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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Haves and Have-Nots: How the Knicks’ Celebrity Row Works

  • A secretive Garden committee makes VIP ticket decisions based on their own inscrutable definition of celebrity level.
  • In this world, there are unwritten rules, an expectation of quid pro quo, and nothing is free.
Mar 29, 2023; New York, New York, USA; American actors and comedians Chris Rock (left) and Ben Stiller sit court side during the third quarter between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden.
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On Wednesday night, the front-row seats in Madison Square Garden were packed with A-listers for Game 2 of Pacers-Knicks. Dotting the courtside gallery were usual suspects Spike Lee, Ben Stiller (above, right), and Chris Rock (above, left); the plethora of former Knicks greats like John Starks, Allan Houston, and Bernard King; New York royalty from other sports in CC Sabathia and Justin Tuck; and entertainment stars like Ice Spice, Kevin Bacon, and Bryan Cranston. TNT assigned legendary Knicks villain Reggie Miller to call the game, and he kibitzed with Lee courtside. As Miller discussed the Knicks-Pacers rivalry, Stiller crashed the TV shot behind him. In short, the celebs were part of the show.

“Honestly, that was the most celebrities I’ve ever seen in the building, with the exception of the All-Star Game,” Joe Favorito, the former Knicks PR chief turned sports consultant, tells Front Office Sports.

There’s a difference, however, between the uppercase Celebrity Row—the six to eight front-row seats grouped specifically together for the game’s most prominent attendees—and the lowercase “celebrity row,” which more broadly represents the dozens of actors, singers, athletes, and moguls who rub elbows in the most expensive, camera-friendly seats. Celebrity Row, which was once title-sponsored by a luxury real estate company, goes to only three or four A-listers and their guests, while “celebrity row” is a much larger operation that might include comped tickets but a second- or third-row seat. 

The distinction is part of a juggling act where the Garden makes its own judgments on whose star shines the brightest.

For the A-list regulars, the luxurious velvet rope world surrounding “celebrity row” can come with goodies like private entrances, special elevators (so they don’t have to ride the escalators with fans), gourmet food, top-shelf booze, and an almost-mythical-level private party area dubbed Suite 200, where celebrities can let their hair down and mingle with one another in complete privacy. “You cannot buy your way in there. It is curated, invite only, and approved by management,” warns Favorito. “It is probably still the most exclusive club in all of New York.”

And the Knicks market “celebrity row”: The relatively small amount of seats available makes them only more coveted, says Liza Anderson, founder of Anderson Group Public Relations. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” scoring courtside seats to a Knicks playoff game gives you “A Number One” status.

“It’s like flying private. You don’t have to do the stuff that us mere mortals have to go through,” Anderson says. “You get access to the best food, access to the best alcohol, access to other people from the same crowd. So it’s a social thing as well. It’s fun.”

There is, of course, an answer to how this works and who is selected. But in the ephemeral world of modern stardom, it’s not the most straightforward one. According to former Knicks executives and publicists with direct knowledge of the operation, their answer was: It depends. Everything’s a negotiation with the secretive Garden committee that makes VIP ticket decisions based on their own inscrutable definition of someone’s celebrity level. 

It depends on the star wattage of the person making the request. It depends on the game they’re asking for. It depends on whether they want to owe the Garden a favor. It depends on the relationship between their publicists/agents and the Garden. Some pay; some don’t. The NBA gets a couple of seats for its own use, according to Favorito, but the Garden coordinates it all. In general, the bigger the celeb, the better their view, and the less likely they are to pay for the tickets. If a D-lister demands A-list treatment, they’ll be politely turned down. Or ignored.

But, beware violating the unwritten rules of “celebrity row,” including crossing billionaire owner James Dolan.

The relationship between MSG and its VIP clientele is smart business for both sides. 

For the Garden, it’s Marketing 101: The beautiful people attract other well-heeled ticket buyers—and generate media buzz. The Knicks sell the priciest tickets in the 30-team NBA, according to Axios, with a family of four paying an eye-popping $745.18 for the cheapest available tickets, plus four hot dogs, two 16 oz. beers, two 20 oz. sodas, and parking. But what are bragging rights worth for a family from Westchester to say their kids were seated near Taylor Swift, Cardi B, or Jessica Alba? Priceless. 

Showing celebrities on the jumbotron entertains Knicks fans paying big money for tickets. Fan proximity to the country’s hottest entertainers reaffirms the Garden as the place to be. It enables the oldest arena in the NBA (opened in 1968) to wave a foam “No. 1” finger at younger challengers.

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

To the chagrin of other clubs, national media coverage of this year’s NBA playoffs has mostly been Knicks, Knicks, Knicks. Queens native Stephen A. Smith talks up his favorite team every day on ESPN’s top-rated First Take, which averaged 482,000 viewers in April. The national media’s Knicks obsession will only grow if the long-suffering franchise reaches the NBA Finals for the first in 25 years. 

Over their 77-year history, the Knicks have won only two NBA championships, with the last coming during the Nixon Administration, in 1973. But the Garden’s 145-year heritage, and midtown Manhattan location in the media capital of the world, keep the Knicks (and Rangers, who also draw their fair share of A-listers for prime seats) top of mind. 

At a valuation of $6.6 billion, the Knicks ranked as the second-most valuable team in the NBA last year, according to Forbes, behind only the Warriors at $7.7 billion.

The Garden’s modern “celebrity row” evolved organically under the reign of former Knicks president Dave Checketts from 1991 to 2001, recalls Favorito. The Knicks shrewdly recognized that the frequent courtside presence of celebrity supporters like Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, and Spike Lee provided an opportunity to market and monetize the exclusive seating section around the court. The stage lights of the Garden included front-row fans, making them part of the show. In ’14, Douglas Elliman Real Estate signed a multiyear deal with the Knicks to title sponsor “Douglas Elliman’s Celebrity Row.” 

“It’s become a coveted place where you can do some really creative things. At this point, high net-worth people will pay for those seats,” Favorito says. “Win or lose, it’s where you want to be if you’re a celebrity. Other places have tried it. But it’s never been as successful as it has at the Garden.”

The big Hollywood studios buy their own courtside seats, adds Favorito. So some stars are there on their studio’s dime. But the Garden will smartly ask visiting entertainers if they’re O.K. with their images being flashed on the video board or filming promotional hits. Their usual answer: yes. For entertainers, courtside seats validate their need for attention. Make no mistake: They show up camera-ready. Cheering their hoops heroes at the Garden humanizes their image to a public increasingly disdainful of Hollywood arrogance. There are also PR strategies at work. If your Hollywood star’s romantic comedy is about to open, placing them courtside is a great way to alert sports fans about the new flick, according to Anderson. “It can be very strategic that way. It can be a good move for somebody who wants a more well-rounded audience,” she says.

But there’s a quid pro quo at work here, too. VIP guests comped by the Garden are expected to say cheese on the celeb cam during games, film promotional spots for the arena and MSG Network, support the Garden of Dreams charity foundation, and even help recruit players. Take the video recently unearthed by Pablo Torre Finds Out, showing the late James Gandolfini and Edie Falco reprising their roles from HBO’s The Sopranos. It was actually part of a failed attempt by the Knicks to recruit LeBron James to New York in 2010.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Action star Liam Neeson practically lives at the Garden. When the arena asks for a favor, he’s happy to oblige. As Neeson told The New York Times in 2014: “You don’t get something for nothing, and if it helps the Garden if they see someone of my celebrity status—however high or low that is—I’ll put on my best Armani suit and go out there.” 

Other celebs can’t be bothered. Maybe that’s why Lee, the most famous supporter of the Knicks, pays for his own tickets. Back in 2020, Smith reported on First Take that Lee was paying $3,400 per ticket, per game, for two front-row seats. That means the director has paid the Garden millions over his three-plus decades as a season-ticket holder. “I look stupid now,” Lee admitted. 

The Garden is famous for stroking celebrity clientele. But Hollywood types should not take its largesse for granted—or they’ll be cut off in a New York minute. In November, supermodels Emily Ratajkowski and Irina Shayk committed the cardinal sin of leaving their comped seats early, just as the Knicks were storming back to beat the Heat. Bad decision. When Ratajkowski later asked for free Rangers tickets, the Garden turned her down cold. “She was offered, and is welcome, to buy great seats at any time,” a spokesperson told the New York Post

Actor Ethan Hawke told Bill Simmons that he, too, lost his spot on “celebrity row,” in his case for publicly questioning Dolan’s coaching hires. “They’d always hook me up,” Hawke told Simmons in 2018. “And then I called up one time and they said, ‘That’ll be $7,800. … And I was like, ‘Wow, this is real.’” (The actor is now a courtside regular at Nets games across the river in Brooklyn.)

But even the biggest names are grateful for tickets when demand is through the roof. During the Patrick Ewing era in the ’90s, when the Knicks reached two NBA Finals, the late John F. Kennedy Jr. applied for season tickets. He was mistakenly assigned cheap seats in the 300s. But Kennedy didn’t complain because Knicks tickets were so scarce, Chris Herring wrote in his book Blood in the Garden.

The Garden declines comment on all of this. But the silence surrounding “celebrity row” only adds to its mystique. During a time when celebs seemingly get everything handed to them, it’s comforting to know, right now, some unknown executive at the Garden is about to make some C-lister’s head explode by turning him down for free tickets.

“It depends on the celebrity—and who they know,” says Anderson. “But If you’re a high-level celebrity, it’s not hard. It’s a matter of a phone call. If you’re an A-lister, you can do anything.”

Front Office Sports’ Alex Schiffer contributed to this article.

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