Q&A: 'Transforming The Garden Feels Like Changing Tires On A Moving Car'

By Barry Janoff

March 13, 2012: Contrary to current popular belief, point guard Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks is not the only tenant of Madison Square Garden.

The Garden, aka the self-described "World's Most Famous Arena," is home to the NBA's Knicks, WNBA's Liberty and NHL's Rangers; hosts college basketball, including the recent Big East Tournament and the NIT semi-finals and finals; the annual BNP Parabis Tennis Showdown; and a range of sports including boxing, track & field, wrestling, Professional Bull Riders, the Harlem Globetrotters. And that does not include an array of concerts and other events, all of which keep the venue occupied for more than 250 days a year.

Madison Square Garden has been at its current location (7th Avenue between 32nd-34th Streets) since 1968. Before that, there were three previous incarnations at other Manhattan locations, dating back to 1879. Several years ago, when logistics, politics and finances ended plans to build a new arena a block away from its site, MSG executives instead embarked on an estimated $850 million renovation project.

The first phase of the "Transformation" debuted in Fall 2011. The second phase of the Transformation will be unveiled throughout the 2012-13 season. The third and final phase is expected to be completed in time for the 2013-14 season. The renovation includes improved seating and sight lines, high-tech.state-of-the-art upgrades, new food and beverage offerings and more opportunities for marketing as well as for marketing partners.

MSG's marquee partner is JPMorgan Chase. Signature partners include Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines. As part of the renovation, MSG is building the Chase Bridges (artist's rendition above), each 225-feet-plus plus in distance, that will allow fans to literally walk above an event taking place below, scheduled to be ready for the 2013-2014 basketball and hockey seasons.

The renovation comes at a time when the area in and around New York has been a hub of new sports stadium and arena openings.

MetLife Stadium debuted in 2010 as the new $1.6 billion home of the NFL's New York Giants and Jets. Located in East Rutherford, NJ, it will host Super Bowl XLVIII in February 2014.

• The new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009 as the $1.5 billion home of the The Bronx-based Yankees, located across the street from the site where the former Yankee Stadium stood since 1923.

• Citi Field opened in 2009 as the $900 million home of the Queens-based Mets in part of the parking lot of Shea Stadium, since demolished and converted into a parking field.

• Red Bulls Park opened in 2010 as the $200 million, Harrison, NJ home of the MLS Red Bulls.

Barclays Center is scheduled to open in September 2012, a $1 billion home to the relocating and soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets.

NYSportsJournalism spoke with Scott O'Neil, who has been president of MSG Sports since July 2008, about the status of the renovation and The Garden's place in sports and entertainment.

NYSportsJournalism.com: How would you describe the renovation to date?

Scott O'Neil: At times it feels as if we are changing tires on a moving car. [Laughs.] The Transformation is unique in this building, and in this city. At Madison Square Garden we have so many events happening on a regular basis. During a non-transformation year you are talking north of 250 events in a year. We went through the first phase of the transformation very successfully. The feedback we got from fans, partners and the corporate community has been positive and off the charts.

NYSJ: Do you find that Knicks fans are more vocal than Rangers fans, or vice-versa?

SO: The thing we love best about the arena and the array of events we host is that it brings different people into the building at different times for different events. A basketball fan will say Knicks, or college basketball including [the just concluded Big East Tournament] where we have 49 games a year. Hockey fans say Rangers . . .  But it's also about getting people involved in sports and not just watching them. An important part of the BNP Paribas Showdown [March 5] was to get kids interested in tennis and encourage youth tennis registration nationwide. We also have found in sports such as basketball and hockey that the younger kids get into the game, bouncing a basketball, shooting a puck, the more likely they are to attend games and buy the merchandise.

"That's the kind of recognition we want. When you look at the athletes, with this kind of star power, it gets all the partners really excited."

NYSJ: How have athletes reacted to being in The Garden?

SO: The 2012 BNP Paribas Showdown was the first time Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and Andy Roddick had actually played in Madison Square Garden. Roger Federer played here in 2008, the first time tennis returned to the Garden in eight years, [in an exhibition against Pete Sampras]. Roddick said he hadn't been at the Garden [to see an event] in over a decade. Caroline was there last month, at a Knicks game against the [Cleveland] Cavaliers. And we were talking about that, and Caroline said, 'Wow. The fans are great. They are so loud. I'm so nervous [about the BNP Paribas Showdown event].' So one of the greatest tennis players in the world who has been around the world was amazed to see the aura in the arena.

NYSJ: Do you see more tennis coming back to the Garden?

SO: The Garden used to have more tennis, but that's a pretty good line-up for that one event. The BNP Paribas Showdown has become a must-see event, and we have a great working relationship with the U.S. Tennis Assn. In this city, it is difficult to break through and have a must-see event. And if you look at our marketing partners [for the tennis event], BNP Paribas is a tremendous partner and a great supporter and sponsor of tennis. SoBe, Hugo Boss, NASDAQ, SporTime, Optimum, Rolex, Fiji Water, Wilson . . . these are partners that are into the sport and activate. That's the kind of recognition we want. And when you look at the athletes, with this kind of star power, it gets all the partners really excited.

NYSJ: How has the Jeremy Lin factor influenced situations beyond his play with the Knicks?

SO: You never want to put too much pressure on one young player, especially in a team game. But it never hurts to have someone as dynamic as him. Every metric we track has gone up: merchandise, TV ratings on MSG [cable network], Web traffic . . .  and the excitement in the building is amazing. We just signed a deal with Maxxis International [Taiwan-based tire company] and we are looking at other deals [in Asia]. We're planning a visit there within the next few weeks, and we'll be with Jeremy when he goes there this summer [as part of a tour] with Nike.

NYSJ: After the renovations are complete, will this still be The World's Most Famous Arena?

SO: Our top priority continues to be creating a world-class experience for everyone who comes into The Garden. I've said all along that The Garden will blend tradition with state-of-the-art amenities. We have a 44-year-old venue, and we will adding to its iconic stature, while preserving The Garden's great history and distinctive architecture. And I will that confirm that to you right now.

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