What Would Lebron Really Mean in New York?
By Evan Weiner
July 1, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg wants the Knicks to sign Lebron James. Bloomberg's city is a financial mess with teachers getting fired and services being cutback. New York State is a financial disaster. Of course Bloomberg should not even be the city's mayor as he bypassed a law that term limited city elected officials to two terms (Rudy Giuliani left office because of term limits) but that is a story for another day. Bloomberg won last November for a third time and is the mayor.
Here is the rub with Bloomberg and his want of Lebron James in Manhattan.
Madison Square Garden does not pay city property taxes. It may be as much as $14 million a year that does not go into the city's coffers. Lebron James salary would be about $14 million a year. If the Garden's owners, the Dolan family (a family that made their fortune off of the government because of laws governing the cable TV business) paid the tax, perhaps some of those Knicks fans who are losing their jobs because the city is broke might be retained in their jobs.
(The Dolans did not negotiate the property tax deal, they inherited the break when they bought the Garden in 1995 with the ITT Corporation.)
The Dolans themselves have been cutting back on their "media empire" for a long time. Their News12s in various parts of the New York City metropolitan area have seen a departure of reporters and the Dolan's newspaper, Newsday, just got concessions from workers which will result in five to 10 percent wage cutbacks. The Dolans have money for players but seem to have short arms when reaching into their pockets when it comes to paying reporters and property taxes.
But sports is fantasyland and Lebron James going to the Knicks would be a feel good story for long suffering Knicks fans.
The sports pundits will talk about just how much money Lebron James will pump into the city. That's assuming he lives in the city. There are New York players whose residents are in Florida or in other states where there is no state income tax. They happen to play in New York.
But the "Trickle Down" theory is in play. Surely Lebron would bring more people into New York to see him play for the Knicks and that would mean more money to the city?
That's not true.
The Knicks play two pre-season games in October, then just 41 games between November and April and those dates are scattered. The playoffs would bring a few more dates but certainly nothing that would add up for the city. With or without Lebron or a number of players who would make the Knicks better, the city would not stand to make much. Economic impact is very overrated. People have a finite amount of dollars to spend on entertainment, if it doesn't go to the Knicks, it would go somewhere else in the city or in the metropolitan area.
There would be few people who would plan a trip to New York because of Lebron. As far as being a tourist attraction, Lebron's presence in New York City would pale in comparison to the amount of people who want to see Broadway shows or maybe the Big East Tournament.
Most sports is local. There are few teams that can pull people in and those teams are basically college football teams who travel with large contingents and perhaps St. Louis Cardinals fans.
Lebron doesn't even have the pull of the New York City Marathon. You want an event that brings a multitude of people and a ton of money into town? The Marathon attracts runners globally. There are about 100,000 people who want a shot at the 2010 New York City Marathon. Only 37,000 runners get to participate and an awful lot of those runners are not from New York who rent hotel and motel rooms, dine at area eateries and put money into not only the city but surrounding areas. The Marathon has international travel partners in about 40 countries. Lebron is a one man corporation but he is not going to be a money making attraction to the city and Bloomberg's budget.
Lebron is not as valuable to Bloomberg as the shows in the Javits Center such as the Toy Show or the Jewelry Show. Lebron is not in the same league as the Model United Nations which brings about 5,000 teenagers from all over the world to participate. Lebron cannot compete with Fashion Week or Fleet Week. The Javits Center events, the UN events including the annual world leaders session and the Model United Nations bring not only participants but guests into the area and those guests use hotels/motels and restaurants. Lebron is not the same draw as the US Open in Flushing Meadows in the late summer. How many Europeans will buy plane tickets and book hotels with various travel packages to watch Lebron for a game here or there when they can see two weeks of championship tennis and be in New York City?
Cities compete for conventions.
Conventions make money, sports teams make money for owners and players but in many ways they cannot even compete with a local 24 hour a day supermarket in terms of real economic impact.
A few people might get jobs helping Lebron if he signs with the Knicks but as far as a municipal money making machine. He is not.
There is some other nonsense about New York being the biggest stage in the world. Lebron's popularity began while he was in prep school and he has been in Cleveland, a decaying rust belt city, for the past seven years. He can make the same endorsement money in Cleveland that he can in New York. This is not the 1960s where Mickey Mantle ruled the roost along with other New York Yankees and New York Giants football players in terms of Madison Avenue. Henry Aaron was an afterthought in Milwaukee in the 1950s and 1960s but that was a different time.
New York isn't even the biggest NBA stage. It is just another franchise in the 30 team NBA. The Garden is an overrated building that has been living off the glory days of another Madison Square Garden that was located about a mile north of the place. Garden officials were so disgusted with the four-year-old building in 1972 that they looked at possibly relocating the Knicks and the NHL's Rangers to the New Jersey Meadowlands. Gulf and Western didn't think so highly of the building a decade later after the bought the place in the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s, the Garden owners were screaming that they could no longer be competitive in the then 15 year old building and unless New York City and New York State gave them a property tax break, the Knicks would move to Nassau County and the Rangers to the Meadowlands.
So much for sentimentally. It is all business.
New York Governor Mario Cuomo and New York Mayor Ed Koch cut a deal with the Garden which relieved the arena ownership of the burden of paying city property tax and the arena's electric bill. Everyone in the Con Ed power grid got to pay a portion of the Garden's electric bill. That has gone on for nearly three decades even though neither Cuomo nor Koch though the law was passed by the legislature in Albany in 1982 would last in perpetuity.
Lebron is a money making machine for Lebron and his company along with a sports team, a league and his marketing partners. Knicks ticket prices will go up with Lebron, of course they go up even when the team is bad.
There isn't that much room to expand the fan base at the Garden for Knicks games as remarkably the team is still selling tickets at a high volume at 98.7 percent capacity in a building that seats about 19,500 people in 2009-10. With the teetering economy, a bad record and a lot of sports competition for the dollar in the New York area, it is actually incredible that the Knicks are still sellable. The Yankees cannot sell high priced home plate ticket in a new stadium with a championship team, the Mets attendance is way down and the New York Jets have slashed prices on about a quarter of the seats at the team's new stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Lebron would probably help Madison Square Garden's cable TV channel because more eyeballs would be on the channel and that would bring in advertising. The network might demand a higher licensing fee from multiple system operators who would then pass that along to cable TV customers which means that all cable TV subscribers that have the Garden's channel on their basic tier would have to pay for what maybe three or four percent of the audience watch---Knicks basketball.
In the world of fantasy---sports---Lebron James to the Knicks is a gift to Knicks fans. In the real world though, it is far far different. Bloomberg wants Lebron, he wanted a New Jersey-based Super Bowl also in 2014 which he got. He has green lighted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tax breaks and subsidies for the construction of athletic facilities while presiding over job cuts because the city is broke.
Lebron James might save the Knicks from basketball mediocrity but he will do very little for the city's economy and job growth.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on the "Politics of Sports Business and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org