Barclays Center vs. Madison Square Garden: New York's Latest Rivalry Heats Up

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

Now that MSG is back in business, the rivalry between Manhattan's premier arena space and Brooklyn's upstart concert venue is getting hotter by the New York minute.

This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Brooklyn Dodgers vs. the New York Giants. Brownstones vs. high-rises. Grimaldi's Pizzeria vs. John's of Bleecker Street. And now: Barclays Center vs. Madison Square Garden, the latest intrametro rivalry pitting borough against borough.

Actually, the war between the two giant sports and entertainment arenas has been fairly civil by Big Apple standards -- mostly because Manhattan's MSG was partly closed for renovations when Brooklyn's Barclays opened its doors 18 months ago. But since the refurbished Garden started selling tickets again in October, there have been signs that the crosstown dissing is heating up.

"Barclays got a stroke of luck that the Garden was closed," sniffs heavyweight music manager Irving Azoff (the Eagles, Van Halen and Christina Aguilera, among others), who last year partnered with MSG on a new management-publishing-production company called Azoff MSG. "I'd give Barclays a 3 out of 10. The Garden, that's a 9.5. Unless you're stupid, you play the Garden."

Boom, Brooklyn!

Of course, the view from the other side of the East River is totally different. With more than 300 events since opening, Barclays was the top-grossing venue in the U.S. last year. It has been averaging $6 million a month from live concerts (including many by former shareholder Jay Z) and has branched out to event programming like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's induction ceremony. And while it doesn't have MSG's cash-cow sports franchises, like the Knicks and the Rangers, it does have the Nets, and soon the building will be getting ice ready for the relocating Islanders.

"Early on, we knew the Brooklyn brand would be special," boasts Barclays CEO Brett Yormark, who is bringing a strange new style of customer service to New York City's arenas: politeness. To improve guest services, Barclays has partnered with Disney to train staff on such courtesies as the proper way to smile at patrons.

"There are areas we haven't done as well as we would have liked," concedes Yormark. "Country music is the perfect example. Many artists haven't been to Brooklyn. They don't understand that there are 11 subway lines and the Long Island Railroad here -- that it's easy to get fans from all over the tristate area. We have to educate them about the fact that there are 385 country bars in the borough."

Azoff isn't buying it. He says Barclays' early success comes on the back of "fluffy numbers," that Brooklyn can't sell nearly as many tickets as MSG or the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (The math makes his case: Since reopening in October, MSG has sold about 35 percent more tickets than Barclays, with the Garden averaging 10,682 per live concert versus 7,287 for Barclays, according to Pollstar.) Making the rivalry even more personal, Azoff says he's had "bad experiences" booking clients at Barclays, alleging that one show had to be canceled. (He won't say who, but a source says it was Journey, although Barclays says that gig was canceled because of Superstorm Sandy.)

This summer will be the first concert season with Barclays and MSG competing head-to-head, so the rivalry is only going to get more intense. But that's a good thing, according to Larry Webman, vp of the music division of Paradigm, which books concerts for Coldplay, David Gray and Barenaked Ladies, among others. "Artists now have options," he says. Before Barclays, available dates at MSG were so tight, "even U2 had to load out for sports." These days, though, musicians can pick between a venue with historic allure (performing on the same stage where the Stones concluded their legendary 1972 North American tour), or a less-crowded space with more favorable union arrangements and a better curtaining system, all of which, according to Webman, make Barclays "aesthetically and financially rewarding."

Inevitably, the Barclays vs. MSG throwdown will play out along age-old borough stereotypes. One will be perceived as glitzy, the other as hip. Old-school acts such as Azoff's Eagles and Van Halen (and certainly Journey) will end up at the Garden, while Beyonce, as well as younger hip-hop, electronic dance music and rock acts, will gravitate toward Barclays.

As far as Yormark is concerned, bring it on. "Maybe a handful of artists have chosen the Garden because they have a history and feel comfortable there," he says with enough passive-aggressive derision to fill the Hollywood Bowl. "That's great. If you look at the young, up-and-coming artists, they don't have the attachment to legacy brands that legacy artists do, so they might prefer the young and hip and cool flavor of Brooklyn."

Burn, Manhattan!