Having a controlling interest in an NBA franchise is not like owning an ordinary business.
No, this is about the limitations of owning an NBA franchise and how league priorities supersede those of a franchise—a lesson that James Dolan, the executive chairman and CEO of the Madison Square Company, realized on Monday.
Late afternoon, the NBA announced that it had fined the New York Knicks $50,000 for violating a provision in the NBA Media Access Rules. The team’s violation occurred last Friday, a day after the 2019 NBA Draft. Despite the New York Daily News having a credential to attend a post-draft press conference at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks denied NYDN from sending a writer to attend and report.
A strange time to ban a reporter
The post-draft press conference was not expected to be divisive or controversial. It was, in the words of Knicks President Steve Mills, a time “celebrate and enjoy” the introductions of first round pick R.J. Barrett and second round pick Ignas Brazdeikis. The two rookies, Mills, general manager Scott Perry, head coach David Fizdale and MSG network host Bill Pidto were all seated on a stage with a large Knicks banner behind them. Their press conference lasted about 23 minutes. It ran smoothly and was not especially memorable.
This was to be expected. Press conferences to introduce new draft picks are easy opportunities for franchises—even slumping ones like the Knicks—to net favorable media stories, sometimes called “puff pieces,” and to persuade ambivalent season ticketholders to renew for next season. The draft picks have a clean slate with the journalists who cover the team. There is also inherent optimism in those picks’ NBA futures, even if most will ultimately fall short of lofty and often unrealistic expectations. The questions posed to draft picks also tend to be soft balls that allow for generically positive responses.
It was thus an unusual time for the Knicks to block a credentialed media company from entry.
The Professional Basketball Writers Association (PBWA) noticed and objected by lodging a complaint with the NBA. The PBWA is a nonprofit comprised newspaper, magazine and website writers of NBA stories. The organization’s core mission is to “champion the rights of writers so they may provide complete, accurate and compelling coverage of professional basketball for the widest possible audience.”
On Saturday, PBWA president Josh Robbins issued a statement condemning the Knicks and Dolan. Robbins described the decision to ban NYDN writers as an “unprofessional and unacceptable” attempt “to hinder journalists’ ability to do their jobs and inform the public.” Robbins further noted that Dolan “previously has said that barring NYDN employees from media availabilities sends the NYDN ‘a message.’” Robbins asserted that the “only message” Dolan sent by banning NYDN is that “he is a bully who retaliates against legitimate news outlets that publish content he dislikes.”
Dolan’s reputation as a “bully” serves as an important contextual point
As has been widely reported, Dolan has occasionally lashed out in response to criticisms about his franchise and his management. He has developed a reputation for being thin-skinned and vindictive, if also passionate and atypically candid.
Recent history illustrates these points. Four years ago, for example, Dolan responded to a critical email from a Knicks fan by debasing the fan as a “sad person” who had “most likely” made his “family miserable” and was possibly an alcoholic. Just three months ago, Dolan directed MSG security to remove a fan from the arena after the fan had yelled at Dolan to “sell the team.” A fan that month also claimed that his t-shirt expressing, “St. Patty Says Ban Dolan” was confiscated by MSG security upon entering the facility. Dolan also has a longstanding feud with former Knicks star Charles Oakley that at one point led to Oakley being arrested for physically confronting MSG employees.
This is also not the first time the Knicks have banned an NYDN writer from a press conference. Last December, NYDN Knicks beat writer Stefan Bondy was excluded from attending a press conference as an apparent punishment for the NYDN running a headline that encouraged Dolan to sell the team. Further, as reported by SI’s Jimmy Traina, Dolan has warred with WFAN host (and former SI Now host) Maggie Gray, who called Dolan a “hypocrite” and “vile piece of thrash” in the aftermath of Dolan and his band, JD and the Straight Shot, releasing a song sympathetic to Harvey Weinstein. Dolan then forbid Knicks and New York Rangers employees from appearing on WFAN.
Given Dolan’s repeated issues, it’s possible that the NBA was more inclined to punish the Knicks. The league could have reasoned that the team and Dolan have not adequately heeded earlier warnings.
The $50K fine is financially inconsequential to the Knicks but symbolically important for league relations with players
For almost everyone, a $50,000 fine would be decidedly impactful. For Dolan, not so much.
In fact, a $50,000 fine will hardly dent his finances. Dolan’s net worth is reportedly in the ballpark of $1.5 billion. Forbes recently estimated that, as a franchise, the Knicks are worth at least $4 billion
Still, there is a symbolic and reputational importance in the NBA’s decision to fine the Knicks.
First, by enforcing NBA Media Access Rules against a team, commissioner Adam Silver sends a powerful message to teams, players and journalists. The NBA’s media access rules have traditionally been invoked in response to objectionable behavior by players, not team executives. Players have run afoul of requirements that they be available to the media after a game. In years past, Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace were fined for not speaking with media. In some cases, teams were also fined for failing to ensure that players comply with the policy. For instance, in 1999, the NBA fined Patrick Ewing $10,000 and the Knicks $25,000 for Ewing ducking out on a press conference. The Knicks were deemed at fault for not taking adequate steps to ensure Ewing’s participation.
Here, the culprit isn’t a player but instead a team and, by implication, the person who owns the team.
Players and the National Basketball Players’ Association will surely notice that nuance and appreciate it. Silver once again displays that he is unafraid of punishing a member of the one group of persons who possesses the legal capacity to fire him: the NBA’s Board of Governors. These “governors” have historically referenced individuals who possess controlling interests of franchises—in other words, “owners”. However, on Monday, Silver explained that he prefers the term “governor” be used and that the league has increasingly utilized “governors” in recent years.
Silver’s willingness to punish the Knicks signals to players and the NBPA that they should regard him as an honest broker between teams and players, rather than a more authoritarian, owner/governor-friendly commissioner. Such a favorable reputation could go a long way in the NBA and NBPA preserving a relatively friendly management-labor relationship in future collective bargaining.
The fine draws attention to the league as a collective, rather than a group of individual parts
The league recognizes that media access to team press conferences is crucial to the league’s overall health. At its core, the NBA is an entertainment product. It relies on the sustained and emotional interest of its fans. Fans watch games, which translates into higher TV ratings, more advertising revenue and richer broadcasting contracts. Fans also purchase game tickets, apparel, merchandise, video games and other licensed products that supply the NBA and its teams and players with billions of dollars in revenue.
Media coverage of teams is a key generator of fan interest. In recent years, the Knicks haven’t offered many appealing moments for their fans. Friday was an exception. In drafting Barrett, the Knicks have added a player who projects to become an NBA star. Some draft experts even surmise that Barrett might be a better NBA prospect than Zion Williamson, the draft’s first overall pick and Barrett’s former teammate at Duke.
If NYDN readers are less likely to read about Barrett, inevitable comparisons between Barrett and Williamson, the Knicks’ future and the NBA as a whole because of the Knicks denying access to NYDN, the NBA suffers. This is particularly given how revenue is distributed. NBA teams share substantial amounts of revenue, meaning the success of one team yields financial benefit to others and vice-versa. Also, players and owners essentially split basketball related revenue evenly. Therefore, spiteful steps to diminish fan interest in one team pose league-wide consequences. This seems particularly true in a league driven in large part by player rivalries and accompanying drama—a kind of dynamic that Barrett figures to one day experience.
The NBA punishing the Knicks also highlights that while franchises are controlled by a person or a group of persons, the franchise itself is subservient to the franchisor. This relationship is readily apparent in the league’s constitution, a document that governs the relationship between teams and the NBA. At various points, the constitution expresses that the commissioner has final, unappealable authority over matters impacting the league. The constitution even goes so far as to establish procedures and standards for removing a governor from a team—a set of procedures the league was prepared to use against former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling before his wife, Shelly Sterling, took steps to remove him. While there is no indication the league plans to force out Dolan, the fact that it could do so amplifies the league’s authority over Dolan and the Knicks.
Silver is also an attorney. He tends to view issues with an eye towards ensuring procedural fairness and basic transparency. To that end, Silver doesn’t want one credentialed media company and its writers to be denied a professional opportunity given to other credentialed media companies and their writers. A denial in that circumstance would be professionally unfair and undermine the value and predictability of possessing a credential. Silver also recognizes that while the First Amendment does not authorize a journalist to enter a private facility to report on a privately-owned team, the spirit of free speech should encourage teams to invite media to their premises.
The Knicks, for their part, accept the NBA’s punishment. The team claims that it simply misunderstood its ability to determine access to the press conference. In a statement, a Knicks spokesperson say the team “made an error in interpreting Friday’s announcement as an invite only event.” The Knicks regard the matter as one where the team merely did not invite NYDY (while inviting other major NY media companies) instead of banning a credentialed media outlet. The team pledges to not make the same mistake again. If it does, Silver and the NBA will be watching and ready to ask action.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.