By Neil deMause
The New York Rangers and Knicks opened their regular season schedules this week, giving fans willing to shell out for opening-night tickets -- now averaging $72 for the Rangers, and a staggering $123 for the Knicks -- the chance to get a first look at the $1 billion in renovations that were just completed to Madison Square Garden.
I wasn't in attendance for either game (my line of credit was denied), but the Interweb is filled with photo evidence: expanded concessions concourses, featuring every kind of gourmet meat you could want; curvy new video screens; a display of vintage Zambonis and most noticeably, a new seating section that hangs from the roof, because apparently Knicks fans have been clamoring either for a way to watch the game between their feet, or for a way to spill their beers directly on Spike Lee's head.
It's all maybe less than overwhelmingly exciting -- Knicks fans might be forgiven if they'd have preferred MSG installed a point guard -- but exactly the kind of glitz sports fans have come to expect in a world where teams are competing to be first to install vibrating seats. And if nothing else, what MSG officials portentously call "the Transformation" should keep the Knicks and Rangers (and the WNBA Liberty, who will return to MSG next summer after three years in construction-related exile in Newark) happy to remain in the NBA's second-oldest arena, as the press release read over the arena P.A. put it on opening night, "well into the future."
Except, of course, for the part where the entire arena, lock, stock and sky bridges, could be evicted 10 years from now.
The prospect of the World's Most Famous Arena having the rug pulled out from under it first emerged this spring, after New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman noticed MSG's 50-year special zoning permit that allowed the arena to be built atop the underground Penn Station train platforms back in the 1960s was set to expire. (The much-loved Penn Station itself was demolished in the process, an event that launched dozens of books and helped lead to the city's first landmarks law.) Soon, the Regional Plan Association and the Municipal Art Society -- two venerable city policy think tanks that are locally known as good-government groups, or "goo-goos" -- had taken up the task, quietly pushing for the city to refuse MSG a permit renewal, if by "quietly" you mean by getting a New York Times editorial and most prominent local officials to speak out in favor of eviction. The city council renewed the permit in July, but limited it to 10 years, with the clear warning that come 2023, the Garden's time would run out.
The problem, according to RPA spokesperson Wendy Pollack, is that when the Garden was built in the 1960s, entombing the train station underneath it, rail transit was thought to be the stuff of the distant past. Instead, Penn Station is now packed to the gills with commuters, in a space designed for a small fraction of their numbers.
At the same time, says Pollack, "There was a time when in New York we just took for granted that there were a lot of places that were crappy, be it Times Square or areas along the Hudson River. They were no-go zones." Today, of course, Times Square is a pixel-plated tourist hellscape of massively successful proportions, and Pollack's group believes that the area around Penn Station could be similarly transformed (OK, she didn't actually say "hellscape") with a shiny new train station at its center. Which would only be possible if the Knicks and Rangers would kindly move their butts elsewhere.
It's a sensible enough argument, except insofar as it requires that a newly renovated sports arena should be razed as soon as possible and rebuilt elsewhere, in order that commuters can enjoy higher ceilings on their way home to the suburbs. That's a problem not just for fans of the Knicks and Rangers, or of sports history (though given that this is the fourth building to bear the MSG name, one suspects the Garden could easily enough pick up its history and take it elsewhere), but because if you tear this one down, you have to pay to build a new one.
The foofaraw over the permit extension, in fact, has obscured an equally puzzling question, which is how on earth MSG is expecting to earn back enough from all those high-end brisket joints and sky seats to make $1 billion in renovations worth their while. It would take at least $100 million a year in new revenue for the Garden to turn a respectable profit on the Transformation. (Which really should allow for the arena to turn into a five-story battle robot at the touch of a button. But I digress.) Both the Rangers and Knicks have inched up ticket prices in recent years, but with at best a little less than 2 million fannies in seats per year, they'd have to double ticket prices to earn it back that way. And even New York sports fans can only eat so much brisket.
The most logical way of looking at the de-frumpification of MSG, then, is as a kind of loss leader: MSG may not make an extra billion dollars off the renovations, but in the wake of the opening of Brooklyn's Barclays Center and Newark's Prudential Center, it's the only way to remain on the top of the tri-state arena heap -- which now sports a ridiculous five full-sized arenas, six if you count Bridgeport, Conn. If sky bridges are what it takes to get Taylor Swift to keep playing your venue into her dotage and keep your teams' cable ratings ahead of the guys from Brooklyn, then sky bridges it shall be.
Because that's one key thing to remember here: No matter how much anyone tries to make it sound like the fate of MSG is about first-class amenities, whether for sports fans or train passengers, in the end it's all about the money. After all, the last time the Garden's owners embarked on a renovation, in the 1980s, they used the threat of a move to New Jersey to get a temporary exemption from paying property taxes -- an exemption that the state cleverly neglected to put an end date on, resulting in a tax break that by now has cost city taxpayers $306 million in total, according to the city Independent Budget Office.
Pollack says she doesn't want to speculate on the cost of building a new Penn Station and relocating MSG. But given New York's sky-high construction costs, and the fact that if there's one thing that needs to sit on top of a rail hub even more than a train station, it's a sports arena that needs to get 20,000 people in and out of one place at one time, we're clearly talking well over a billion dollars here -- money that MSG is going to be loath to spend itself.
And if it takes time to find a billion simoleons under the Manhattan sofa cushions, that's OK, because the other key here is: Don't worry about the clock. The permit may expire in 2023, but there's nothing magic about that number; as we've seen in numerous other manufactured crises around stadium deadlines, leases are made to be extended. The city could technically order the Knicks and Rangers to vacate the premises after 10 years, says Independent Budget Office chief of staff Doug Turetsky -- "theoretically, they could ask them to tear it down" -- but far more likely is that the city will use this as leverage to get the Garden's owners to start thinking about moving elsewhere whenever the shine wears off the new scoreboards.
If that eventually takes a decade or two or more, so be it. After all, notes Turetsky, "Even if the city went to court and tried to make them move, who knows how long that would take? The Knicks might win another championship by then."
Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.