How do the New York Knicks remain the most valuable NBA team despite a miserable last 20 years?

Molly McElwee
The Telegraph
The New York Knicks' Kevin Knox  - USA TODAY Sports
The New York Knicks' Kevin Knox  - USA TODAY Sports

The start of this season was unacceptable for Manchester United. Their worst opening to a campaign for nearly three decades caused fan anguish and managerial upheaval, which felt an appropriate response for a team with expectations to compete at the top. Imagine, as a Liverpool fan might, if that poor run of form continued for two decades. You've just imagined the New York Knicks.

The Knicks, who trade Madison Square Garden for London's O2 for their game against the Washington Wizards on Thursday, are the most valuable franchise in the NBA, valued at $3.6bn. They place seventh on Forbes’ 2018 list of all teams alongside United, Real Madrid and the NFL's Dallas Cowboys. Of the 10 teams on that list the Knicks hold a rather less desirable top spot, as the team with the longest wait for a title - a drought that stretches back almost 46 years. 

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Their record since their 1973 title-winning team is not much to shout about either. They have appeared in the NBA Finals just twice, most recently 20 years ago. Since then they haven't even come close: the team has only reached the play-offs six times in the last two decades, and not for almost six years. The top eight teams in each of the two 15-team conferences make the play-offs each year, so for such a prominent franchise to fail with such consistency is embarrassing.

The Knicks' finest era may have been the 1990s. There was no title but they made the play-offs nine years in a row, and contested the finals twice with Patrick Ewing as their star. One player who remembers that golden era well is John Starks - a Knicks’ point guard during that time, with 602 appearances over eight seasons and a dunk over Michael Jordan to his name:

He says that being a Knick then was as good as it got. “To be able to play in the world's most famous arena is what made it so special,” he says. “Every night I got to put on that jersey, look up into the rafters and see all the Hall of Famers that came before me. New York is considered the Mecca of basketball, the brand is recognisable worldwide.”

<span>John Starks at his "Mecca" - Madison Square Garden</span> <span>Credit: NBAE/Getty Images </span>
John Starks at his "Mecca" - Madison Square Garden Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

He speaks in the present tense when describing basketball's "Mecca", but there far more desirable destinations for players these days. Yet the Knicks' value continues to rise as performance levels plummet and David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Marshall Sports Business Institute, says winning isn’t everything in this case.

“Although winning routinely adds to franchise values because revenues are likely to increase, other factors can play a more meaningful role, especially the size of the market and the revenue-producing ability of the arena,” Carter explains. “In the Knicks’ case, they have the best of both worlds.”

Their position in one of the world's biggest cities with a population of 8.6 million means more lucrative sponsorship opportunities than, say, the Milwaukee Bucks who serve a city of slightly more than 500,000 people. The Bucks sit second in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, the Knicks are second-bottom.

So what's making the the Knicks so valuable? Madison Square Garden was refurbished for $1 billion in 2013 which added significantly to the team’s revenue. Starks says the Garden adds to the Knicks' international allure as visitors arrive in the city with a trip to the arena prominent on their bucket list. 

<span>Starks taking to the court at the Garden in his NBA Legend capacity of late</span> <span>Credit: NBAE/Getty Images </span>
Starks taking to the court at the Garden in his NBA Legend capacity of late Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

“I normally walk around the Garden during the game, and there's levels. You hear an American talking, you go to the next level it starts to get a little different, then you go all the way up in the rafters and you hear all different cultures,” Starks explains. “That's what makes being in Madison Square Garden.”

The Knicks have a seemingly unshakeable status as a global brand and the NBA understands how they can aid their growth outside of the US. They are appearing in the annual London fixture for the third occasion in its nine incarnations.

Back in New York though, fans have been starved of success. Starks describes Knicks fans as “the most knowledgeable” in the league: “When I first got to New York this kid who was 10 years old literally rattled off all my stats from college, to my first year in the pros until I got to the Knicks to me, I was blown away," he says. "That made me realise, wow, New York likes sports.”

<span>The team have not had much to smile about this season, as they hold the third-worst record so far this season</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images </span>
The team have not had much to smile about this season, as they hold the third-worst record so far this season Credit: Getty Images

That passion has surely bred frustration, but Robert Wolkenbrod, New Yorker and editor of the Knicks’ Fansided site, says worldwide status is the next best thing to watching their team go on a Championship run.

“Granted, it's been 20 years since their last NBA Finals appearance, but they play inside a landmark venue, in a landmark city," Wolkenbrod says.

“Fans would love success to accompany that recognition, but they have a mile or two to travel before these two match.”

Those miles have been slow-moving in recent times, and Wolkenbrod says Knicks fans blame managerial decisions over the years, including consistently "trading draft picks without hesitation for win-now players” and becoming entangled in expensive contracts with over-the-hill stars like Joakim Noah as stalling the team’s progress.

The Knicks have tried to steamroll and quick-fix their way back to the top, seemingly lacking the humility of smaller teams to rebuild with commitment and patience. They turned over more coaches than any other team between 2000 and 2017, and gave appearances to more players than anyone else from the 2008/09 to 2016/17 season. 

<span>Kristaps Porzingis' injury has stalled the Knicks' progress this year</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
Kristaps Porzingis' injury has stalled the Knicks' progress this year Credit: AP

Considering their value is increasing at the third slowest rate in the league, the results might need to catch up with the brand sometime soon. Starks sees "light at the end of the tunnel" of this "tough" era to watch, saying the youngsters leading out the Knicks are so close to a breakthrough, using the Lakers' turnaround with Lebron James at the helm this season as a model of inspiration.

"You take the Lakers, they had a lot of young players, you put one veteran superstar with them in Lebron James, and look at them now." Hoping for a superstar seems a long shot, but with a multitude of much-desired veterans like Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson becoming available in the summer as free agents, it's not a completely lofty prospect.

Add to that Knicks' big-man and star Kristaps Porzingis' return from an ACL injury next season, and the Knicks could well be transformed into contenders by October - and perhaps finally have the on-court performances to back up their value. 

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