Liberty lifts lamp to N.J. fans, executives

Team hoping its stay in Newark attracts local sponsors

NJBIZ STAFF//May 30, 2011//

Liberty lifts lamp to N.J. fans, executives

Team hoping its stay in Newark attracts local sponsors

NJBIZ STAFF//May 30, 2011//

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What was built as a home for a professional ice hockey team has rapidly become a basketball empire.

It started with the New Jersey Nets, which shared the Prudential Center’s floor with the Seton Hall Pirates while the NBA franchise’s new home in Brooklyn, N.Y., awaits completion. Then it was the NCAA Tournament, which hosted the successful East Regionals in the Brick City. And last week, the New York Liberty held its first exhibition game to open a three-year homestand at the arena.

The WNBA’s Liberty — one of the country’s most successful women’s professional basketball teams — may have only a limited stay in New Jersey, but executives are looking to build partnerships with the Garden State’s business community, both as sponsors and season-ticket owners.

“About a third of our fan base was in New Jersey before we made the move to the Prudential Center,” said Kristin Bernert, team vice president of marketing. “We felt that given the size of the northern New Jersey market, we thought there was an opportunity to expand even more.”

The Liberty, which will play the first of 17 regular-season home games June 11, have been forced to make the temporary move due to ongoing renovations of its home of Madison Square Garden. As renovations have been limited to the summer, they will not affect the seasons of the arena’s other tenants, the New York Rangers and Knicks.
Bernert said the WNBA has been successful both with women business leaders and “dads with daughters.”

“They now have the option to not only take their daughters to men’s sports,” she said, adding that the Liberty play “incredible basketball.”

The Liberty are owned by Madison Square Garden Inc., whose MSG Sports division also includes the Knicks and Rangers. The company was spun off from Cablevision and also owns the Garden.

Scott O’Neill, MSG Sports president, said the company has a good understanding of the New Jersey market, which he called “Knicks country.” The strengths of the market include a “first-class building” in the Prudential Center, residents with high discretionary spending and large participation in youth basketball, O’Neill said.

The Liberty have been among the attendance leaders in the WNBA since the league was launched in 1997, and averaged a league-leading 11,069 fans per game last year, according to WomensBasketball

O’Neill said winning fans over to the sport is similar to the marketing work done by any business.

“We continue to be among the league leaders in the metrics that we measure,” he said, noting while the Liberty are entering their 15th season, the Rangers are 85 years old and the Knicks are 65. “It’s still a very young business. When people come see the game, they always come back. It’s a wonderful sport to watch. That’s what you see on a day-to-day basis.”

While the WNBA has a devoted fan base, its economic scale is minimal when compared to its male counterpart. Team salaries are capped at roughly $800,000, with player salaries ranging from $36,570 to $103,500, which also means ticket prices are cheaper — Liberty individual game tickets range from $10 to $250.

The Liberty went 22-12 in 2010, and while the team hasn’t yet won a championship, it was runner-up in four of the league’s first six seasons.

Meanwhile, while the Liberty’s front office works to build a New Jersey following, Prudential Center executives are catering to the Manhattan fan base, emphasizing the arena’s short distance from the Garden — a 15-minute train ride from Penn Station, which is beneath Madison Square Garden.

The strategy depends heavily on fans using mass transit, though the arena said more than half of New Jersey Devils hockey fans ride the train or bus to get to Newark.

Prudential Center Chairman Jeff Vanderbeek said the new relationship would bring several benefits to the arena.

“More people will come to our arena during what is historically a slow time for arenas,” Vanderbeek said of the summer, with the Liberty’s regular season lasting until early September.

Vanderbeek said the arena has had success when it has drawn new fans, such as the women’s basketball fan demographic.

“They say, ‘Oh, my God, we haven’t seen anything like it,’ and they come back for something else,” he said.

Prudential Center officials expect the arena to be third in the country this year in the number of high-level basketball games it hosts. And Newark Mayor Cory Booker and others have expressed optimism that the arena will attract a permanent NBA team after the Nets decamp for Brooklyn.

“The more basketball we play, the more successful” the arena is seen as a basketball venue, Vanderbeek said. “You have to believe it’s a step in the right direction.”

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