SBJ/October 29-November 4, 2012/Facilities

Final adjustments: Inside the Nets’ review of opening night

Three hours before the Brooklyn Nets took the floor for their first game at Barclays Center, Brett Yormark took a brisk walk-through and did not like what he saw. He spotted a dirty rug leading to the arena’s $550,000-a-year bunker suites, streaks on the stainless-steel walls of the Calvin Klein-sponsored elevator leading to the courtside club, a burned-out light fixture in the TicketsNow Club.

The next day, it was time to talk about it.

Department heads brought their observations to the 30-minute meeting, run by CEO Yormark.
Photo by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
Yormark, the hard-driving CEO of the team and the arena, sat down on the morning of Oct. 16 and led his Barclays Center business team through a post-event review of the Oct. 15 exhibition game against the Washington Wizards. The 30-minute critique, held in a conference room around a long rectangular table at the Nets’ team offices a few blocks from the arena, drew 10 department heads to discuss operations, guest services, food and beverage, box office, marketing, tickets and suites, in-arena sponsorship elements, game entertainment and media.

It’s a common step for a team to take, especially one opening a new building, but the Nets provided SportsBusiness Journal with exclusive access to the meeting to hear what went right and what went wrong. Executives discussed the adjustments that the team and AEG Facilities, the arena’s operator, had in mind for preseason games Oct. 18 and 19, the arena’s final NBA dress rehearsals before the Nets’ regular-season home opener Thursday against the crosstown Knicks.

For Yormark, maintaining a spotless Barclays Center was top of mind and he kicked off the meeting with those remarks.
“I wasn’t happy with the cleanliness of the building when I went on my walkaround,” he said. “We need to hire a housekeeping manager to really have oversight of that day-to-day [who] reports to management, who truly knows what we’re looking for.” One week later, the new position was filled.

Making ushers more knowledgeable about arena seating, especially in the premium areas, was another concern after Yormark discovered four people sitting in his seats in Section 24, Row 3 in the lower bowl.

“When customers are paying a large sum of money, we can’t do that,” he said. “I understand it was our first crack at it but that needs to get better.”

Moving around the table, each department head gave a brief summary of their experiences at the game. David Anderson, Barclays Center’s general manager, retold a story he heard from Jason Sandoval, his director of guest services. It was the arena’s first Nets game after a string of eight Jay-Z concerts, two Barbra Streisand performances, the Harlem Globetrotters and a gospel show.

“Jason was talking to an usher last night and asked her how was it to finally work a basketball game after all the concerts, and she’s like, ‘This is the first game I’ve ever been to in my life!’”

“It’s a learning process,” Anderson said, “and the one thing about our employees and what we’re seeing is that there isn’t that [job] turnover we thought there was going to be.”

Anderson pointed out his staff was still learning the makeup of Nets fans and asked for the team’s help in that regard. Case in point is Bruce Reznick, a lawyer who has followed the team for 15 years and is known as “Mr. Whammy” for putting the hex on opposing free-throw shooters during home games.

“You guys need to make sure you let us know about some of the fans you’ve brought over [from New Jersey], especially Mr. Whammy behind the basket,” Anderson said. “We didn’t know Mr. Whammy existed, so our security officer was trying to tell Mr. Whammy to stay in his seat.”

After a brief discussion between AEG and the Nets, Mr. Whammy was “back in business,” Anderson said.

For the Oct. 19 exhibition, Reznick relocated to another position in the lower bowl after the 76ers complained he was blocking an emergency exit. Regardless of his perch, the superfan now wears a Brooklyn Nets jersey, courtesy of Yormark, to replace his red New Jersey Nets attire.

“He’s too visible to be wearing an old jersey,” Yormark said. “Please put it on my account. Do what you need to do, I’m fine with that.”

There were also some functional elements of the building that needed to be addressed.

Two hours before tipoff, arena workers were still busy installing retractable seats in both end zones, a situation reported on by two New York newspapers the day after the game, an issue that got under Yormark’s skin. For the next two exhibitions, AEG used additional manpower for a quicker changeover.

“The Daily News picked up on that and so did the Post,” Yormark said. “It was a secondary story, [but] that’s just not something you want to read about, especially since we were working at it all day. We have to work closer together and figure out how to mitigate it.”

Several issues revolved around the All Access program, the Nets’ all-inclusive package tied to 4,400 club seats in the lower bowl. The cost of food and drink is included in the ticket price, but many patrons weren’t sure what was covered, which slowed the lines at concession stands, said Julie Margolin, director of operations for Levy Restaurants, the arena’s food provider. For a portion of the All Access audience, tickets for the preseason game were handed down to other individuals unfamiliar with the program, part of the reason for the slowdown, Margolin said.

To clear up confusion over All Access, Yormark suggested providing additional information distributed with the tickets so all guests know what amenities are included. Margolin agreed that greater communication was required for the program.

Margolin shared her best anecdote of the night: The daughter of a loge box owner was impressed with the Brooklyn mozzarella bar. “Dad,” Margolin heard the girl say, “this place is better than Disneyland!”

Chief Communications Officer Barry Baum, in charge of the media, said the beat writers’ primary complaint was that a wall divider in the media work room was built too low, making them feel uncomfortable. A week later, adjusting the setup remained a work in progress, Baum said.

“They don’t want to see each other?” Anderson asked. Yes, “they don’t want to see each other,” Baum confirmed, producing a rare Yormark grin.

“The Wi-Fi worked great,” Baum continued. “In the upper bowl, power didn’t work in the media area, so there were some issues there. No complaints on the sight lines.”

The opposite was true for YES Network, whose Nets broadcasters, Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel, were temporarily relegated to Row 2 off the court. After an exchange of late-night emails, the Nets cleared space for YES with a permanent spot at the scorer’s table. “We knew that was coming,” Yormark said.

On the sponsorship front, Chris Brahe, senior vice president of partnership sales and marketing, was to review the broadcast to see how well partners’ brands showed up on TV and what could be done for better presentation. Some logos “popped” well on TV; others did not, Brahe said.

Stolichnaya vodka’s sign, for example, was “very white,” Yormark said, making it difficult to see the founding partner’s brand on television.

The box office had a walkup crowd of 400 to 500 fans buying day-of-game tickets, said Leo Ehrline, executive vice president and chief administrative and relationship officer. For the Nets, who drew poorly for several seasons at two arenas in New Jersey, it was unexpected but nothing they couldn’t handle.

“That [walkup] was for a preseason game,” Yormark said. “We haven’t seen that obviously in our last eight years, which is OK. That’s why we’re in Brooklyn, but we need to plan for that. Once the regular season comes, it’s going to be a different dynamic for us.”

Photo by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
Anderson said most of the 14,219 fans in attendance entered Barclays Center through the main entrance off Flatbush and Atlantic streets, where 11 subway lines converge at a New York transit hub that spills into a large outdoor plaza leading to the arena’s front door.

“We’re seeing that front atrium is going to get hit hard; people don’t want to walk around to the other side, so we have to prepare for that being a heavy entrance, there’s no way around it,” he said.

It is a “good problem” to have, Yormark said, considering many fans took mass transportation to an arena with very little public parking.

The Nets Shop, to the right of the main entrance, got slammed with the spillover, and Adidas, the team store operator, planned to supply employees with iPads to sell merchandise to expedite the process, said Fred Mangione, the Nets’ executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

“Kind of like when you go to the Apple store, so they’re going to be active on the floor now moving forward,” he said. “It was a decent crowd. I can’t even imagine what it will be for a regular game. We’re going to revitalize how we do that and get ready.”

Yormark wrapped up the meeting by stating that the game provided a great first step, but with improvements to be made across the board, nobody in the room could afford to be satisfied.

“The papers were overwhelmingly positive and fans love it, they are chanting ‘Brooklyn’ already,” he said. “It was probably a better game last night from fan interaction than I’ve experienced the last four years, and it was only a preseason game. So I think we’re on the right track.”

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