The Optimist

Brett Yormark, president and CEO of the (don’t call them New Jersey) Nets, wants fans as passionate as the NASCAR faithful—never mind where the future leads.

Brett Yormark, president and CEO of the (don’t call them New Jersey) Nets, wants fans as passionate as the NASCAR faithful—never mind where the future leads.

Brett Yormark strides into the room—back straight, hair perfect, tie dimpled, hand extended. He is a salesman, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He respects your intelligence. He understands your feelings. He sees your point of view, even when he doesn’t share it. You’ll come around. Because he holds the salesman’s trump card: certainty.

Spend any time with Yormark, the 39-year-old president and CEO of Nets Sports and Entertainment, and the sense of inevitability he exudes overwhelms any objections: Reality will bend to his will come crunch time just as it does for Jason Kidd. Yormark has worked too hard, and believes too sincerely, for it to be different. Everyone wants to be on the winning side, and you can’t help but think Yormark has a line on it.

“He’s the best—you can quote me—the best!” says Yormark’s exuberant boss, the real-estate-mogul-turned-Nets-owner Bruce Ratner. “I tell everybody, Brett gets more done in a day than I do in a week. It’s true!”

That may be because Yormark’s workday resembles some people’s workweeks; he sends his first email of the day before 5 am and generally gets home at 9 pm. “I love to work,” says Yormark, who lives in Franklin Lakes with his wife, Amy, their four-year-old daughter, Madison, and one-year-old son, Drake. “Amy knew what she was signing up for. I’ve got a job to do, and that’s to make the people around me successful. I work for the people that work with me. I have an obligation to work 150 percent every day, so they’ll return that.”

Yormark pens thank-you notes to his employees’ spouses, acknowledging the extra hours many have worked since his arrival. The task before him and his staff is daunting: Sell to fans and sponsors a team that may leave the state in four seasons and at the same time set the stage for its arrival at the proposed $3.5 billion arena/housing/retail/office complex in Brooklyn. Redefine what “Nets basketball” stands for. Inspire arena personnel—state employees, not Nets workers—to commit to customer service. Ushers now wear “It’s All About the Fans” buttons. Between time-outs, the music blares as the Nets Dancers toss rolled-up T-shirts into the stands, ticket holders win autographed sneakers and jerseys, and two fans—wearing crash helmets and attached to each other by a 65-foot bungee cord—strain to make baskets at opposite goals.

It seems to be working: The Nets began the 2005–2006 season with a 40 percent spike in full-season ticket sales, more than 80 new corporate sponsors have signed on, and sections of the stadium have been cordoned off as VIP areas. The Continental Airlines Arena with a better team and courtside celebrities? Take that, New York Knicks.

Yormark and his identical twin, Michael, lived in Springfield until the sixth grade, when their single-parent mother, Arlene Sloan, an interior designer, moved them all to Morristown. A soccer and basketball player growing up and at Delbarton Prep, he supported the Yankees, Philadelphia 76ers, and Dallas Cowboys. Yormark’s competitive streak first appeared at Brant Lake Camp in the Adirondacks, where at age six he and Michael were the youngest-ever attendees.

“We used to compete at everything,” says Michael, chief operating officer of Sunshine Sports & Entertainment, parent company of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. “When you’re a twin, there’s a built-in competition. Our similarities are so incredible, even in our interests, that it’s only natural there’s a competitiveness that develops.”

Brett majored in management at Indiana University, where he took a physical education class with the notoriously hotheaded basketball coach Bobby Knight. Yormark exhibits no Knight-like traits. He won over the arena workers, for example, not only with pep talks but also by periodically handing them four ground-level tickets. “Brett is relentless in his approach—he has the will to turn over any stone—but he does it in a nice way,” says Nets president and general manager Rod Thorn.

In 1988, just before his senior year in college, Yormark spent three months as a Salomon Brothers intern, where he realized that his passion lay with sports, not stocks. His mother was engaged in a design project for one of the Nets’ then owners. She wrangled an interview for Brett with the club’s sales department, and he spent the next two years working with the team.

Yormark left the club for five years, even worked as a sales executive for the Detroit Pistons, before returning to the Nets in 1994, rising to senior vice president for corporate marketing. Then NASCAR beckoned.

“I was single, and I wanted a challenge,” Yormark adds. “I’d heard about how well the sport was doing and I figured, ‘What the hey—let’s give it a shot.’ ”

His instincts proved correct. Brandweek named Yormark one of its 2003 Marketers of the Year after he struck the $750 million deal for NASCAR with Nextel—still the largest sponsorship deal in sports history—and forged new partnerships with America’s top companies, which helped turn a regional pastime into the nation’s second most popular sport, behind football.

“I’ve never seen fans as passionate. It’s a part of their DNA. They grew up watching it with their parents, and their parents’ parents, every Sunday. They’d go to church and they’d come home and watch NASCAR. We need to find that emotional connection with our Nets fans.”

To that end, last May Yormark hired advertising firm BrandBuzz New York, in part to help find out what makes a Nets fan a Nets fan. “When you can trade up a casual fan into becoming a hardcore fan, you can start to change his behavior,” he says.

That issue raises the inevitable question, how being the Nets in New Jersey might differ from being the Nets in Brooklyn. When Yormark is asked to define Brooklyn, he says, it’s “an iconic brand that transcends the metropolitan area…[and] is going to present some tremendous opportunities for us. Go to Europe and you’ll find Brooklyn Lager,” he notes. Yormark pauses before attempting to characterize New Jersey.

“When I think of New Jersey, I think of—what does Bruce [Ratner] say?—the underdog,” he says. “For several years the state’s been trying to earn its stripes…. But I’ve never looked at it as an underdog. New Jersey will support a franchise.” Since the deal to build in Brooklyn began, Ratner’s persuaded the team to extend its lease with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority through its 2009–10 season as a hedge against any glitches. In addition, the majority owner (philanthropist Raymond Chambers and rapper Jay-Z are also part owners) has announced a plan to sell $60 million of equity in the team to help cover costs associated with the move.

Juggling the present and the future, personal feelings and professional loyalties, is no easy task, even for Yormark. He soon regains more solid footing on the question of whether, as a native, he’s saddened by New Jersey’s inability to retain the team.

“As a fan, I’m disappointed,” he says. “I also understand the dynamics with taxpayers and the whole public-private partnership. So I don’t blame anyone. It is what it is.”

And fans are fans. Yormark says that the Nets family-heavy fan base come to the arena for the game—and to be entertained. This isn’t the Knicks crowd of corporate season-ticket-holders who are entertaining clients and wedging in deal making between fast breaks. So he hired Petra Pope away from Madison Square Garden, where she was senior director of entertainment marketing. Pope’s résumé includes managing the Laker Girls and creating the Knicks City Dancers; she’s the mastermind behind the in-game gimmicks and postgame concerts. “We want people to come and let their guard down,” Yormark says, “loosen the tie, bring the family, and have some fun.”

Yormark even had fun where fans rarely do—on the roads. During one game night last season, the team paid for an hour of tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike’s 16W exit. He even offered half-price admission to last year’s strike-beleaguered NHL fans who showed up in a hockey jersey.

“We also need to create value for sponsors,” Yormark says. “Brands want to be as closely aligned to the event or the sport as they can without compromising it. I was pleasantly surprised that we did not receive one complaint from a season-ticket-holder.”

Yormark has, of course, received complaints about the team’s proposed move to Brooklyn—not many, he says, adding that they’ve stopped in the last eight months. He responded to each one—by letter, email, or in person. The message, if not the medium, is always the same.

“Obviously, we get contact from people who feel like they’re investing themselves, their time, and their dollars in something that’s ultimately going to be taken away,” he says. “I call them and go into my spiel: ‘Hey, life’s too short. Why are you worrying about three years from now?’ They come to their senses: ‘My kids are enjoying it, I’m enjoying it, what the heck—I’ll give it another year.’ ”

With that, Yormark decides to call it a day, a couple of hours earlier than usual.
“I’m going to head home soon,” Yormark says. “What is it, 6:30? There shouldn’t be too much traffic getting from Brooklyn back to Jersey this time of night. Right?”

Evan Rothman is a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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