Hello, Brooklyn! A Conversation with Nets CEO Brett Yormark

Back in March, TSFJ featured a manual of sorts for the newly rechristened Brooklyn Nets as they played out the string (and 35 years of roots) in New Jersey. This is a team not only bringing back major league professional sports for the first time since the Dodgers left in 1957, but one entering hostile territory with the long established New York Knicks capturing the NBA interests of all five Boroughs once again.

For those of us who are just fans, the Nets’ arrival in New York’s most boisterous borough just means new merchandise and a chance to attend a game in the City’s first new arena in decades. For those who look beyond the game, the team is a fascinating case study in rebranding, and so much more.

This past Wednesday, I had the good fortune to speak briefly with the Nets CEO, Brett Yormark, about the arrival as he would accept a Spirit of Cabrini Award on behalf of the Nets for services in support of the Cabrini Mission Foundation. He provided insights on the Nets’ marketing efforts, the development of the Barclays Center, and a nod to the crowds cheering the Oklahoma City Thunder (a challenge to Brooklyn, perhaps?).

TSFJ: Could you speak a bit on the community initiatives the Nets have taken on since arriving in Brooklyn in April?

Yormark: From my perspective, our move to Brooklyn is really all about the community. When we went through our brand transformation about a month and a half ago, that first week was all about the Brooklyn Nets and the community. Supporting wellness, supporting education, community development.

It didn’t just start when we came to Brooklyn. We’ve been seeding our brand in Brooklyn for close to five years now … we plan on being that much more active now that we are here and getting ready for our first season as the Brooklyn Nets.

TSFJ: Now on that note, you’re coming into an already established NBA market, even though Brooklynites have known about the Nets for years. Outside of the insiders and media, how have the actual fans received the Nets, in terms of community service, rebranding and the like?

Yormark: I think it’s truly exceeded our expectations. Our fans have had a chance to vote, and they voted "yes" for the Nets, and the rebranding efforts. We sold a lot of season seats, much more than we ever anticipated this far out from the beginning of the (2012-13) season. People are wearing our merchandise; they’re wearing our caps, wearing out t-shirts, and they voted "yes" for the Brooklyn Nets. It shows how quickly and how relevant we’ve become in the conversation about Brooklyn, and I’m very excited about it. I think it’s only going to grow as we go through the free agency period in July, and ultimately bring a team Brooklyn could be proud of.

TSFJ: There was a tweet you posted earlier in the day about Oklahoma City after Game 1 of the NBA Finals where you basically said Brooklyn is going to show them how it’s done in terms of fan excitement. It was interesting because the Thunder was a team that came from another market (Seattle) to one where there was no major professional sports to speak of, but they have captured the nation’s attention. Have the Nets taken some lessons from teams like the Thunder or even Memphis with the Grizzlies in terms of adapting to a new market?

Yormark: We apply all best practices, but this move was very unique. It was just 12 miles from Newark to what will be the new home, the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn. From our position, we’ve been seeing the (Brooklyn) brand for years, so it’s not like we left one market, and we just appeared here. We’ve had a five-year plan where we’ve been able to embrace the fan base. But, I think until we were truly Brooklyn’s own, the fans were somewhat at arm’s length from us. Now that we’re in Brooklyn, we’re going to wear it on our jerseys, we’re going to wear it on our hats, we’re going to wear it on our shirts.

You know, Brooklyn is a very proud community, and they truly support what’s theirs. We have received an incredible amount of support from the youth to the adults. They’re wearing our shirts, wearing our merchandise. We’re the #7 seller of merchandise over the last two months in the NBA; this is without a jersey or player-branded merchandise. Now, it’s up to us to sustain that momentum, to bring a great team here. I anticipate the fan base to be very much like what we saw in Oklahoma. They’re going to be loud, they’re going to be energized, and we’re going to be embracing anyone that becomes a fan.

 In terms of community service, what has been the effort you have personally been most proud of, whether it’s been in the first few weeks in Brooklyn or this whole five-year process?

Yormark: During our “Brooklyn Nets in the Community,” we were at a YMCA in Prospect Park. It was a wonderful day for me personally. There were 600 kids there; they were all wearing black and white. It was two days after we launched our brand, and for me, it was a very proud moment. I knew that kids would ultimately vote "yes" for the Brooklyn Nets, and I knew they would take the moment to embrace their own home team. Until you get there and experience it firsthand, you never know, but to have 600 kids cheer on the Nets, work with our executive team that was out there hosting clinics for the day; to me, it was a big-time moment.

Last year, my kids and I fed the hungry in Brooklyn, and we will continue to do that as a family this year. Even on Sept. 28 when we plan to open our building, I’ll be doing outreach.

TSFJ: Finally, the arena itself (Editor’s note: the Barclays Center is about 80 percent finished): how does it feel to know that it’s almost there; starting to see the personality and the structure of the building? Many outside of Brooklyn aren’t aware that this is the same land Walter O’Malley wanted for the Dodgers in the 1950s.

Yormark: It’s surreal to me. I walk the building two or three times a week, and to know what we went through to get there. Years of litigation and challenges, the downturn in the economy, the NBA lockout this past season. And to think we weathered all of that to open up what I think will be one of the finest venues in the world — I think is just a testament to (co-owner) Bruce Ratner and our ownership group, and everyone that’s a part of the Brooklyn Nets.

We have spared nothing in terms of consumer experience. For those who want a premium experience, they’ll get it. For those who have limited means, they’ll be able to find a way to come to the Barclays Center. Over 2,000 seats will be priced at $15 and under, so anyone that wants to experience the Barclays Center will have the ability to do so. The building, I think, speaks to Brooklyn; it’s gritty, it’s strong, it’s vibrant, it’s going to be truly energized. The sight lines are terrific for basketball, for concerts. It was built with the community in mind, and I think it’s really exceeded our expectations. I’m very proud of it.

Of course, what the night was all about was the team’s contributions to an enduring institution as the Cabrini Mission Foundation has served the needs of society from far and wide on behalf of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

"The support of the Nets organization to community service is a model which all professional sports franchises should emulate,” says Nick Vendikos, President & CEO, Cabrini Mission Foundation. "Just as Mother Cabrini herself assisted immigrants on the same Brooklyn streets that the Nets now call home, the organization has earmarked considerable resources to help those in need."

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