The first-place New York Knicks, off to the franchise’s best start since 1972, have strengthened their team and brand since overnight sensation Jeremy Lin last played at Madison Square Garden.
Lin, 24, became a National Basketball Association phenomenon in February, taking over as a starter and leading the Knicks to seven straight wins while helping attract sponsorships from a pair of Taiwanese companies.
He returns to New York tonight for the first time since the Knicks declined to match a three-year, $25 million contract offer from the Houston Rockets during the offseason, after which neither of those sponsorship deals was renewed.
Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the arena and the Knicks, meanwhile has expanded its sponsorship portfolio in the past few months, adding partnerships with Kia Motors Corp. and Lexus, spokeswoman Stacey Escudero said in an e-mail. The Knicks are 18-5, two games ahead of LeBron James and the defending-champion Miami Heat atop the Eastern Conference standings.
“You’re in New York and you’re winning,” NBA TV analyst Steve Smith said last week in a conference call. “When you start winning, the sponsorships obviously come back.”
While tickets rose to an average of $491.65 per game during the height of “Linsanity,” there is less demand to see Lin for his only trip to the Garden this season, according to ticket-aggregator TiqIQ.
The average resale listing for tonight’s game is $329.63, according to the website, just 1.06 percent above New York’s league-high $326.17 home average, the website said. It ranks 21st among the team’s 41 home dates.
“Knicks fans have obviously gotten over the fact the team didn’t re-sign the fan favorite this offseason, probably due to the fact the team is 18-5 and playing really well,” TiqIQ spokesman Chris Matcovich said yesterday in an e-mail.
Lin, a graduate of Harvard University and the first Taiwanese- or Chinese-American to play in the NBA, became a global sensation in February after taking over as the starting point guard and leading the Knicks on a winning streak.
He earned praise from President Barack Obama; a new flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and Modell’s Sporting Goods Inc. received daily shipments of gear to satisfy demand for Lin merchandise. The attention was even credited with helping to settle a price dispute between Madison Square Garden Co. and Time Warner Cable Inc.
Lin also became a marketing force, with broadcasters in Asia adding more Knicks games to their schedules. Coca-Cola Co. posted advertisements in Chinese to its courtside signs at the Garden, and the Knicks signed sponsorship deals with Taiwan-based companies Maxxis International and Acer Inc.
Despite the fact that neither of those sponsorships was renewed once Lin departed, former Sacramento Kings forward and NBA TV analyst Chris Webber said the Knicks’ brand is stronger than it was in February because of their early success.
“Lin is a good player, but you don’t want your brand to be the story about a good player,” Webber said last week in a conference call. “That story would have had no extension this year, and I think they’ve proven that they have a team-first brand.”
While losing Lin, New York added Jason Kidd, a 39-year-old guard; 38-year-old center Marcus Camby; 38-year-old forward Rasheed Wallace, and re-signed guard J.R. Smith, 27. The Knicks are scoring 103.2 points per game, best in the conference, while averaging a league-low 10.6 turnovers per contest.
Lexus joined Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, Delta Air Lines Inc. and Coca-Cola as a Signature Partner this year, according to Escudero. The Knicks have sold out 76 consecutive home games and 2012-13 season tickets sold out for the third straight year, she said. The Garden is two thirds through a $1 billion renovation.
Lin is averaging 10.8 points with a team-high 6.0 assists per game this season. He is third among Western Conference guards in All-Star voting, trailing Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Associated Press reported last week.
Lin told reporters yesterday that he was excited to gain closure tonight.
“If I were to be realistic, there will probably be some nostalgia and reminiscing and thankful for those times because those were some great times, but at the same time it’s the next chapter,” he said after Houston’s 103-96 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
Webber said he would not be surprised if Lin received a standing ovation from Knicks fans when he is introduced tonight.
“The Knicks weren’t any fun watching last year -- he was the bright spot,” Webber said. “So if I were a season ticket holder last year, I would make sure I thanked him.”
-- Editors: Rob Gloster, Dan Baynes