New York Knicks: Can The Organization Fix Its Public Image?

Can the New York Knicks fix its image from the bad PR they’ve received? If they can’t, it could destroy the organization for years to come.

These past few weeks have been painful for the New York Knicks and their fans.

Along with a bad stretch of losses, the fallout from Knicks legend Charles Oakley being banned indefinitely from Madison Square Garden has sent shockwaves around the league. The optics of him being physically dragged out of the arena will not be forgotten and it’s even been speculated that it’s a point so low for the franchise that the damages will be irreparable.

With various superstars around the league joining in on the criticism, it begs the questions if the Knicks have dangerously harmed their franchise’s reputation beyond repair.

To get answers on this, I asked an expert from the sports marketing world about the state of the franchise. Brian Cristiano is President and CEO of Bold Worldwide, a sports marketing agency, and he’s also host of the Sports Marketing Huddle podcast.

If anyone can speak about the business aspects of the Knicks Public Relations decisions, it’s him. This is a field Cristiano has made his livelihood in.

Brian Cristiano

Brian Cristiano, CEO of Bold Worldwide

On the Knicks and their Public Relations blunders…

The Knicks, specifically Dolan, invest a lot of energy into their public relations department. The irony is that they probably invest more than multiple teams combined and yet they still always manage to end up on the negative side of most off the court spectacles. Here’s what Cristiano thought about the Knicks and their notorious PR moves:

From a PR perspective, how poorly did the Knicks handle the Oakley situation?

The situation with Oakley was handled atrociously—an absolute train wreck! Now, I wasn’t there, so who knows if Oakley started anything (though from all the video I’ve seen, he was just sitting there until security approached him). Regardless, it should have been handled in a professional way and settled behind the scenes. Oakley is beloved by Knicks fans and Dolan chose to go on a smear campaign trying to destroy Oakley’s character. 

How do you think this could have this been handled better?

First of all, unless there was legitimate reason to surround Oakley with security and get into a shoving match, someone from the Knicks organization should have taken him into a private room or a box and had a discussion one-to-one and diffused it privately. The fact that the Knicks made it so public during a broadcast game is ridiculous in and of itself. Maybe it wasn’t avoidable, however from everything we’ve seen, I highly doubt that. If it was unavoidable, then fine; the Knicks should have dealt with it in private behind the scenes. Dolan should have come out and said that there was a misunderstanding and that the he was working with Oakley to make sure there wasn’t an issue in the future. End of story. 

How bad has the Knicks brand become over these past few years? 

The Knicks brand has been ridiculed for years due to mediocre and losing seasons followed by one bad decision after another. Phil Jackson’s lack of leadership surrounding ‘Melo hasn’t helped, not to mention Dolan’s even worse leadership, arrogance, and inability to bring the organization together.

How did it look for James Dolan to bring back dozens of veterans just one game after the Oakley ban?

I think the move was a really bad PR ploy that everyone can see through. Dolan’s comments will overshadow any and all actions like that. It needs to be a genuine change in Dolan and the organization’s stance. Anything less is just BS and people feel it.

How close are the Knicks to the point when their poor PR will begin to make a business impact?

It already is impacting their business. #FreeOakley is trending across Twitter. Knicks fans and basketball fans in general have already sided with Oakley and are speaking out against Dolan. There are even people standing outside of MSG right now holding signs.

On the New York Market…

Over the weekend, Spike Lee and Reggie Miller made comments that suggested the Knicks’ reputation has become so bad that they won’t be able to attract free agents anymore. The pull of New York has always existed—despite the Knicks. However, in the age of globalization, social media, and high income taxes, this may not still be the case.

Have the Knicks hurt their reputation badly enough to keep free agents away?

Will this keep all free agents away? No. Will it make most of them reconsider a move to New York? Highly probable. The biggest issue is the lack of stability and clear direction of the organization impacted by poor leadership at the top. 

Has Carmelo Anthony’s time in New York hurt or helped his brand?

I think there are mixed emotions around ‘Melo. He lacks a team that put him in a position to get close to a championship. However, he still has fans, and still has potential. Would leaving New York and going to Chicago have helped his brand? Probably only if he could win. Has being in New York hurt him? I don’t think so. Has it helped him? Absolutely not. It really depends on what ‘Melo wants his brand to be. And if he wants to stay in New York, the organization is going to have to step up their game and build a team that gives him an opportunity to show his superstar skills. 

If you are Kristaps Porzingis’ agent, do you think New York is a healthy place for him and his burgeoning career?

If the Knicks rebuilt the team and focused their energy on growing Porzingis, not only would he likely stay, but the organization would have a chance to rebuild. If the Knicks continue down this dark, arrogant path, continue to lose and show a severe disrespect to legends and current players, then I am sure he and his agent will be taking meetings in other cities. 

In the age of social media, is New York still considered a premier destination? 

Social media helps connect fans and teams; it doesn’t replace the atmosphere of each team’s city. New York is a special place which is why it attracts top talent across all of the pro teams and organizations here. Nothing digital will ever replace the vibe in New York after a championship or conference title. 

February 15, 2015; New York, NY, USA; General view of Madison Square Garden before the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

February 15, 2015; New York, NY, USA; General view of Madison Square Garden before the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On Fixing the Knicks Brand…

As bad as the Knicks’ image has become, it’s still someone’s job to fix it. In business school textbooks, there have been a number of great stories about brands doing complete 180-degree turns in regaining the confidence and loyalty of customers. It may sound improbable, but there’s no reason to believe the Knicks can’t do the same.

Here’s what Cristiano thought about it.

If Dolan put you in charge of fixing the Knicks’ relationship with fans/players, what are some things you would do to help on this front? 

First, I would tell Dolan he’s never to speak to the media again. Ever. I would actually have Adam Silver step in and reprimand Dolan (SI wrote about that the other day) to show NBA and Knicks fans that there was a leader somewhere that cared.

Second, I would put a new face on the organization. Maybe hire Oakley to be their new spokesperson. Bring in the legends and give them a say, or at least become the face.

Third, I would have Jackson rebuild the team properly and focus energy on Porzingis and surround him with other young talent. The focus then needs to go back to the fans and to the city. 

Fourth, I would bring the team around to every elementary and high-school in the five boroughs during the offseason and hold practice there. Let kids get to know the players, in person. I would invite Oakley and every retired Knicks player to the games.

Lastly, I would take a page out of the Mets’ playbook and give fans a reason to come to the games, even when they aren’t winning—the experience. Fans want to know the players, and they want a great experience; that’s why they show up in the bad years and keep coming back. If the Knicks could rebuild their relationship with the city from the ground up and show that there was a long-term plan in place to become a championship team, New York would be ecstatic and other teams would pay attention. 

The formula actually isn’t that difficult, but it requires ego to be removed and long-term vision—things the Knicks are currently lacking.

It’s no stretch to say that the players, fans, and just about everyone in the NBA would like to see the Knicks as a competitive team again. It appears that may take a while, but waiting for an organization to treat its fans with dignity shouldn’t have to happen.

Part of what makes the Knicks such a historic franchise is the fans and their passion. Those passions should never be taken for granted. If the Oakley situation proves anything about Knicks fans, it’s that they don’t forget.

Luckily for James Dolan and the New York Knicks, it’s the past that still remains the best moments for fans. It’s precisely those memories that keep them loyal customers.

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