Brooklyn, New York hasn’t hosted a major professional team sports event since 1957, before the Dodgers infamously skipped town. And the New York City borough – whose population of 2.5 million would make it the fourth largest city in the country – will have to wait another two days, because of Hurricane Sandy. On Thursday night, the Nets were set to make their regular season debut in the new $1 billion Barclays Center, which took nearly a decade, and countless legal and economic hurdles, to build in downtown Brooklyn. They were going to host the New York Knicks, kindling an intra-city rivalry that will last for years.
But the strength of the Barclays Center — it’s accessible by nine subway lines — becomes a weakness when a Sandy cuts off the transit system. The grand opening is off. Instead, the Barclays Center will make its regular season opening on Saturday, when the Nets host the Toronto Raptors. Nets-Raptors! Just doesn’t have the same ring.
Will the Brooklyn Nets be worth the wait? As often happens in pro sports franchise relocations, the early signs are encouraging. According to Nets CEO Brett Yormark, the team’s early business metrics, like merchandise sales and season ticket purchases, have exceeded expectations. “We’re already better off today than we’ve ever been in the history of the franchise,” Yormark says. Before a mid-October preseason game, a crowd packed into the Nets team store in the Barclays Center. “They can’t buy fast enough,” Yormark says. “We have to restock it constantly. We’re doing incredible numbers here. Unfortunately, our store is too small. I wish we had more space. Good problem to have for sure.” During the course of the team’s itinerant 45-year history, in which the Nets played in Teaneck, N.J., Commack, N.Y., West Hempstead, N.Y., Uniondale, N.Y., Piscataway, N.J., East Rutherford, N.J., and Newark, N.J., the Nets never even had a team store.
Brooklyn center Brook Lopez, who the franchise desperately wanted to trade for Dwight Howard, remembers sitting through Power Point presentations about the Barclays Center five years ago, when he first joined the team in New Jersey. But litigation, and a bad economy, kept dragging everything out. “Brooklyn has been really welcoming so far,” says Lopez. “It’s impressive, just driving around Brooklyn, seeing the fans wearing the logo. They’ve really embraced us.”
The Barclays Center is the brainchild of Bruce Ratner, a real estate developer who bought the New Jersey Nets in 2004 in order to move the team to Brooklyn. Groundbreaking was slated for 2006. But the arena, along with the larger-scale residential and business development surrounding it, called Atlantic Yards, ran into fierce community opposition. The recession further stalled plans: Ratner sold his 80% stake in the Nets to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, for $200 million, in September 2009. A few months later, New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, upheld the state’s right to use eminent domain for the development. That ruling, and the bolt of financing created by the Prokhorov purchase, helped to finally push the project forward.
No question, the Barclays Center is a very nice place. The food selections are top notch: the arena features offerings from over 30 vendors and restaurants with ties to Brooklyn, like Nathan’s — the hot dog chain — Buffalo Boss and Paisanos. There’s lobster, sushi, Cuban, pizza, sausages; a little bit of everything.
The Nets also took a different approach to in-arena advertising. “We didn’t let companies use their colors,” says Yormark. “They had to conform to the look and feel and flavor of our building.” So the McDonald’s logo above the stands, for example, is black, in order to fit the arena’s vibe (the team’s colors are black and white). “Architecturally we wanted to create a brand here,” says Yormark. “Not a rainbow of colors.”
The arena’s exterior looks like rust; though it’s actually weathering steel, which is supposed to protect the structure from further oxidation. “The weathered steel speaks to the boldness and grittiness of Brooklyn,” says Yormark.
This symbolism doesn’t translate for everyone. My first thought upon seeing the Barclays Center: “You could have used anything. Why rust?”
Aesthetics, however, aren’t all that important to the arena’s success. Brooklyn needs the Nets to win. “The Nets are the key tenant,” says Yormark. “It’s the tenant that has the face. I think it’s critical for the team to be competitive. I often tell poeple, we just need to be part of the conversion. We just need to be relevant. And if we’re relevant, we’ll do what we need to do in the borough.”
During the team’s final years in New Jersey, the Nets were anything but relevant. The team’s winning percentage, from 2009 to 2012: .252. But Brooklyn upgraded its starting lineup this off-season. Though the team was unable to acquire Howard from the Orlando Magic, it traded for a new All-Star, Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson. Nets point guard Deron Williams, one of the best in the league, signed a five-year, $98 million contract with Brooklyn, signaling his belief that the Nets, with Prokhorov’s deep pockets, can build a contender. On paper, the Nets are, at worst, a middling playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The franchise hasn’t made the postseason since 2007.
“Sure, we don’t have a bullseye on our back like the Miami Heat,” says Nets coach Avery Johnson. “But we have to be much more focused and sharper. When you’re a bad team, teams want to come in and beat you cause you’re bad, ok? When you’re supposedly going to be a much improved team, teams want to come in and make you never improve. It’s real simple, man.”