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Knicks Fans Shouldn't Take This Insult

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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New York Knicks owner James Dolan probably deals with disgruntled fans all the time. You'd think he'd be a little better at it.

Dolan responded to an angry but fair note from a self-described "Knicks fan since 1952" -- "I am utterly embarrassed by your dealings with the Knicks" -- with a harsh e-mail that took personal shots at the man. In the e-mail, published by Deadspin, Dolan speculates that the fan might be an alcoholic and concludes that he should "start rooting for the Nets because the Knicks don't want you."

It should go without saying that this is a completely inappropriate way for any owner to address a fan. Yet, according to the New York Post, NBA commissioner Adam Silver decided not to discipline Dolan for an e-mail that one suspects would have garnered a suspension and fine had it come from a player or coach. 

But it's even more egregious coming from Dolan, who has long faced criticism over the way he has run the Knicks. Despite futility on the court and a pattern of mismanagement, longtime Knicks fans remain fiercely loyal -- as reflected in the team's bottom line. The Knicks haven't made a deep playoff run since 2000. 

Yet according to Forbes's NBA franchise valuations (published before the $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Clippers), the franchise ranks second in value in the league. Meanwhile, shares in the Madison Square Garden Co. have risen steadily, up 255 percent over five years.

On the face, it seems Dolan can continue to get away with terrible ownership as long as Knicks fans continue to be invested in the team. Knicks tickets are the most expensive in the NBA, with an average price of $129.38. Even with their high price and the vastly inferior product the team is putting out on the court this season, ticket sales haven't suffered much, if at all. According to Basketball-Reference, Madison Square Garden boasts the fifth-highest attendance in the NBA.

All this might lead Dolan to think that, much like the NFL, he's too big to fail. But this is short-term thinking, and there is cause for concern. For one, gate receipts increasingly have less impact on a team's worth than television revenue, especially in the country's largest media market and considering the NBA's new blockbuster broadcast deal. Yet the Knicks' ratings have plummeted this year year, "down double digits in all key demographics," according to the New York Daily News's Bob Raissman.

There's more reason to worry in the long term, and it has everything to do with the crosstown rival Dolan so flippantly steered his e-mail critic toward. Knicks games might remain the hot ticket thanks to the loyalty of lifelong fans and their status for New York's corporate elite. But among transplants, outer-borough residents and New Yorkers without a strong connection to the Knicks, the Brooklyn Nets offer an attractive alternative that might threaten the future vitality of Dolan's enterprise. It's true that the Nets front office is currently nearly as big a mess as the Knicks', but as Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan notes, Brooklyn's success has been not in basketball, but in branding.

Given their place in the city's identity, the Knicks will probably remain the city's top team for the indefinite future. But Dolan would be wise not to challenge a fan base of New Yorkers that has been uncharacteristically forgiving of failure to this point. In a city with a population as transient as New York's, Knickdom will continue to shrink in a relative way with every new condo developed in Bushwick.

(Updates with report of NBA decision not to punish Dolan in third paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net