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SportBusiness International asks Brett Yormark, CEO of NBA (National Basketball Association) franchise the Brooklyn Nets and its Barclays Center home, about criticisms around his marketing strategy for the Nets and new Barclays Center tenant the New York Islanders.

Brett Yormark has a lot to be pleased about.

As chief executive officer of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center he runs a franchise valued at $1.5 billion and an arena worth $1 billion. This October, meanwhile, the Barclays Center embraces a new sport, ice hockey, when the NHL (National Hockey League)’s New York Islanders move in.

Formerly the New York Nets (1968-1977) and New Jersey Nets (1977-2012), the basketball franchise became the Brooklyn Nets when it moved into the Barclays Center three years ago. The move was masterminded by real estate developer Bruce Ratner, the man behind the Barclays Center, who acquired the Nets in 2004 for $300 million before selling an 80 per cent share to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov for $200 million in 2009.

Yormark joined the Nets in 2005 and oversaw all aspects of the team’s move to Brooklyn, including the rebranding, marketing, and sponsorship sales. The positive impact Yormark’s had on the Nets right from the start is undisputed: Modell’s, the team’s official sporting goods retailer, sold more merchandise on the team’s first trading day as the Brooklyn Nets than it had done in the team’s whole final season as the New Jersey Nets.

In the Brooklyn Nets’ inaugural season, moreover, the team came fourth in league merchandise sales according to the NBA, compared to 31st the previous season.

However, three years on and there has been a wave of criticism against Yormark and his marketing strategy from certain fans and areas of the media; they accuse him of focusing on the overarching Brooklyn brand too much while ignoring the need for quality talent on the court. Irritated Nets fans have even come up with a term, ‘Yormarketing’, which is used when taking a swipe at the team’s chief executive on social media.

Owning New York

For Yormark – who recently expressed his desire to trump the ultra-popular Knicks by “owning this city [of New York]” – things also do not seem as bright as they once were in the marketing sphere, as for the first time ever while in Brooklyn, the team can’t be found in the NBA’s official list of top 10 team jersey sales. Crosstown rivals the Knicks, meanwhile – despite having the worst season in their history in 2014/15 with the league’s worst record – rank seventh.

“When the Nets arrived in 2012, I think they did steal some fans from the Knicks. But now, as Nets officials are talking about owning the city, it just sounds kind of hollow,” Howard Beck, Bleacher Report’s NBA senior writer, told SportBusiness International.

When the Nets arrived in 2012, they did steal some fans from the Knicks. But now Nets officials are talking about owning the city, it just sounds hollow

“It’s one thing to come to Brooklyn on day one with all of that lustre and shoot high, but now we are three years in and they’ve been a very uninspiring team that hasn’t had much play-off success.

“There might be a time when the Nets carve out a bigger share of fans in the city, but it won’t be until years down the road because they didn’t put a good enough team together to make that impression.”

Attendance numbers are down for Nets games at the Barclays Center, too. After creeping up to 16th in average home game attendance in the team’s first year at the Barclays Center, the Nets are now in the bottom 10 in terms of average attendance.

Yormark says he is aware of the criticism he faces, but that he is looking to achieve the magic balance both on and off the court that he believes equates to a long-term successful business that delivers trophies for the fans.

“What validates the promise every day for the brand is the product itself,” he told SportBusiness International. “We can continue to evolve into a lifestyle brand, but I do think there has to be a happy medium. The brand needs to stand for things beyond wins and losses, but ultimately, wins and losses do validate the brand promise.

“Not that I need championships, but you want to be competitive year in and year out – you want to create a winning tradition. Fans want that. They require that.”

A New Home

The New York Islanders take up permanent residency at the Barclays Center this October, moving from the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, the venue it has called home since 1972.

Yormark and his creative team developed two slogans to welcome the Islanders and their fans into the home of the Nets: ‘Tradition has a New Home’ is being used to ensure the existing fanbase stays committed, while ‘Brooklyn Scores’ is being rolled out as an attempt to attract an entirely new Brooklyn fanbase for the Islanders.

“We started doing focus groups and research both in Brooklyn and Long Island, and what we realised is that there is a big, hardcore fanbase on Long Island. We did not want to alienate them, we wanted them to feel as welcomed in Brooklyn as Brooklynites,” says Yormark.

“We felt we would pay homage to the tradition. What we are saying to Long Islanders is ‘come to Brooklyn, and all of those traditions you grew up with are going to find themselves a new home’.

“In Brooklyn, we have more of a casual fanbase that we are educating about hockey. So we focused on appealing to them in a way that they can become emotionally connected to something they can call their own.”

Though Yormark says the campaigns have performed well, there have been some issues. Not all Islanders fans – in fact many of the hardcore fanbase he mentions – were pleased with the team leaving Long Island, given it has played at the Coliseum for 42 years, winning four Stanley Cups there.

Yormark says he has personally been reaching out to fans unsure or opposed to the move to Brooklyn: “I’m out there twice a month, hosting season-ticket holders, learning from them and understanding what their reservations might be.

“I also use social media, because a great number of Islanders fans follow me on Twitter and use that to communicate with me. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good, but it’s educating.

“Many of them have talked about the logo and the uniform because they were thinking we were going to change it, which we are not. We are going to introduce a third jersey, which is black-and-white, but the primary jersey, and away jersey, will not change.”

Beck, however, raises the point that if many Nets fans are either fed up with the organisation or simply do not care enough as casual supporters, how can anyone be confident with Brooklyn’s willingness to take on the Islanders?

“As long as the Islanders are still called the ‘New York’ Islanders, and as long as the Islanders are still in their traditional colours, I don’t see that people in Brooklyn are going to view them in the same way they view the Nets,” he says. “They won’t even connect the two in their own minds, except for the fact they play at the same arena.

“There’s not a natural connection there and without that ‘Brooklyn’ across the chest, I think the Islanders will, in some ways, be less appealing in Brooklyn – what drew people to the Nets was, in part, the idea that this was ‘their team’. It’s a harder sell.”

 

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