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With Arena, Rapper Rewrites Celebrity Investors' Playbook

David M. Halbfinger, The New York Times
Thursday, 16 Aug 2012 | 8:38 AM ET
Jay-Z
Source: rocafella.com
Jay-Z

When the developer Bruce Ratner set out to buy the New Jersey Nets and build an arena for them in Brooklyn, he recruited Jay-Z, the hip-hop superstar who grew up in public housing a couple of miles from the site, to join his group of investors.

Mr. Ratner may have thought he was getting little more than a limited partner with a boldface name and a youthful following that could prove useful someday. But Jay-Z’s contributions have dwarfed the $1 million he invested nine years ago. His influence on the project has been wildly disproportionate to his ownership stake — a scant one-fifteenth of one percent of the team. And so is the money he stands to make from it.

Now, with the long-delayed Barclays Center arena nearing opening night in September and the Nets bidding in earnest for Brooklyn’s loyalties, Jay-Z will perform eight sold-out shows to kick things off. But away from center stage he has put his mark on almost every facet of the enterprise, his partners say.

He helped design the team logos and choose the team’s stark black-and-white color scheme, and personally appealed to National Basketball Association officials to drop their objections to it (the N.B.A., according to a person with knowledge of the discussion, thought that African-American athletes did not look good on TV in black, an assertion that a league spokesman adamantly denied).

He counseled arena executives on what kind of music to play during games. (“Less Jersey,” he urged, pushing niche artists like Santigold over old favorites like Bon Jovi.) He even coached them on how to screen patrons for weapons without appearing too heavy-handed. (“Be mindful,” he advised oracularly, “and be sensitive.”)

In the two and a half years since groundbreaking, as taxi-roof advertisements promised “All access to Jay-Z,” and sponsorship salespeople trumpeted how “hip and cool” he and his wife, Beyoncé, would make the arena, he and the Nets have effectively written a new playbook for how to deploy a strategic celebrity investor.

If it has been done elsewhere — see Usher with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Will Smith with the Philadelphia 76ers, and Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony with the Miami Dolphins — no team has come close to making as much out of a famous part-owner.

And none of the dozens of other current and former part-owners of the team have played so public a role — not Robert E. Rubin, the former Treasury secretary; not Mary Higgins Clark, the best-selling author, though she read to children at a Nets literacy event.

“He is it,” Mr. Ratner, the developer, said in an interview. “He is us. He is how people are going to see that place.”

As much as his partners, including Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who bought 80 percent of the team in 2009, are getting out of him, Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, is benefiting handsomely, too, beginning with free use of one of 11 exclusive “Vault” suites, for which paying customers are charged $550,000 a year.

Suite owners will have access to a Champagne bar serving Armand de Brignac, an expensive bubbly that Mr. Carter promotes and in which he holds a financial interest, according to a biography by a writer for Forbes. The arena will contain a 40/40 Club, an iteration of his sports-bar-style nightclub chain. There will be a Rocawear store, selling his clothing line, on the arena’s exterior. Even the advertising agency used by the Nets, Translation, is half-owned by Mr. Carter.

There is also an important intangible asset, particularly for a rapper: the bragging rights that Mr. Carter has enjoyed as a part-owner since Mr. Ratner’s group paid $300 million to acquire the Nets. His slender stake was enough for Mr. Carter to thump his chest in his lyrics, promising to “bring you some Nets.”

Mr. Carter has capitalized further on his Nets investment by extending the Jay-Z brand into endorsement deals normally reserved for elite athletes. He stars, wearing a Nets cap, in a Budweiser TV commercial that was broadcast during the Olympic Games. And he was named executive producer of the basketball video game, “NBA 2K13.”

All told, he has achieved a remarkable feat of leverage with his tiny sliver of the team, which was reduced from one-third to one-fifteenth of a percent upon Mr. Prokhorov’s purchase of the Nets, according to people aware of the deal terms. (Mr. Carter, who declined to be interviewed for this article, retains a slightly larger sliver of the arena itself — just under a fifth of a percent.)

As if to slam that point home, when the Nets placed a 222-foot-tall billboard near Madison Square Garden depicting Mr. Carter and Mr. Prokhorov as their “blueprint for greatness,” the two were shown at the same size, with Mr. Carter up front.

Mr. Ratner said he was seeking both sizzle and “credibility — which we needed badly,” when he first approached several other celebrities in 2003 about helping him acquire the team. Then he was introduced to Mr. Carter by Drew Katz, the son of one of the Nets’ principal owners, after Jason Kidd, then the Nets’ marquee point guard, suggested that Mr. Carter buy the team.

Mr. Carter’s credibility was indisputable: a product of the Marcy Houses, he had an early career as a drug dealer (and kept a “stash spot” two blocks from the arena site, according to one of his songs) before becoming one of the most successful rap artists of all time. He had also shown talent as a businessman, creating his own record label and what soon became a wide range of other business ventures.

Mr. Ratner was wary. He often says he overcame his concerns about Mr. Carter’s more offensive lyrics — celebrating gangster culture and denigrating women — only after learning there were cleaned-up “radio versions” of the songs, too. And Mr. Carter, he said, appeared nervous about having to meet with David Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner, who asked him to discuss his guilty plea to stabbing a record producer in 1999. (Mr. Carter described the incident, for which he received three years’ probation, as a symptom of “the world I lived in once,” Mr. Ratner recalled.)

Mr. Carter’s involvement frustrated opponents of Mr. Ratner’s development plans in Brooklyn who saw the arena and proposed residential and office towers as a subsidized land grab that could ruin the neighborhood. They complained that residents who might have been wary of Mr. Ratner’s promises to create jobs, nonetheless trusted Jay-Z, who invoked his roots and insisted he could never support “anything that’s against the people.”

“Bringing in someone who grew up in public housing, with a rags-to-riches story, who could identify with Brooklyn and African-Americans, that was slick,” said City Councilwoman Letitia James, a critic of the project. Mr. Ratner played down Mr. Carter’s importance in overcoming opposition. “Had Jay-Z not come along,” he said, “we’d still have an arena.”

In the early years, as the Nets made playoff runs, Mr. Carter freely associated himself with the team, attending games and suggesting how to entertain V.I.P.’s in style, said Brett Yormark, chief executive of the Nets. “He and I would talk about how we could use New Jersey as a lab experiment for Brooklyn,” he said.

He also made himself useful to the basketball staff, persuading Shareef Abdur-Rahim of the Portland Trail Blazers to accept a 2005 trade to the Nets (an injury scuttled the deal) and giving Vince Carter a pep talk after he played poorly in two playoff games in 2007 (he responded with 37 points in the next game).

But the rap star pulled back from the Nets as their fortunes faded and they failed to make the playoffs after the 2007-8 season. “He’s very brand-conscious,” a Nets official said.

It was only after the Barclays Center had cleared all hurdles in December 2009 that Mr. Carter unabashedly stepped forward. He courted LeBron James on behalf of the Nets in 2010 and pursued Carmelo Anthony a year later. And when the Nets’ newest star, Deron Williams, needed advice on where to buy a home, Mr. Carter told him to call.

Aaron Goodwin, an agent who has represented many young players who became N.B.A. stars, said Mr. Carter’s involvement had improved the image of the Nets in athletes’ eyes. “They’re going to take the phone call now,” he said. “They’re going to take the flight in. They’re going to listen. In years past, the Nets wouldn’t have gotten that. But now they’re in the game.”

Mr. Yormark said Mr. Carter was not receiving a fee for his advice or any special deals for his businesses. Yet he has attended both quarterly meetings of the arena’s board of directors, sitting to Mr. Ratner’s right, and keeps in frequent touch by phone and e-mail with Mr. Yormark.

During the Nets’ free-agency deal making this summer — obtaining Joe Johnson and re-signing Mr. Williams, among others, in hopes of improving upon their 22-44 record last season — Mr. Yormark received a call from Mr. Carter, who was following the team’s moves on television.

“He said he was watching ESPN,” Mr. Yormark said, “and the size of our logo was too big, because the word Brooklyn was getting cut off on the ticker at the bottom of the screen. He said, ‘Call ESPN and get them to fix it.’ And he was right. And then they fixed it.”

When Mr. Yormark next sat down for a meeting with Mr. Carter, he recalled, the rap star reminded him of this, saying: “Brett, I’m watching. And every detail matters.”

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.