The Barclays Center: An Economic Snapshot

Our final project this semester is to write an economic snapshot of a neighborhood in NYC. I chose to evaluate the Barclays Center, the new entertainment and sports arena built in Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.

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Barclays Center Pinpoints Local Winners and Losers in Business

By Sonya Chudgar

A Darwinian evolution transpired in 1962 on New York’s Upper West Side, a neighborhood so rough, it was cast as the lead antagonist in West Side Story. When local leaders unveiled the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Upper West Side turned to mirror the Center’s classy endeavors, reducing its grit throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s in favor of gentrification.

The Lincoln Center is just one historical example of a facility that ignites urban cleanup in the neighborhood it anchors. Next on history’s list may be the Barclays Center.

The Barclays Center opened in late September in Atlantic Yards, a community announced in 2003 by Forest City Ratner. The development firm championed the $1 billion Barclays Center as a rebirth for Brooklyn. The entertainment and sports arena repositioned the NBA Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn, and the NHL’s New York Islanders agreed to join the venue in 2015.

Underlying the announcement was the promise of economic development, from the 300,000 square feet of proposed retail space to the boost incumbent businesses would afford.

But weeks after the arena’s opening, several empty storefronts and “out of business” signs dominate Flatbush Avenue to the Center’s right, illuminating one silent truth in Forest City Ratner’s proposal: While the Barclays Center will spur economic development, it will fundamentally change the nature of businesses that can succeed in its vicinity.

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Changing the Economic Landscape

Unlike the Upper West Side, Atlantic Yards was not born on mean streets. Instead, it meets at the cusp of three Brooklyn neighborhoods: Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and Fort Greene. The brownstone and gentrification revolution swept through the area as it did much of Brooklyn in the late ‘50s. Families swayed by the region’s architectural character, diversity, smaller scale, and local businesses moved in and settled into a residential routine there.

The Barclays Center is turning the routine upside down, says Gib Veconi, treasurer of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council.

“You might have expected a small business to come in, entrepreneurs to come in, everything else,” Veconi says. “Instead, it’s really the landlords and the national brands that will move in there that are going to be the most benefited.”

Listen to Gib Veconi’s take on the Barclays Center and check out some photos of the area!

The Center lies on a patch of land between two distinct avenues. On the left corridor is Atlantic Avenue, where a haven of national brands such as Target, Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW), Best Buy, and Victoria’s Secret prosper.

National brands dominate Atlantic Avenue to the right of the Barclays Center.

National brands dominate Atlantic Avenue to the right of the Barclays Center.

Across the street on Flatbush Avenue, the Barclays Center is driving rents up and small businesses out.

“If they increase my rent, I gotta leave,” says A.B. Fulani, owner of an eponymous shop that has sold men’s suits and high-end clothing on Flatbush Avenue for 15 years.

“I’ve been around a long time,” Fulani says. “I knew when [the Barclays Center] opened that it wouldn’t be good. It’s not doing me good so far. I’m not getting the same people that I used to get.”

Veconi says rents surrounding the Barclays Center are hitting $175 per square foot, “which is huge.” Retail rents are usually $5-10 per square foot in the area, according to property listings.

At the Furniture House on 170 Flatbush Ave., owner Ruben Mesa regards the arena with narrowed eyes.

Across the street, Flatbush Avenue has fewer prosperous businesses.

Across the street, Flatbush Avenue has fewer prosperous businesses.

“Well, I’m moving,” says Mesa, whose store has been a staple of the neighborhood since 1991. “So, that’s the story—and it’s because of that.” He points at the Barclays Center sitting 30 feet across the road.

Joy Mesa, Ruben’s wife, says she hopes they find a Brooklyn storefront to relocate to, though she’s not hopeful, given the climbing rents.

“A lot of people will tell you, ‘Oh, you’re getting business because you’re near the Barclays Center!’ But no, we’re not,” she says. “It depends on what your business is. If you’re a restaurant or a bar, then yes, you probably are. But us? Not a furniture shop.”

The ultimate victor of Atlantic Yards is Bruce Ratner, whose firm built the complex. Ratner’s is worth about $400 million, according to USA Today, and he earned another $200 million for selling majority ownership of the Brooklyn Nets to Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov. His nonchalant stance in seizing Brooklyn’s eminent domain outraged locals.

The press office at the Barclays Center did not respond to requests for comment.

Brooklyn President Marty Markowitz has been one of the staunch proponents of the Barclays Center since the beginning, galvanized by the arena’s ability to elevate the status of the borough and rejuvenate business in the area.

The Furniture House on 170 Flatbush Ave.

The Furniture House on 170 Flatbush Ave.

“Of course, I remain optimistic that this project will create thousands of jobs and bring much needed affordable housing and even more vitality to downtown Brooklyn,” he said when the new Barclays Center design was announced in 2009.

But for business owners such as Fulani and Mesa, the Barclays Center has been a misery.

Veconi says the neighborhood dynamic will shift from family folk to those chasing the nightlife, as developers commercialize with the fervor of a child quenching a sweet tooth.

“It’s going to feel very different over there,” he explains. “It’s going to be like something that will resemble SoHo or the Upper West Side than what’s been traditional in brownstone Brooklyn.”

The pivot is already in motion, eradicating mom-and-pop businesses and uplifting the food and beverage industry.

The Winners

Logan Bowles is manager at gourmet falafel restaurant Kulushkät on Dean Street, a block from Flatbush Avenue. He says business has improved since Barlcays opened last month, adding that nearby bars now blow up with customers during big sports games.

Business has increased 50 percent at the Cake Ambiance, a pastry shop on Dean Street with sprinkle cupcakes and red-velvet-cheesecake mélanges.

“Especially after games or shows or whatever, people come out and buy,” says manager Modupe Gonzalez.

Rent has not increased yet at the Cake Ambiance. Gonzalez says she expects it will soon, though the store has no plans to relocate regardless of a rent hike.

A handmade shirt from Brooklyn Rock.

A handmade shirt from Brooklyn Rock.

Another beneficiary of the Barclays Center is Brooklyn-centric shopping.

Yukiko Wada and husband Chris Smith own the apparel store Brooklyn Rock on Dean Street. From the teal exterior to the multicolored lights dangling off the wall, their shop oozes flair.

Everything in the store is handmade by Wada and Smith. Humor radiates from the products, from mugs that quip “I got mugged in Brooklyn” to shirts that depict the Brooklyn Nets as hunters who wield butterfly nets and chase basketball players.

The shop’s native appeal made it an attractive investment to the building’s owner, Wada says.

“I’m sure the arena has driven up rent, but our landlord wanted the right business here,” she explains. “We’re Brooklyn made. He wanted to try to get artists and neighborhood people [into the store].”

Yukiko Wada shows off the Brooklyn-centric apparel at her store.

Yukiko Wada shows off the Brooklyn-centric apparel at her store.

Success stories such as Brooklyn Rock and the Cake Ambiance support the views of Veconi and Markowitz. The two differ in their opinions on the Barclays Center, but both are exact about its impact: it will transform the businesses that succeed in Atlantic Yards whilst growing into Brooklyn’s entertainment heart.

“Think about all the jobs that the arena will generate for the businesses that provide services to Barclays Center, and all the shops and restaurants will be booming thanks to the hundreds of thousands of visitors flocking to this arena,” Markowitz said in September at the Barclays Center ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Until the gentrification is complete, though, the defeated business owners on Flatbush Avenue will dwell under the shadow of the Barclays Center.

Case Study: How to Solve a PR Mess, Starring the NYC Marathon

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A few weeks ago, I posted my story about the cancelation of the New York City marathon and the subsequent fallout, both for runners and for the brand as a whole. The Wall Street Journal had a nice follow-up last week about what challenges the New York Road Runners, who put on the marathon, will face as a result of the cancelation.

For my story, I spoke to Cheryl Snapp Conner, founder and managing partner of public relations agency Snapp Conner PR. We’ll examine transcript of her email, which details how big organizations should always have a plan B in place and speak openly and honestly to its constituents, and compare it to the reporting by the WSJ and what the NYRR is doing to clean up its mess.

According to the WSJ:

  • People familiar with the situation said the negotiations with Lloyd’s and the members of its syndicate have prompted the running club, known as the NYRR, to keep its public statements to a minimum about potential refunds for runners and other partners in the race.

This directly violates the advice of Snapp Conner:

As a general rule, communicating to their constituents quickly and honestly, even if they didn’t have all the answers, would have made a world of difference.

Post race, there is still much that could be done. They could post a blog or create a mechanism to answer as many questions as possible in a forum that all could access rather then having phones ring unanswered.

According to the WSJ:

  • A person familiar with the Lloyd’s deliberations said the company already has authorized a “large payment,” a sign that it has acknowledged liability, even though the running club and the city decided to cancel a race that could have been held. The person said Lloyd’s is still working with NYRR officials regarding the size of the payment, and a significant disagreement remains …

What would Snapp Conner say to this?

 The aftermath will surely be financially devastating and cause layoffs and lack of support … But the best thing they could do, from a PR standpoint, is to enact a re-start- speak openly and candidly about where they fell down and what they’ll do differently as a re-emerged organization to ensure they emerge stronger and never have to re-learn these lessons again.

Finally, from the WSJ:

  • The NYRR doesn’t have enough money to refund all the investments made in the race by runners, sponsors, broadcasters and the travel partners who arranged trips for foreign participants, said an official familiar with the organization’s finances.
  • Complicating matters, however, is that unlike most sporting events, the marathon has a clear no-refund policy, even if severe weather forces organizers to cancel the race.
  • After canceling the marathon, Ms. Wittenberg promised the event’s runners entry into next year’s race or the New York City half-marathon in March. But the running club can’t offer free entry until it knows how much money it will be able to recoup from Lloyd’s and its syndicate members.

Perhaps the most important bit of Snapp Conner’s advice applies to the three problems outlined above:

There is much the NYRR could have done better and differently regarding the cancelling of the race. From the moment the storm struck (and even before – an organization this substantial should always have at least a template PR plan in place) the organization should have realized there was at least some chance they’d be forced to cancel and thought through the plans.

Looking at Plan B’s such as an out and back course from the finish line? Paying to bring in their own support to allow all but a few police to stay on task in the lower burroughs? Postponing by a few weeks? All of this should have been considered….

Hotels booked, fees paid, legs stretched, Marathon canceled.

My BER class at NYU started an online publication a couple of weeks ago to cover how the New York City area is getting back to business after Hurricane Sandy. I wrote a story about the fallout of the cancelation of the NYC marathon, consulting runners, the New York Road Runners, a PR expert, and marathon supporters. The consensus? The cancelation sure was a suspicious one.

Chicago resident Andrea Hutchins planned to run the NYC marathon this year, but when she found out the race was cancelled she and her friends and family went to Staten Island and helped a NYC Police officer start rebuilding his home in Midland Beach.Photo Credit: Andrea Hutchins

Chicago resident Andrea Hutchins planned to run the NYC marathon this year, but when she found out the race was cancelled she and her friends and family went to Staten Island and helped a NYC Police officer start rebuilding his home in Midland Beach.
Photo Credit: Andrea Hutchins

By Sonya Chudgar

As news broke of the decision to cancel the New York City Marathon late on Friday, Nov. 2, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many runners grieved.

“I got a little emotional,” said Chicago resident Emily Hutchins, 32, who had trained for the marathon since March. “And then I just lost it. You don’t even think about the fact of the race itself. You think about the time and the energy you spent training for it, to get there, and of course, the money.”

The marathon brings a minimum of $340 million to the city annually. With most of the race’s 47,500 runners and their supporters already in the city by Friday evening, 36 hours from the race, some wondered whether NYC leaders held off on a cancellation after Sandy in order to capitalize as much as possible.

The lack of communication about future plans from the race organizer — the New York Road Runners — further frustrated runners, leaving a massive branding problem on the hands of the NYRR, its president Mary Wittenberg and its biggest sponsor, ING Financial Services.

The Suspicious Cancellation

The former treasurer of the New Orleans Track Club, Bonnie McAfee, 56, flew to New York on Friday before the cancellation decision was made. She traveled from Pensacola, Fla., with her husband, Scott Hoxie, who planned to run the marathon.

“The NYRR, they’re the same as any local track club, except for the fact that they’re like a normal track club on steroids,” McAfee said, adding, “[The NYRR] works with big numbers—millions and millions of dollars instead of, maybe, hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Total revenue for the NYRR was more than $1.7 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011. The organization hiked up the cost to enter this year’s race by $60, asking $216 from NYRR members, $255 from non-members living in the U.S. and $347 from international applicants. It cited rising police costs as the impetus. 

Communication from the NYRR about the fallout—why the marathon was canceled so late and whether runners will be refunded or at least grandfathered into next year’s race—has been sparse.

A press release issued by the marathon’s organizers and Mayor Bloomberg cited a couple reasons for canceling the event, including the controversy of holding a race so soon after the storm and the marathon’s distraction from recovery work.

Few runners first learned of the eleventh hour cancellation directly from the NYRR. Hutchins heard it on CNN and got an official email a couple hours later. McAfee and her husband learned of it when they went to pick up his race package at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on the West side of Manhattan.

McAfee said the city should have figured out some way to hold the marathon, perhaps by moving the location.

In a request for comment on this article, the NYRR responded with its latest message to runners—a three-paragraph statement that said the cancellation was an unprecedented event, the NYRR’s priority it to address runners’ concerns and that it is working out the details.

Cheryl Snapp Conner, founder and managing partner of public relations agency Snapp Conner PR, said the NYRR should have realized it might be forced to cancel and thought through a Plan B.

“An organization this substantial should always have at least a template PR plan in place,” she said in an email.

Runners

But with no apparent plan to fall back on, the NYRR’s muddled actions left runners and supporters puzzled. Some began drawing their own conclusions.

“I’m thinking maybe what happened was, intentionally or unintentionally, Bloomberg got the $340 million because people were already there,” McAfee said.

She said she’d had a bad feeling since she arrived at LaGuardia Airport on Friday.

“We find out the first thing is that there’s a ration on gas. And our shuttle is going to be three hours late, ‘cause he’s sitting in New Jersey getting gas,” she said. “That’s the first indication that things were not hunky-dory in New York.”

Her journey to the marathon cost about $4,000.

Andrea Hutchins, 36, flew from Michigan to NYC to support her sister Emily in her first marathon.

“I think my sister, in a way, felt like a jerk for even being in New York,” she said. “We really saw that folks on Staten Island and elsewhere were really upset the marathon was going to happen … It probably would’ve been better if they had announced it sooner, because with the subways and everything not running and power down everywhere, we question why the decision was so late.”

The Hutchins sisters flew to New York with their parents and a friend on Nov. 2, with Emily offering to pay for everyone’s travel expenses and two hotel rooms in Brooklyn. She said the trip put her out $4,500.

The NYRR faced massive backlash from runners, many of whom flew in internationally and complained of the group’s irresponsible and negligent actions. McAfee looked into filing a class action lawsuit, inspired by a group of French runners who are doing the same.

“I think it’s caused a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of people from out of the country,” she said. “It makes me embarrassed, almost, being American. I wouldn’t handle a race like that.”

ING Financial Services, the marathon’s biggest supporter, also came under heat from aggravated marathoners. Some accused the race’s title sponsor of putting its monetary interests before New Yorkers’, despite the fact that city officials ultimately controlled the cancellation.

The NYRR pledged $1 million to Sandy relief efforts, or $26.20 for each runner, with the creation of its 2012 ING New York City Marathon Race to Recover Fund. ING donated $500,000 to the fund.

Another group of disappointed runners went after Mary Wittenberg, the NYRR president. They took issue with her salary of half a million dollars and her Tweets: “2012 INGNYCM will b run 2 show the vitality & spirit of NYC,” she sent out on Oct. 31. “Run 2 aid in recovery & show NYC will be back stronger than ever.”

Recovery

Contrary to Wittenberg’s Tweet, many runners agreed that canceling the race was the correct thing to do, especially as residents in lower Manhattan, coastal Brooklyn and Staten Island who were displaced by the hurricane had tried and failed to get hotels in the city that were booked by the marathon crowd.

“That was frustrating, to have just gotten there and just have it canceled,” Andrea Hutchins said. “But it put us in the place that I think we were supposed to be.”

Hutchins, like many runners and supporters, joined in an effort called New York Runners in Support of Staten Island. The association went live on Facebook shortly after the marathon was called off. It organized an impromptu mission to send runners to Staten Island with recovery items.

Andrea Hutchins said, in hindsight, she and her sister had a great experience in New York by helping the residents in need.

“There’s been many times that I know we’ve sat here in our Midwestern homes—where we’re not really impacted by hurricanes or things—and we see when Katrina came through and these disasters,” she said. “You see the news and you think, ‘What if there’s something else I could do? I would like to be able to help these people.’”

“However, the fact that we were there, and the experience we had, it was like, we were supposed to be here on this day,” she added. “It gave us that opportunity to look back on all of the times we’ve said, ‘We’d like to be able to help in one of these situations,’ and we were actually given the opportunity to do that.”

Her sister Emily agreed, adding that the experience made the trip worth it, despite the loss in finance.

“To be able to help those people and just bring a little bit of sunlight into their world for the hour and half that we helped them made the trip worth it,” she said.

What’s Next

Runners are still waiting to hear from the NYRR about whether they will get refunds and their qualification status for next year’s race.

Emily Hutchins, who wants to return to run the race in 2013, said the NYRR responded to her inquiry email saying it was working out details and would get back to her in a couple of weeks. Likewise, McAfee said she was still waiting to hear something definitive from the organization.

As for the future of the NYRR, public relations expert Conner said the best thing for the organization to do would be to hit the restart button: “Speak openly and candidly about where they fell down and what they’ll do differently as a re-emerged organization to ensure they emerge stronger and never have to re-learn these lessons again.”

She expects Mary Wittenberg will be given the boot or relegated to an administrative position soon.

“[It was] so badly handled that it will likely be incontrovertible,” Conner said. “Even if she didn’t handle it as badly as it looks, she has destroyed their PR and her own.”

Interview With a Journalist: Sam Anderson, Critic at Large for The New York Times Magazine

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times magazine. Sitting by the glass windows in the cafeteria of the Times building in Midtown, we discussed Sam’s cover story about the Oklahoma City Thunder and the magic surrounding it and its community. It was a great conversation about journalism today, sports, being a reporter, and the struggles and tremendous payoffs associated with the career.

The story:
“A Basketball Fairy Tale in Middle America” by Sam Anderson. It was the cover story of The New York Times magazine during the week of Nov. 8, 2012.

Sam writes about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA team that competed against the Miami Heat in the Championship last summer. The OCT lost in Game 5, but its rise to fame was mysterious and marvelous nonetheless, and Sam went to Oklahoma to find the potion behind the magic. His story was both broad, decrypting the melting pot of Oklahoma’s citizens and its history as a state, as well as specific, zeroing in on such specifics as the personality of star Kevin Durant and even his teammate’s beard.

The author:
Originally from Oregon, Sam earned his bachelor’s degree at Louisiana State University. He stayed there to obtain his Master’s degree in English, and then moved to New York after being accepted to the PhD program in English at New York University—which he left when offered his first writing job toward the end of the program. Sam has written for various publications, including Slate and New York magazine. He is currently the critic at large for The New York Times magazine.

Sam says he thinks of himself as more of an essayist than a journalist.

The idea and pitch:
Sam says his editors at the magazine came up with the pitch. His editor, Lauren Kern, wrote him a one-line email that said, “Do you have any interest in writing about the Oklahoma City Thunder?”

The assignment was a bit of a departure from Sam’s usual work as critic at large.

“Left to my own devices, I tend to choose really weird and obscure subjects that no one reading a national magazine is really interested in,” he says. His piece prior to the Oklahoma City Thunder profile was on buffalo mozzarella.

He usually focuses on essays, which often are not source-dependent and require little interstate traveling.

But he knew immediately that the Oklahoma City Thunder was something he wanted to write about.

He said the only guidance he got on the OCT story came from Hugo Lindgren, editor of the magazine, who said, “There seems to be something strange and amazing happening in Oklahoma City. Why don’t you go down and see what it is.”

The research:
Sam has been a fan of the NBA since he was 10. Growing up in Oregon, his team was the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I waste a lot of time reading about basketball, watching highlights and stuff,” he says. “So, one great thing about a story like this is, suddenly all that wasted time is kind of justified because it gives you this vast background knowledge.”

Sam remembers watching Kevin Durant in college and being blown away by him. He followed him through the NBA draft—even as Sam’s Trail Blazers picked another rookie over him. Sam forgave Portland for its decision to pass on Durant, ultimately: “Eventually, he sort of won me over. If you watch basketball at all, it’s hard not to love the Thunder.”

He also rewatched a bunch of the Thunder’s games before he flew out, so he’d have better detail to draw from in his story. He also used his knowledge to prove to the players, when he interviewed them later, that he really understood the nuances of the game and had done his due diligence.

The reporting:
Sam took two trips to Oklahoma for the story. The biggest hurdle, he quickly discovered, was earning the trust of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s management and public relations team.

“It was a little like pulling teeth to arrange this with the team, to arrange access,” he recalls. “I called up and I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a hotshot New York Times magazine guy, and this is this small town basketball team, they’re gong to open their arms and welcome me in, give me access to everything.’

“And it was kind of the opposite.”

The OCT’s public relations point person was very skeptical of Sam’s intentions. When Sam said he wanted to write a portrait of the team and act as a fly on the wall, the PR person was not receptive to it at all. He gave Sam resistance every step of the way. When the team finally OK’d his story, accepting that Sam wanted to mirror the state’s history with the Thunder’s rise, the PR guy tried to put off Sam’s visit to the city. Finally, after having his trip pushed back multiple times, Sam booked a flight and told them determinedly, “All right, I’m coming. I’ll be there next week.”

Not that touching down on the tarmac in Oklahoma solved all his problems. His whole access to the team hinged on convincing the PR guy that his intentions were benign.

“When I met that PR guy the first time, he was so nervous,” Sam says. “He was so obviously nervous that I was going to write, like, a hatchet job, that I was this cynical, East Coast guy coming in to pop the bubble of the fairy tale of the Thunder.

“Finally, I was getting this vibe from him, finally I just said to him, ‘Listen. I’m not here to write a hatchet job. That’s not the kind of writing I do. That’s not my interest in this case. It’s not my personality. You know, relax.’ I don’t know if that helped or not; I don’t think it did,” he adds with a laugh.

But the initial visit broke the ice enough so that when Sam made his second trip, the Thunder were willing to arrange interviews for him with the players, the coach, and the general manager, becoming more generous with their time.

He understands the team’s reasoning for being so guarded, especially around a journalist.

“They were very, very, very wary. Which I guess makes a certain amount of sense. They have a lot to lose in a situation like that. Like I said, they are extremely conscious of their image. And I think because they’re so closely identified with the city, because their image is so wholesome, you kind of have to constantly be aware of threats to that,” Sam says.

Sam also had to break through with the general manager, Sam Presti, who upon their first meeting turned into what Sam called the least comfortable human being he’s ever seen from the moment he flipped on the recorder.

As Presti weighed each word in his mind and gave Sam quotes too fluffy or meaningless to use, Sam decided to turn off the recorder.

“And he breathed a literal sigh of relief,” Sam says. “And then we went on to have an actual conversation.”

The men talked for four hours, on background. Upon his second meeting with Presti, Sam didn’t bother to bring his recorder in. Presti grew so comfortable with Sam, that he called him out of the blue a couple days later, and the two had another hour-and-a-half-long conversation.

“That was my first experience with something like that,” he says. “You just have to feel out what makes the person comfortable. I think if I had insisted that we were on record the whole time, I would’ve gotten nothing from him, and he’s so in control of that organization, such a meticulous guy, that if I hadn’t broken through with him, I think, it would’ve been a very different reporting experience for me.”

As for his interviews with the players, Sam—who describes himself as a star-struck fanboy getting to sit down with professional athletes, who to him were almost “these mythological figures, like heroes out of Greek legend”—said his interviews ran the gamut from friendly and forthcoming to closed and unreceptive.

“One guy, Nick Collison (the Thunder’s power forward), was just kind of this blue collar, unglamorous role player, who was really open from the start,” Sam says. “You can just feel it, like, ‘Oh, this is a human sitting next to me. Not just thinking of me as a sport’s reporter who’s trying to get a few quotes, but as just another guy sitting next to him who he’s going to speak with really openly.’ That was an incredible conversation.”

Russell Westbrook (the Thunder’s point guard), on the other hand, has a public dislike of the media, and was appropriately short with Sam. He kept Sam waiting for an hour for the interview, and then took a call at the beginning. Their conversation lasted about 10 minutes.

Sam says it’s interesting to feel out the moment in the interview, regardless of whether it goes well. “It’s always an adventure when I go out into the real world and have conversations,” he says, adding, “It was just an extra weirdness that they were professional basketball players.”

The writing:
Sam’s writing process is always nerve-wracking, hard, long, and frustrating—although this time, it was better than usual, he says.

His newest process is to write a vomit blurt of an email to his editor, this time about various aspects of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I’d literally start with something conversational, like, ‘Do you know about Kevin Durant? Here’s the deal about Kevin Durant!’ And then I’d just start having to articulate the most basic stuff in a way that directly communicates with someone.”

In this patchwork method, Sam wrote the portrait of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It came out to about 12,000 words—he hadn’t been given a word limit by his editor and purposely had not asked for one.

“One of my bugaboos lately that I love to complain about is word limits,” he says. “I feel like magazines are so squished these days, all of the writing that I really love and that I read to train myself to do long-form journalism is so long by today’s standards.”

He says the Thunder profile felt like a big piece to him, so he emailed a note to his editors along with the finished product: “I know this is obscenely long by magazine standards, but I feel like it’s good, I feel like there’s enough here to justify it, and if you’re ever going to let me go crazy and do a 10,000-word-piece, I think this should be the one.”

The final version that went in the magazine was close to 8,000 words.

The response:
The PR guy who initially gave Sam so much trouble called him the day the story came out, gushing with happiness, “Which immediately made me be like, ‘Oh man, did I write this like a puff piece?’” he says with a laugh.

He says the Thunder speaks with one instutional voice, so if the PR guy loved it, general manager Sam Presti also likely did, too.

Response from readers was overwhelmingly positive, too.  He received many long, touching emails from Oklahomans telling him how validating it was that the national media, for once, treated the state as if it was an actual, complex place with people who deserve serious attention.

For example, some people wrote saying, “I have family on the East Coast, but I like in Oklahoma. They’re always making fun of me and saying, ‘Why would you want to live there?’ And I’m just going to print out your article and carry it with me and I’ll show it to people who ask that.”

He also felt a resonance to their validation; being from Oregon, he’s been asked before by serious adults whether the state has electricity.

“I do feel like there’s a provincialism to the New York media bubble world that I’ve always felt like an outsider to,” Sam says. “So, I do feel a kind of outsider pride or solidarity with the people of Oklahoma. So, when they feel validated to that, it makes me feel really good because I can identify with that feeling of feeling like you’re really far from the center of culture, like nobody really sees you.”

Yahoo Fumbles with Fantasy Football on Sunday

Yesterday, as I walked toward Union Square to meet a friend around 1:30 p.m., I was continually forcing my phone to re-launch the Yahoo! Fantasy Football app. Was Cam Newton going to score another TD? How many TD catches would Torrey Smith have against the Oakland Raiders? And most importantly, was I going to beat my opponents in my two leagues?

I had no way to know.

Yahoo’s fantasy football—one of the most popular fantasy football services, next to ESPN—went down around 1 p.m. Sunday, leaving millions of users stranded with no way to adjust their teams or check stats as the games went on. I know, I know; fantasy football is not the end-all, be-all of life. It’s just a fun pastime  But it’s one that some people take very seriously, and a handful bet a lot of money on, and its consistency is required.

This fantasy football blackout speaks to a larger issue at Yahoo. The internet giant’s third quarter earnings were $1.089 billion, slightly above expectations and 2 percent above year-to-year numbers. But the lackluster earnings reflect the lackluster expectations.

Yahoo’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, has not yet been able to capitalize on the high expectations that surrounded her ascension to CEO in July. She spoke in October about Yahoo turning its focus to the mobile side, noting it had fallen behind leaders in the industry.

It’s true. Yahoo failed to change with the times, and like many companies of the dot com era of growth, it hung onto its old ways until they threatened to destabilize the company entirely. Yahoo is tweaking its homepage these days, scheming to find the best one to roll out in December. So, changes are coming, yes. The question is, are these changes enough? Will they reposition Yahoo in a style such that the brand can live up to its former expectations?

And more importantly, amidst Apple and Google, do people still care?

What Makes an NFL Team Valuable?

While I was watching the NFL season opener last night of the Dallas Cowboys versus the New York Giants, NBC flashed an intriguing figure on the screen: Forbes once again named the Cowboys the league’s most valuable team for the sixth consecutive year, raking in $2.1 billion.

This makes them the most successful brand in the professional football business. The only sports team in the world more valuable than the Cowboys, Forbes says, is U.K. football team Manchester United. But why the Cowboys? This team hasn’t been to a Super Bowl in more than 15 years (Super Bowl XXX in 1996) and while they often makes the playoffs as a wildcard, the Cowboys do not normally advance beyond the divisional round of NFC playoffs.

So what’s the secret to the Cowboys’ success? A few elements that make a football franchise attractive, lucrative, and ultimately profitable include sponsorship deals and TV contracts. Teams also continue squeezing the most out of those loyal fans who trek to the stadium on Sunday through higher rates on premium seating. 

Forbes’ Mike Ozanian makes some key points: the Cowboys pull in nearly $20 million more in sponsorship revenue than any other team, drawing dollars from Bank of America, PepsiCo, and Ford Motor. Owner Jerry Jones, Ozanian says, has the gutsy knowhow and ferocity to extend his brand beyond Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and into national messaging:

“Jones has been able to monetize his team’s popularity because he understood the importance of sponsor activation earlier and better than any other owner. His 2010 mobile marketing deal with Direct Energy is a perfect example. Rather than fight Jones, the NFL has come to recognize that his entrepreneurial instincts are good for the league, like when he raps and dances for Papa John’s pizza, which has sponsorship deals with the Cowboys and the NFL.”

This idea harkens back to a feature story I wrote for the February 2011 issue of QSR magazine about the big risks and big rewards of sports marketing. Dallas had just hosted its first Super Bowl, and I spoke to spokesmen from Papa John’s, Pizza Patron, and PepsiCo to determine why they got involved with Super Bowl marketing and how it paid off. 

For the story, I interviewed Bill Chipps, senior editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report, who said failing to activate sponsorships is akin to buying a toy without batteries:

“Smart sponsors are not just signing the sponsorship and walking away from it, hoping they get all this return on investment. When you buy a sponsorship, you get the typical benefits—it might be tickets for hospitality, signage, that kind of thing. That’s all fine and dandy, but to really get the biggest bang for their buck, a marketer needs to allocate additional dollars to activate the sponsorship and bring it to life.”

The ROI for the Cowboys has paid off big. Using the inherent heart-mind connection that fans have to sports teams, the Cowboys remain the nation’s favorite team according to an ESPN poll, handily earning its long-standing nickname of “America’s Team.”