, surefire first-ballot hall of famers, have never been put at the forefront (after the team won the cup in 2001, Lamoriello chose third-liner Sergei Brylin to appear in a national ESPN/ABC ad campaign).

In addition, the in-arena experience at Continental Airlines Arena is, by most standards, less than stellar. Aside from the narrow corridors and overly spacious feel of the often half-empty arena, the in-game presentation is considered to be among the worst in the NHL, something that has made league officials cringe during Stanley Cup Finals.

Also challenging for the club is that, like its neighbors on Long Island, it does not sit at the center of the media market. The local news stations cover New York teams first, and many New Jersey residents commute to the city and read New York papers, which also treat the Devils as a secondary franchise.

The hope of Lamoriello is that when the team moves to a new arena in Newark (plans for which are ever closer to being completed after many delays) that a more modern and accessible arena will transform the franchise. However, that may come with a new set of problems. Much of the Devils fan base currently hails from northern New Jersey. Newark represents a completely different section of the New York suburbs, and it is questionable how many Devils season-ticket holders and fans will follow the club to the urban confines of Newark.

Staff writers Russell Adams, Andy Bernstein, Daniel Kaplan and John Lombardo contributed to this report.

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