This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If you live in New York City, heading to New Jersey is a bit like driving from L.A. into the Valley: You've got to have a damned good reason to go -- and for years a second-tier team like the New Jersey Nets just didn't qualify. So the team's owners set out on a bold course to rejuvenate a failing franchise and, simultaneously, inject some big-league swagger into New York City's hottest borough (which, according to a recent report, is now the second-most-expensive place to live in the country). And the most visible player in this plan is Brooklyn's own Jay-Z.
Though he owns just one-fifteenth of one percent of the Brooklyn Nets (Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov owns 80 percent), Jay-Z's fingerprints are all over the new-look Nets, from their redesigned logo to their newly constructed, 19,000-seat arena in Barclays Center, which opens its doors Sept. 28. "Jay is a partner in the team and is a key contributor regarding the arena," says Brett Yormark, CEO of the Nets and Barclays Center, which was built on the site of the old Atlantic Rail Yards. The rapper-entrepreneur serves as an ambassador for the team, helping invigorate players like Deron Williams and Kim Kardashian's ex, Kris Humphries -- "It's been great having him involved because he is Brooklyn," Humphries told The New York Post after signing a $24 million deal to stay with the Nets -- and, perhaps most crucially, he reinforces the team's connection to Brooklyn, where Jay-Z spent his youth.
Yormark says his minority owner preaches "being real, being true to yourself, being authentic. You can see it in the redesigned, Brooklyn refresh of our logo." Jay-Z pushed to change the team's colors to simple black and white and reportedly dictated the music to play during games (favoring artists like Santigold over Jersey favorites like Bon Jovi) -- and his credibility is especially important given the team's largely feeble history.
Though they made it to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, the Nets always have been the second-class ballers in the New York metro area. Last year, the team finished 22-44. But just because the Nets moved to Brooklyn -- a pretty massive shift, even in this age of sports teams like the NFL's Dallas Cowboys spending billions on new stadiums -- doesn't mean Brooklynites will change their stripes. "I wish I had a dollar for every time people ask me that; I could finance another film," Spike Lee, a Brooklyn native who long has been the Knicks' most prominent fan, recently said. "I am orange and blue, baby."
Getting celebrities to sit courtside is a high-value target for any NBA franchise, and while Jay-Z and Beyonce will go a long way, the Nets will have to do better than just Ellen Pompeo and MTV's Sway (who have bought season tickets) if they're going to compete with Madison Square Garden -- which, for decades, has been the city's only viable spot for massive concerts and events. MSG also has the advantage of being the home of the Knicks and the WNBA's Liberty as well as the NHL's Rangers -- and those franchises drove the Garden's profits to $322 million last quarter.
"Personally, I don't think the Garden has any reason to consider Barclays as a serious competitor mainly because of the No. 1 rule in New York City real estate: location, location, location," Alan Hahn, who covered the NBA for Newsday and now is an on-air analyst for MSG's TV network, told The Hollywood Reporter. "The Garden is in mid-town Manhattan, at the heart of New York City. It's also the Garden, an icon, a place with rich history and tradition. The Knicks will maintain a more glamorous cachet for now, but, of course, the perception of the franchises certainly can change quickly if the Knicks falter. But the Nets will need to have overwhelming success to really grab the attention - and the loyalty - of the city. Like the Mets in the mid-1980s, for instance."
Barclays will come out swinging, with eight sold-out Jay-Z shows to open the arena starting Sept. 28 and later dates from Rihanna, Barbra Streisand, Justin Bieber, The Who, Bob Dylan and, reportedly, The Rolling Stones. Barclays will also host boxing matches (an MSG staple) and serve as the New York home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The arena will house a spinoff branch of Jay-Z's ultra-exclusive 40/40 Club as well as an even more selective, semi-hidden spot: The Vault. Membership includes concierge service and valet parking -- one of the 11 Vault suites will run a cool $550,000 a year (Jay-Z already claimed one for himself). And because one can't actually see the court from the Vault suites, eight tickets to every event at the arena also are included in the deal. (For those without a corporate account or a working mint, Barclays has three other less-restricted clubs.)
"The Garden has been around a long time," says Yormark. "But we think this city's big enough for both of us."
JEWELS OF THE ARENA
- The Vault: Discreetly located, these suites come with concierge service and eight tickets in the first 10 rows of every event.
- The 40/40 Club: A spinoff of Jay-Z’s famed Manhattan location, this is the premium bar at Barclays Center.
Junior's Cheesecake: As part of the effort to Brooklynize the arena, there will be 35 iconic borough food vendors throughout, including this NYC institution.