The bottom came in 2012.
The Nets were borrowing court time atop the ice at the Devils’ arena in Newark, having broken their lease at the Izod Arena in the Meadowlands, the marshy no man’s land between New York City and the bulk of New Jersey. The team went 22-44 during the lockout-shortened season, good for last place. Merchandise sales were even worse.
“Our last year in New Jersey, we ranked 31st out of 30 NBA teams in merchandise sales,” said John Abbamondi, CEO of Nets parent BSE Global. “That’s not a joke. We were behind the defunct Seattle Supersonics.”
Times have changed. “Last year, we were No. 2 in the NBA as a team, with three of the top four player jerseys,” said Abbamondi, who came to BSE just over a year ago. “Interest in this team is at an all-time high.”
The Nets rebound predates Abbamondi and owner Joe Tsai, who bought into the team in 2017 and took majority control two years later. The revival was jumpstarted by the 2012 move to Brooklyn and adoption of the borough’s name, both done at the suggestion of Jay-Z, then a part owner of the team. But the marketing ease of dropping quotidian New Jersey for the adamant hipness of Brooklyn only partly explains the Nets success. “It’s not as easy as rolling the ball out on the court at Barclays Center and everything takes care of itself,” said Abbamondi.
The emergence of the franchise as one of the NBA’s buzziest teams comes from a focus on engaging directly with fans.
“We go direct-to-consumer in terms of getting our fans into Barclays Center and creating our fans on social media,” Tsai said in a video call. The team focuses on providing a customer-focused experience in the arena—encouraging ushers, concessionaires and security to always be helpful, for instance—and is adding a new courtside lounge called Crown Club, adjacent to courtside seats.
Efforts in social media are paying off, too: The Nets are among the top three NBA squads, with 319 million social media engagements from November through May this year, according to the team. In China, the Nets rank first in social media engagement among all NBA franchises, bolstered by a dedicated social media team for the mainland.
Admittedly, the success of the league-wide efforts to build the NBA brand globally makes the job easier. “There’s no customer-acquisition vehicle better than the NBA,” said Rich Tao, who helps run Tsai’s family office and is part of Tsai’s “rag tag team.” The NBA’s strength allows Tsai to focus on expanding the Nets brand in its New York market and beyond. In particular, the owner is keen to explore ways for the league and the team to use new technologies.
“What if, in addition to broadcasting games on ESPN and ABC, and streaming games on ESPN+, we can have another way of presenting a game on Twitch, with a Twitch gamer calling the game?” said Tsai. “In that Twitch stream you could do sports betting, play interactive games within that engagement experience and earn cryptocurrency. I don’t think it will cannibalize ESPN.”
Such arrangements are far in the future—if ever: Tsai freely admits he’s not among the league’s influential owners. But his creative thinking has at the least earned respect from his peers.
“Dude is smart,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an email. “He has the big picture in mind for the league and is focused on winning for his team. He puts in the time to be a great partner and contribute the benefit of his experience to make the league better. All you can ask for in an owner.”
Grand suggestions for the league aside, Tsai and Abbamondi are focusing on what they can control: creating engagement for the team in a market that has 10 or so competing pro franchises, many with longer histories and more legendary alumni. For the Nets, the way to stand out is to emphasize the team’s vibrancy. Other New York teams are locked into historic uniforms and tried-and-true approaches to marketing. The Nets aren’t.
One small example of the team’s creative efforts was this past season’s introduction of jerseys inspired by the legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The black uniforms with Basquiat’s hip-hop style are arguably the best creations under the NBA’s City Editions alternate uniform program. Basquiat was a Brooklyn born-and-bred painter who fused street painting style with high art. The team, with Tsai’s foundation, even developed a curriculum to teach Brooklyn students about Basquiat, who died in 1988 at 27. The Basquiat jerseys are part of the team’s emphasis on engaging with younger fans.
“This is a young league in terms of its fan base, and we are, in particular, a young team in terms of our fan base,” said Abbamondi, who joined BSE after holding executive positions with Madison Square Garden, the NBA, the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals.
“It helps if you’ve got a better team on the field, too. That’s always a big deal,” said Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross. The Nets made the playoffs for the third straight year, falling in the conference semifinals to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks, but boasted an exciting starting five, featuring Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. “Who wants to wear a jersey of a team that is 20 and 62? And do you want an aging star, like the Nets used to have, or guys who are the top of league right now?” added Matheson.
The multi-tiered approach is working for Tsai’s team. Ratings for Nets games were up 70% this past season on YES, the regional sports network. Long-term barometers like fan engagement are rising, too. The Nets added the most fans of any basketball team in the past 12 months, according to YouGov, with the 18-34 segment growing 99% in the past year. Younger fans now comprise 53% of Nets fans, while YouGov finds the Knicks well behind at 41%. The Manhattan club may be able to claim it’s the king of New York basketball for now, but perhaps not forever.
“The team you fell in love with when you were 10 is the team you root for when you’re 40,” said Abbamondi.
Scott Soshnick contributed reporting for this article.
Inside BSE Global: A Sportico Series
- Monday: How Joe Tsai and His ‘Rag Tag Team’ Are Building a Sports Empire
- Tuesday: Sports Industry Must Bridge Gap to Tap Talents of Military Vets
- Wednesday: New York Liberty’s First 25 Years Light the Way for Women’s Sports
- Thursday: Nets Extending Long Rebound With Focus on Youth and Tech
- Friday: Wayne Gretzky: Why I’m Investing in Lacrosse