Loyal Knicks Fans May Deserve a Medal. But a Refund?

January 21, 2015

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The New York Times

By: Richard Sandomir

Loyal Knicks fans will not be surprised after this painful season when they learn that their ticket prices will not rise in 2015-16.

A freeze on prices was their reward after last season, when the Knicks won 37 games, and in eight of nine dismal seasons before 2011-12.

The Knicks offered a different type of compensation for the final home game of the 2007-8 season: free food for fans as they watched the team’s 58th loss — the next-to-last game coached by Isiah Thomas.

Even after winning their second straight game Wednesday night, the Knicks (7-36) had the N.B.A.’s worst record. Their tickets cost an average of $129.38 apiece, the most expensive by far in the league, according to Team Marketing Report, an industry publication. Their roster is in the process of being dismantled. Yet game after game, Madison Square Garden improbably reports capacity crowds, even as the team earns comparisons to the woeful 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who finished 9-73.

But as the team continues its seemingly inevitable march to a forgettable season’s merciful end, some are asking a new question: How should the Knicks reward fans who, more than ever, are proving their extreme devotion? In what looks to be the historic nadir for the franchise, is the Garden’s policy of holding the line on prices after bad seasons enough to acknowledge the angst of those whose season tickets cost them $49 to $3,700 a game?

Michael Barasch, a Manhattan lawyer, does not think so. For 22 years, he was a season-ticket holder. Last season, he paid $45,100 for four seats at $275 each. Mostly, he took his clients, injured firefighters, to the seats in Section 115, in the corner opposite the home team’s bench. But early last spring, when he learned that he would also have to pay $1,100 for tickets to three meaningless preseason games in order to renew his seats, he balked.

“I feel like I broke up a bad marriage — and I feel fabulous about it,” he said.

Still, he cannot completely stay away. Taking his clients to games is still a lure of sorts. So he is paying a friend for four similar seats in the same section for 11 games. The cost: $12,000.

“Last game I saw, against Houston, I left at halftime,” Barasch said of the Knicks’ 24-point loss to James Harden and the Rockets on Jan. 8. “I saw Harden, but I couldn’t tell you who most of the Knicks were.”

Barasch’s radical solution would be for the Knicks to give fans a full rebate on all games played since the team traded J. R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland and waived the three players they received (two of those players have since been re-signed).

“Since they stopped being both competitive and entertaining that day, we shouldn’t have to pay for the games that followed,” Barasch said.

When Phil Jackson was hired as the Knicks’ president, he said that he believed he was running a playoff-bound team. But a 5-20 start was followed by a 16-game losing streak. Injuries have limited the playing time of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. After trading Smith and Shumpert in a salary dump, Jackson blamed himself for a roster that has seriously underachieved.

Barasch said that Jackson and his boss, James L. Dolan, the chairman of the Garden, could learn from Broadway, where theatergoers are routinely offered a refund or exchange for a different date if an above-the-title star does not appear in a performance. When Barasch and his wife went to see Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” recently, they learned that Glenn Close was sick, so they exchanged their tickets for another day.

“At least I had that option,” Barasch said. The only vaguely similar option available to him with his Knicks package is to sell his remaining tickets on the secondary market, probably at a loss.

Sports ticketing and marketing experts say the Knicks do not need to mimic Broadway policy or drop prices. Several also said they should not.

“Not unless people are saying: ‘No, we’re not renewing. We’re not coming,’ ” said Jon Greenberg, the executive editor of Team Marketing Report. “Fans know what they’re getting into, especially with the Knicks.”

Bernie Mullin, chairman of the Aspire Group, a sports marketing firm, said that giving rebates, or refunds, based on poor performance would be a bad precedent.

“If LeBron or Kobe weren’t playing, you’d want a rebate,” said Mullin, a former Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Hawks executive. “It’s an impossible road to go down. What we recommend is to get your tickets priced right and have modest cost-of-living increases each year. But don’t price based on wins or losses.”

The Garden has taken a different route. Over three recent seasons, which coincided with the phased, $1 billion reopening of the renovated Garden, the Knicks raised their ticket prices. For 2011-12, their first full season with Anthony, prices increased significantly — an average of 49 percent. The next season, the increase was a more modest 4.9 percent, followed by a 6.4 percent rise in 2013-14.

Yet still the fans came, renewing their season tickets at a 91 percent rate before the current dismal season. The Garden dotes on its loyalists by providing the sort of experiences that are increasingly common in sports: get-togethers with current and former players and the Knicks City Dancers for food, conversation and photos at the Garden or in nearby restaurants.

“It’s always smart to appease your fans when you’re 6-36,” Greenberg said. “That’s abysmal. That’s not entertainment.”

Fortunately for the Knicks, they can rely on the patience and kindness of a fan base that can still find the fleeting joy in a dunk by Langston Galloway or a quarter’s worth of solid team play.

“It’s the illusion of hope,” Barasch said.


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