“The New York Knicks are the premier global brand in basketball, period,” Steve Stoute, a music executive and the founder of the ad agency Translation, declared recently over breakfast.
That night, the Knicks were blown out at home by the Memphis Grizzlies. Fans at Madison Square Garden chanted “Sell the team!” at James L. Dolan, the Knicks owner. The New York Post reported that an irate Dolan had directed security guards toward one teenage chanter. A brawl broke out at the end of the game, and multiple Knicks players were later fined.
One of them, Marcus Morris Sr., told reporters after the game that a Grizzlies player had “a lot of female tendencies on the court.” Morris — who would be traded in eight days — apologized on Twitter amid rapid backlash. One week later, Steve Mills, the Knicks president, left the team two days ahead of the trade deadline and less than two months after Coach David Fizdale and an assistant, Keith Smart, had been fired.
That’s just this season. The Knicks will most likely miss the playoffs for the seventh straight year, creating the longest streak of postseason absences for the franchise since the 1960s. The last two decades have seen a sexual harassment lawsuit against the parent company of the Knicks, botched draft picks, whiffs on most superstar free agents and a turnstile of head coaches (13, in fact). The team has long been a punchline, both in and outside New York City.
In an effort to change the public perception of the team, the Knicks announced last month that they had contracted with Stoute’s agency “to help elevate the team’s overall brand positioning and connection to its fan base.”
“You’ve got to put a product on the court that people believe day in and day out every night has an opportunity to win and compete at a high level,” Stoute said, adding, “Then I believe there’s a lot that can be done around building buzz and excitement around the optimism.”
Hiring Translation is a rare acknowledgment by the Knicks that they may be losing clout. And it just so happens that across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Nets, a resurgent franchise with a modern arena and plausible dreams of a championship within the next three years, are primed to pick off some of the Knicks’ loyal fans. Stoute’s goal is to play prevent defense in the marketing sphere. But how can he improve a brand if its most important facet — the on-court play — is among the least competitive in the marketplace?
Stoute is a lifelong Knicks fan who said he wants every young basketball fan in the New York area rooting for his team. He founded the music distribution company UnitedMasters and has worked with several musical artists, including the rappers Jay-Z and Nas. His ad agency’s recent partners include State Farm, the N.F.L., Nike and Anheuser-Busch.
Stoute declined to comment on the financial terms of the deal with the Knicks, but the collaboration, he said, started with his connections to the team’s front office. He convinced the Knicks executives that the team could do more to connect with fans. Stoute was vague about his plans but suggested that a change in social media strategy was coming. (The Knicks declined to comment for this article.)
A core goal of the partnership, Stoute said, is to make the Knicks a desirable destination for free agents again.
“One thing I’ve learned about the organization is they’re going to be aggressive at getting great players and bringing great talent to the city,” Stoute said. “That’s the part of the commitment that fires me up.”
Last summer, after Dolan said during a radio interview that the Knicks were going to have a “very successful off-season,” the team missed out on every superstar free agent. Two of them, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, went to the rival Nets, but Stoute dismissed any notion that the Knicks have a culture problem.
“You know how many teams missed on free agency? Every other team,” Stoute said. “One team got two guys. And the other team — which led to an investigation — got the other guy.” He was referring to Kawhi Leonard’s landing with the Los Angeles Clippers and allegations that people close to him had requested benefits not allowed under league rules.
But the Knicks’ inability to draw top superstars has lasted most of the 21st century, except when they traded for and re-signed a willing Carmelo Anthony in 2011 and 2014 and signed Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010. In October, Durant said in a radio interview that the “whole brand of the Knicks is not as cool as, let’s say, the Golden State Warriors,” the ultimate indictment of a team in a league that prides itself on reaching younger demographics.
“I don’t think that Durant, who moved to the market, can necessarily make that statement in a very factual way,” Stoute said. “That can’t be the case when you see all the business results.”
From that perspective, the Knicks are a resounding success. In most industries, when companies perform poorly for a long time, they go out of business. But the Knicks continue to make more money and haven’t needed to cut prices. The franchise was valued by Forbes last year at $4 billion, the highest in the N.B.A. and up from $3.6 billion the year before. The team is in the biggest media market in the country and has a dedicated, if beleaguered, fan base.
“But brands are also tenuous, and they ebb and flow based on what’s going on,” said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University. “In the case of the Knicks, what’s been happening on the court has not lifted the brand to the levels it’s been at before.”
There are signs that the relationship with consumers is fraying. According to ESPN, the Knicks sell an average of 95.1 percent of their home seats, good for 18th in the 30-team league. This number has declined every year since 2016, when it was 100 percent. In contrast, the Nets have risen from 83.6 percent in 2016 to 92.7 this season. The Knicks rank 11th in attendance, drawing an average of 18,836 people a game. In 2016, that number was 19,812 — fifth in the N.B.A.
Burton said there were ways to improve a team’s brand even if the on-court play remained poor. For example, the Knicks could change the experience at the arena. This could include buzzier halftime acts. Burton cited the model of a minor-league baseball team, which may draw fans more for the chance to enjoy an evening outside than for the quality of the baseball. (One key difference: Minor league baseball games are almost always much cheaper to attend than Knicks games, which can cost individuals and families hundreds of dollars.)
“Steve may come in and say: ‘We can make the game experience better. Even though we can’t control the product on the court, we can give people the perception that they’re getting their money’s worth,’” Burton said.
He continued, “But it’s really hard if the Knicks continue to lose.”
Stoute also seemed to be keenly aware of the fan antipathy toward Dolan, a reclusive owner who has banned fans and Charles Oakley, a popular former player, from Madison Square Garden. At first, Stoute demurred when asked if part of his job was to improve Dolan’s personal brand: “I work for the Knicks and Madison Square Garden. There’s a lot of companies I work for. They’re all owned by somebody. I work for the Knicks and Madison Square Garden.”
But later, in response to another question, Stoute said: “The one thing I would want if I was any sports fan: Is your owner aggressively willing to spend to put winning on the court? Forget the outcome. Is the owner’s mind-set aggressive at winning? We’ve got that.”
Ultimately, though, Burton said, “the owner doesn’t suit up.” Fans buy tickets and turn on the television to watch what the players do. For the last 20 years, that experience has not been pleasant for the loyalists. Asked if he can improve the Knicks brand if the team doesn’t play better, Stoute paused for several seconds. If all goes well, his work will entice the best players in the league to be on the court wearing a Knicks jersey.
“That’s a great marketing question,” Stoute said. “That’s my job. My job is to change public perception so that it does affect the won-loss record.”