SBJ/October 29-November 4, 2012/Opinion

After many doubted, Yormark enjoys his ‘legacy moment’

It was June 2009 when we held a panel on “The State of the New York Sports Market” during our Sports Facilities & Franchises conference in Manhattan. There were executives from a number of the major metropolitan sports teams and venues on the stage — Dave Howard from the Mets, Mark Lamping from the New Meadowlands Stadium, Scott O’Neil from Madison Square Garden and Brett Yormark from the Nets.

In looking back at the session, the topics discussed that morning were filled with the heavy talk of a financial recession. The executives stressed that they were open for business and working it hard. Howard: “The deals are different; now you definitely have to be more proactive and integrate the sponsors’ business with yours and give them real justification for the deal, help them drive their business and their revenue.” Lamping said, “The way to get out of this, in many respects, is through sales, because sales cures all ails.” And Yormark said, “As dismal as people might make it out, there is so much money in New York, and people still have it, and they made lots of it over the years, and if you can create that value proposition, they will spend.”

Much of the discussion that morning also focused on the changing landscape of the New York venues, with the development of the New Meadowlands Stadium, Citi Field and Yankee Stadium and the renovation of MSG. At this time, the Barclays Center project in Brooklyn was mired by delays, lawsuits and local opposition, and many felt prospects for the arena were dim. The question was asked of the audience, “How many people in the room feel the Barclays Center will be built?” In the room of more than 350, fewer than 20 hands went up.

There was a mix of groans and snickers, but Yormark was adamant, telling the audience, “I will say to you, there are no options. We’re going to Brooklyn. We’ll be there. Two or three years from now, I’ll host this event at the Barclays Center. How about that?”

Now it’s Yormark who has the last laugh and is sitting atop one of the most talked-about stories in sports business. With the opening of the arena this month, I circled back with him late last week to discuss his long, strange trip. When recalling that moment at the conference, he said that he wasn’t playing to the crowd and spinning, but that he never doubted the project.

“To me, it was always a question of ‘when’ versus ‘if.’ It was a story too good to not be told,” he said. “When I sat there on opening night of the Jay-Z show, I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe anyone ever opposed this.’ It was just amazing to see how happy and engaged our fans were and how our staff was. The borough has waited so long for this, and the pride for the community is unmatched.”

If you know Yormark, you know he’s fast forward all the time and not prone for reflection or pause. But even with a project of this magnitude, can’t one take a step back to appreciate? “I don’t look back much,” he admitted. “But I think in life you dream of legacy moments. You look for them, and sometimes you don’t find them, but if you find one, you know it can be a game changer. And I look at this as a legacy moment.”

He added, “I was told by friends in the business, who said, ‘Brett, just think that you can walk down the streets of Brooklyn with your kids one day and know you had a hand in this.’ And that’s a legacy moment, when you can change a community and the face of an industry. So, when I do reflect, I am glad that I had a role in this because it’s going to impact a lot of people positively going forward. So yes, it’s special.”

And yes, Yormark, the Nets and the Barclays Center will serve as host of our 2013 Sports Facilities & Franchises conference in June. He delivered on that promise, too.

> BROTHERS UP IN ARMS: What makes the Van Gundy brothers-ESPN-NBA soap opera so enticing is not the allegations that the NBA pressured ESPN to keep a specific commentator away from league broadcasts. Those conversations occur more frequently than people realize. For me, it’s that the Van Gundys are talking about it at all, providing all of us a window into conversations that typically are kept private.

I was not surprised to see Jeff Van Gundy support his brother Stan. But I am surprised at the language Jeff Van Gundy used and his decision to go public. It’s one thing to stick up for your brother. It’s another thing to question the integrity of your employer in a national newspaper. Van Gundy told USA Today that the NBA/ESPN relationship “raises interesting questions about what a (league-network) partnership means. You have to realize, as a fan, you’re not getting the whole truth.” He adds, “It seems like there are certain people in each sport that (TV broadcasters) can’t criticize, or you can’t criticize the league itself.”

Those remarks feel like a flagrant defensive flop by Van Gundy. For years, his commentary on ESPN has been fair and at times critical of the league, its players, coaches, referees and style of game. He’s been balanced and opinionated. If he feels he can’t criticize the league, or feels the league has come down on him, you’d never know it by what he’s said on air.

Has he been prevented from telling the “truth” to viewers? It certainly doesn’t seem that he’s been asked to ease up on any criticism. The idea that John Skipper would bow to any type of critical commentary on the NBA rings hollow. Does Van Gundy really believe someone like new ESPN NBA TV analyst Bill Simmons will play soft when discussing the league? I don’t. Simmons’ career is defined by being an independent, opinionated voice in sports.

The Van Gundys’ beef fits into the natural push/pull balance between on-air commentary and league partnerships. These disputes happen all the time. But we welcomed the transparency early this year when NFL broadcasters were brutally honest about the failure of the NFL with the replacement referees. That level of openness changed public perception of the issue.

I have no doubt that the NBA and the Van Gundys have a strained relationship (I am sure David Stern was seething at their comments). I’m sure the NBA voiced its opinion to ESPN about Stan Van Gundy, and ESPN listened. But just because ESPN didn’t hire him doesn’t mean the network’s NBA coverage this season will pull any punches.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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