Brett Yormark, CEO, Brooklyn Nets/Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates the Barclays Center, is a self-proclaimed “brand guy,” and as such he knows a great brand when he says one. That would be Brooklyn.
Since joining the Nets organization in January of 2005, Yormark has reinvented the culture of the organization. Yormark’s mission has been to make the Nets the most accessible, inventive, fan-friendly, and community-active team in sports. And that mission will come to bear physically in the form of the Barclays Center, the Nets’ new home beginning for the start of the 2012-13 NBA season.
In January 2007, Yormark secured a 20-year strategic marketing partnership with Barclays, which includes the naming rights to Barclays Center. In keeping with his goal to program Barclays Center with volume and variety of events, Yormark has secured programming alliances with such entities as Golden Boy Promotions for boxing, IMG for college sports, and Feld Entertainment for family shows. Yormark joined the Nets after a successful six-year period with NASCAR, for which he helped build the stock-car racing company into a major sports property. But now he’s laser-focused on Brooklyn, and as he sat with Billboard in the Nets’ temporary offices in the borough, his enthusiasm was more than contagious. Hello, Brooklyn!
Billboard: How did the New Jersey Nets to end up in Brooklyn at the new Barclays Center?
Brett Yormark: Bruce Ratner had the vision of bringing sports and entertainment back to Brooklyn and building a mixed-use development at Flatbush and Atlantic for the arena and the team, which really would be the anchor of this renaissance of downtown Brooklyn. It took a little longer than expected. There was a little opposition. But I give all the credit to Bruce for persevering, having the vision, and sticking with that vision.
What has been your primary role in this process?
I look at myself in many respects as Bruce’s partner. I’ve been on a mission now for seven years, both personally and professionally. When I took the job, Bruce gave me the mandate to stabilize the team in New Jersey and get the team ready for the transition to Brooklyn, while at the same time working on the arena. In that seven-year span, I think we’ve done both.
We never lost sight of the vision. My first day on the job I had a town hall meeting with all of my employees… and I gave a speech where at the end of the day I told them, “we’re all about to have a major moment in our lives, which is to bring sports and entertainment back to Brooklyn.” In life you often don’t have that many big moments, and I still feel that way. I think in many respects, it’s going to be bigger moment now than I ever anticipated. The economy is better, and Brooklyn is going through an incredible period right now, and I think we’re getting here at the right time.
What has this journey been like from your seat
It’s very, very exciting. It has taken a lot of hard work, not only getting to Brooklyn, but while we were in New Jersey. We had a fan base that was eroding, it’s very tough to get fully invested in a team that you know is leaving, even if they didn’t know exactly when we were leaving. Our mantra was always we’re going to market this team and build this team as if we were staying in Jersey for the next 20 years, because we didn’t want people to think we were shortchanging them, and we never did that. The reality is, we struggled a little bit the last couple of years, both on and off the court. But I think all of that officially changed on April 30 when we went through what I believe will be viewed as one of the best re-brands in the history of sports. I’m a brand guy, and this has been transformational.
You’re talking about the launch of the new Brooklyn Nets logo and merchadise.
Collaborating with Jay Z, working with him on the direction and vibe of the brand, and to go black and white, which was something that the league was not a big advocate of early on. But through Jay Z’s persistence, [NBA] Commissioner Stern and [Deputy Commissioner] Adam Silver decided to go in that direction, and I’m glad they did. And I’m not sure anyone could have convinced them otherwise but Jay Z, he was terrific, and he did it with incredible conviction. We spent a lot of time developing the logo, the color scheme, we developed a plan to launch our brand here behind the messaging of “Hello Brooklyn,” and it really connected with everyone in the borough here. They bought into the movement that sports is finally coming to Brooklyn and they have a home team, which is incredible. I’m too young to understand what the Dodgers truly meant here in the borough, but you can still walk down the street and bump into people that don’t understand what happened to their favorite team. I do know when I took the job, there was a couple of owners that said we should call it the Brooklyn Dodgers, and I was a firm believer at the time, and I still am now, that we should not inherit someone else’s legacy, we should establish our own, and we have a chance to do that.
I believe the fans here in Brooklyn have two times to vote “yes.” Once, on April 30, and they did. In two-and-a-half days we did north of $5 million in Adidas merchandise sales, and annually each of the last of the last three years we only did $500,000. Our e-commerce site normally does 300 transactions a year, and we did 1,000 in the first day.
Brooklyn seems to resonate with the whole country.
Brooklyn is an iconic brand. One out of every seven Americans has a connection back to Brooklyn, whether it’s relatives, friends or themselves. I would go into the NBA store on 5th Avenue, and there are a lot of Europeans that go into that store to buy NBA merchandise, and that Brooklyn brand truly resonates everywhere in the world. I was in China on Nets business, and I went into a Starbucks and saw someone wearing a Brooklyn t-shirt and a Brooklyn cap, and it validated for me that Brooklyn is a global city. Think about it, there are 150 ethnicities that speak like 97 different languages here in Brooklyn, so it’s a global marketplace.
Jay-Z clearly understands branding, and he’s so connected to this borough. How did he become involved with the Nets and the Barclays Center?
Bruce Ratner approached him early on when Bruce was putting together his investor group to buy the Nets years ago, and Jay-Z has been involved ever since. He’s an investor in both the team and the arena, he’s also on the board of directors for the arena. I collaborate with him quite often on design, entertainment, the direction of the enterprise. His fingerprints are well entrenched in the Barclays Center. He’s helped to inspire The Vault area, which is our upscale suite environment on the event level. We announced the 40/40 Club restaurant, which is going to be the signature restaurant in the building. He designed the logo and the color scheme, and he also helped collaborate with the court design. If you ask Jay, he’d say the inspiration really came from the subways. It’s very Brooklyn.
I’d agree, the arena feels very “Brooklyn.” I’ve rarely seen a venue built to integrate so completely into its neighborhood, and reflect the vibe of that neighborhood.
You’re absolutely right. SHoP Architects and Ellerbe Beckett, they’ve done an incredible job of truly speaking to the borough and integrating the architectural flavor of the building in a way that really fits the borough. The grittiness of the weathered steel exterior really speaks to the strength of Brooklyn, and the boldness of it. The terrazzo flooring across the concourse, the black ceilings, exposed loft-type environment, I really think they’ve captured it all.
The building seems to have intimacy throughout the seating for an arena, but you also have capitalized on the revenue opportunities in the premium areas. You’re hitting it on all levels.
We are. The sightlines are incredible, there’s not a bad seat in the house. We’ve got 100 suites, eight clubs, a restaurant, we’ve got a little bit of everything for everyone, but one thing is for sure: we’re committed to the borough and the people of the borough. Bruce Ratner, when he purchased the team, from a Nets perspective said, “we’ve got to make this building open to all.” So for the Nets we’ve got 2,000 seats that are priced at $50 and under. Anyone that wants to attend a Nets game will have the wherewithal to do so.
What was the biggest challenge to get to April 30?
March 11, 2010 was a milestone from an arena perspective, because we finally put a stake in the ground, and I think we convinced many – but not everyone – that this thing was going to happen. Up until 10 months ago, we’ve had to continuously reinforce the message that, yes, this building is rising in Brooklyn and, yes, the Nets are moving to Brooklyn. There were many doubters. Even when we moved the Nets from the Izod Center (in East Rutherford, N.J.) to the Prudential Center (in Newark) two years ago-and that was well after we broke ground-people were doubting we’d ever leave Newark. But [Nets SVP, Communications] Barry [Baum] did an incredible job of keeping this project alive from a business PR perspective. There hasn’t been a day this project hasn’t been written about, specifically from an arena perspective. I would say over the last six-to-nine months really people started saying, “you know what, they’re going.” A lot of that was due to we started announcing acts, and now everyone knows this thing opens Sept. 28 with Jay-Z. We have truly been able to convince artists, managers and promoters on the merits of Brooklyn and what it can mean for artists to come here.
A big part of this project is the 20-year naming rights deal with Barclays. How much did it mean to you to get that deal done?
That’s a great question, because when I look back on my career, it’s probably one of those top two or three highlights. When I took this job, I had just left NASCAR, and we had just done the biggest deal in pro sports history with the Nextel deal when they replaced Winston, a huge deal worth about $750 million. I came here, and I got a couple of calls within the first week from some agencies saying, “we’d love to talk to you about selling your naming rights,” I said, “absolutely not, I came here to do this deal.” There were a lot of doubters, but they weren’t doubting my ability, they were doubting because of all the planned new buildings in the market, Prudential Center, the football stadium, you had the Yankees and Mets building new stadiums, you had a refurbishment at the Garden, there was so much activity, and a down market. They’re like, “you’re the last one to get yours, so you’re probably going to need some help.” They doubted the project, the merits of Brooklyn, lots of different things. And we nailed it. For me, what I’m most proud of is the cultural fit for Barclays.
Tell me about that, it just seems so unlikely.
You can either do it for the money or you can do it for the partnerships, and thankfully, in our case we did it for both reasons. Financially, they made a very appealing offer to us, but more important than the financials is, we just believed in Barclays and Barclays believed in us, and that goes to the highest levels. Bruce Ratner and myself flew to the U.K., met with the Barclays board, we sat there and pitched them on the merits of Brooklyn. And I recall some of the feedback initially was, “if you would have told us that was in New York, we would have bought it on the spot, but we needed some time to think about the Brits going to Brooklyn, we needed to get our comfort level on Brooklyn.” And it didn’t take long. Shortly after our meeting out there we got a deal done, and Barclays has never wavered. I’m not sure we’d be opening this building in the fall if it weren’t for Barclays.
Is the Barclays Center simply a branding play for them?
Initially it was. The early comments were, “we’re perceived to be this big British bank, we need to Americanize ourselves a little bit,” and they felt going to Brooklyn and putting their name on a building would be a great way to do it. On the heels of our naming rights deal, they acquired Lehman, and they grew overnight, when you think about the scale and the perception of their business here in the U.S. But if you ask them now, they’d tell you it’s more important than ever for what it means to their employee base and their positioning in the metro New York area. Just to be aligned with a global brand like Barclays means so much.
When I look at your list of corporate partners, it’s very impressive, quite a portfolio. How difficult was that to put together in each of these sectors?
Our partner list is a little different than some of the other lists you might read in this market. The common denominator amongst many of the brands that are working with us are brands that want to either build or launch their brands here in the heart of world commerce. Our shoutout to them is, “come do it at the Barclays Center.” On the heels of the Barclays deal, we’ve had a lot of companies that want to build their brand here in metro New York, and have chosen the Barclays Center as the platform.
There’s the revenue, but what else do those partnerships do for you?
It’s about brand alignment. One of the things we’re keen about here is activation. I want our partners to activate our brand, to glamorize our brand, to take our brand to places it’s never been before, whether it’s retail or Madison Avenue or 5th Avenue. Our partners don’t want to just buy this asset, they want to use it to drive their business forward. We’ve been able to convince our partners that, if you’re just going to come in and put a sign up, we’re not the place for you. But if you want to come in and be our partner, and help grow the Barclays Center while we help grow your business, then we can talk.
It’s a rare opportunity in sports and entertainment to start from scratch with a new team and a new market that’s this high profile, and with a history.
We’re a mature startup. With the Knicks, the Garden is refurbishing, which is great. The Yankees and Mets went across the street. The Giants and Jets went across the street. We had to create a whole new marketplace. We couldn’t take sponsors with us, we didn’t take suite holders with us, we had to start from literally zero and work our way up. We had to create something out of nothing, and it’s remarkable what we’ve been able to accomplish, despite all the years of challenges. But when we open this building, our suites will be full, the stands will be full, our sponsorships will have been spoken for, we’ll be aligned with some of the best brands in the world, we’ll have 200-plus events for our first year, and, against all indicators, we’ll be a very successful venture.
It occurs to me that your NASCAR background was probably good preparation for this project, at least in the manner that you’ve come at it.
When I was at NASCAR, I recall thinking that if I could apply this same messaging and thought process and business model to a sports franchise it would be pretty special. The problem was, in Jersey we did apply a lot of that, but the problem was our product was far from being NASCAR. Regardless of how much marketing and activation, regardless of how accessible you are as a team, there are always going to be those limitations. Coming to Brooklyn, however, is a different story. I always told our guys if we apply the same energy, commitment, passion and business model we did for New Jersey in Brooklyn, and don’t get lazy because all of a sudden we’re in the fourth largest city in the U.S. if it wasn’t a borough, if we stay committed to what we’ve done the last seven years and apply it in a much more robust marketplace, we can be really special.
The Barclays Center is billed as a $1 billion building. Where does $1 billion go in an arena of this somewhat limited footprint?
New York is expensive. When you look at some of the finishes and the architectural nature of this building, it required a substantial sum of money to do it the right way. We’ve got ubiquitous wi-fi, with 290 access points; we’ve got the distributed antennae system (DAS), which will provide carriage from all the different carriers; we’ve partnered with Cisco on IV TV; we have our Oculus, which is 3,000 square-feet of LED on the exterior. We’ve coined this phrase “street to seat brand domination,” from the outside to your seat, you’ll have this incredible experience of digital signage, and most buildings aren’t programmed that way. We really didn’t spare anything.