The New York Times
Published: October 16, 2010
BEIJING — Brett Yormark is talking about the incredible global marketing potential of the New Jersey Nets, a concept — New Jersey, the Nets and global marketing potential — that might seem unlikely until you hear his pitch, and remember that two years from now, they will probably be the New York Nets.
“The upside on this team is incredible,” Yormark, the team’s tenaciously upbeat chief executive, said during an interview last week at the hotel where the Nets were staying, awaiting the first of two preseason matchups with the Houston Rockets during their weeklong visit to China.
“I’ve been in the business now for 20-plus years,” Yormark said, “and I don’t think there’s a franchise in any sport right now that has the type of clarity and ‘runway,’ as I call it, over the course of the next couple of years, as we do.”
The games against the Rockets and their home-country favorite Yao Ming represented a baby step in the team’s global strategy. Days before, the Nets visited Red Square and held a basketball clinic for Russian children in the home city of their new majority owner, Mikhail D Prokhorov, the former nickel-mining tycoon turned financier and nanotechnology magnate.
Next spring, the Nets will play the Toronto Raptors twice in London, uniting three of the world’s great Anglophone nations (not to mention French-Canadians) in the NBA’s first regular-season games in Europe. If the N.B.A. wants more overseas matchups, Yormark said, “obviously, I’m going to raise my hand.”
Should all of this come together in a few years, the Nets would have pulled off something no other N.B.A. team could boast: transforming a downtrodden franchise into something akin to the Manchester Unitedof global basketball. If not, they will still be the Nets, the team that went 12-70 last season and holds the record for the longest opening-season losing streak in N.B.A. history.
Yormark earnestly insists that those Nets no longer exist, and that the building blocks for a renaissance are in place.
In Prokhorov, the frontcourt-tall (between 6 feet 6 inches and 6-9), 45-year-old owner of 80 percent of the team, the Nets have some of basketball’s deepest pockets. Prokhorov, Russia’s second-richest man, with a fortune that Forbes magazine this year estimated at $13.4 billion, has pledged to turn the franchise around in five years or less. He has a track record: a Prokhorov-owned team, CSKA, in Russia’s basketball league won European championships in two of four years.
On the court, the Nets have 12 new players; a new general manager, Billy King; and a new coach, Avery Johnson, who led the Dallas Mavericks to their first N.B.A. finals appearance in 2006. On the ground, the team has the promise of moving into a $700 million basketball palace in Brooklyn, partly financed by Prokhorov, after spending the next two seasons at Newark’s Prudential Center.
“Brooklyn’s a global brand,” Yormark said. “It’s the heartbeat of America. It’s a melting pot for anyone who comes to the U.S. — you’ve got an incredible Russian community there, for example. Over the next two years in Newark, we’ll gain a lot of traction. And then hopefully when we get to Brooklyn, we’ll be ready to just take off. And that’s the goal.”
Like the Nets, a number of global corporate entities have bought into Prokhorov’s vision. Barclay’s Bank, a British company with operations in 50 nations but a low American profile, bought the naming rights to the new Brooklyn arena. Haier, a Chinese state-owned company that is the world’s fourth-biggest appliance maker but is relatively unknown outside China, is another sponsor. So is Willis & Company, an Irish insurance broker. So is Stolichnaya vodka, the arena’s official vodka.
The N.B.A. is a phenomenon here, and outside the Four Seasons last week, Chinese fans were eagerly seeking autographs from N.B.A. players. But here, at least, some people steeped in basketball doubted that the Nets’ global strategy, carefully bolted together as it might be, would work. Chinese fans, they said, do not care whether a team is beloved in Moscow or in East Orange, N.J. They just want it to win.
“There isn’t major loyalty to one team here; it all depends on their performance,” said one official of a Shanghai-based sports-marketing firm, who declined to allow his name to be used. “They like a winner, a hero. Michael Jordan leading the Bull’s; they were very popular here.”
And Yao, of course, leading the Rockets in his early years from an also-ran to a contender. Plagued by foot injuries, Yao is probably in the final stages of his career. His likeliest successor in Chinese hearts — the forward Yi Jianlian — wore a Nets jersey for two seasons but was traded to the Washington Wizards in an effort to free up money for a franchise-making name player.
Instead, the Nets came up empty, and without the name player for the Chinese market that is part of their global strategy.
“I think they made a mistake,” said Zhang Weiping, a former Chinese basketball league star who now is the color commentator for basketball on the state television network CCTV — including the Nets games here. “If you have your country’s players, a lot of fans will pay attention to that. But then they trade Yi to the Wizards. I don’t think a lot of people will watch the New Jersey Nets.”
Yormark seems undeterred. If the Nets turn around as expected, he said, that ferment of global sponsors, global playing sites and global ownership will begin to pay off in global fan loyalty.
“I don’t think you need a foreign player to go global,” he said. “What you need is a team that’s recognizable worldwide, and with that will come further recognition of our players.”
Yormark added: “We had Brook Lopez in Red Square in Russia; he’s going to be a more recognizable face there. Brook Lopez is appearing in newspapers all over China now, as is Devin Harris and some of our other players. As the team gets better — as they get more visibility in some of these markets — they’ll become global stars and will become more recognizable.”
Perhaps. But not last week, and not in Beijing. On Wednesday night, the Nets met the Rockets in what could have been a matchup between Yi against Yao. But Yi was gone. And the Nets lost, 91-81.
Kevin Martin scored 16 points and Yao Ming added 10 in front of the home crowd in Guangzhou, China, on Saturday to help the Houston Rockets beat the Nets, 95-85, in a preseason game.
The game was a local showcase for Yao, who is easing back from foot surgery after sitting out last season. He looked sharp under the basket with several deft hook shots during 18 minutes on the court. The Nets’ Brook Lopez led all scorers with 20 points.
Yao finished 5 of 8 from the field and added five rebounds — enough to be selected the game’s most valuable player. The crowd chanted his name as he left the game with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.