Loud noises on both coasts — hosannas in New York, wails of despair in Los Angeles — are coming from basketball fans today after Phil Jackson was hired as president of the New York Knicks. But the move isn’t just about games. Investors wonder whether the Zen master, coach of 11 NBA champions, star player on two others, will help not just the Knicks but also its parent the Madison Square Garden Company?
Executive Chairman Jim Dolan, whose family controls MSG as well as Cablevision and AMC Networks, introduced his new team president at a news conference this morning at the Garden. He says his pal Irving Azoff — the longtime personal manager (Eagles, Steely Dan, Christina Aguilera) and CEO of recently launched partnership Azoff MSG Entertainment – introduced him to Jackson in December at a party at his house.
Dolan and long-despairing Knicks fans hope that Jackson at least will help improve the mindset at a franchise that hasn’t won an NBA championship since 1973, when Jackson played there. Although the team usually plays to nearly full houses, its anemic performance on the court has hurt MSG networks’ ratings and ad sales, execs said last month. Maxim Group analyst John Tinker wonders whether the Knicks’ disappointing season will “make it harder to raise ticket prices materially.” All Jackson has to do to please fans is help the team to consistently make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference.
Shareholders might be harder to impress. MSG’s shares have been virtually stagnant during the past 12 months, appreciating just 5.3% while the NASDAQ generally was up 33.4%. MSG just shook up its leadership, bumping longtime president and CEO Hank Ratner to vice chairman and replacing him with Tad Smith, a Cablevision exec who once ran the Reed Elsevier unit that formerly owned Deadline corporate sibling Variety. MSG also hung a “for sale” sign on its Fuse network, which recently attracted a$200 million bid from Sean Combs.
Investors seemed mildly pleased today by Jackson’s move. MSG stock closed +1.2%, roughly in line with NASDAQ. The company also owns the NHL’s New York Rangers, New York’s WNBA and Hartford’s minor-league hockey teams; cable networks including the MSG Network, which carries the Knicks and Rangers games; and other live venues, including the Lakers’ former home, the Forum in Inglewood.
As for the Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson says it would have taken “Moses, or maybe Mohammed” to lead the injury-riddled team to respectability this year. Still, fans believe that the man who coached the Lakers to five championships might have stayed if its owners, the Buss family, had brought him into their corporate fold. Lakers ratings have plunged in a bad year, coming about 18 months after the team signed a lucrative cable deal to anchor Time Warner Cable’s SportsNet channel.