jesseOn a day when they waived Brendan Smith, the defenseman they had signed over the summer to a four-year, $17 million contract, the Rangers’ brain trust put out a letter to fans. Despite New York being only three points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 28 games remaining, and two weeks to go before the trade deadline, team president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton wanted everybody to know that their intention is to blow it all up.
First of all, this is absolutely the right decision for a team with serious injuries sidelining two of its most important players, at a time when several members of the roster are approaching free agency and serve the organization better by being traded than walking away for nothing after a playoff run that, if the Rangers managed to make it, would be a longshot to even make it out of the first round. Teams make hard decisions like this every year, and sometimes delude themselves into going for it. The Rangers don’t have the room under the salary cap to make that happen.
What makes this different is that the Rangers put it all in writing, detailing, basically, their plans to suck for a bit so that they can eventually be a championship-caliber team again. The message was as over-the-top and spun as positively as you would expect from a Madison Square Garden communique, but also, you would not expect this at all from a team owned by a man, James Dolan, who would say it was “a special, one-time-only, acoustic session” if someone cut the power to a JD & The Straight Shot concert.
Dolan, of course, also owns the New York Knicks, who lost star Kristaps Porzingis to a torn ACL this week, then turned around at Thursday’s trade deadline and… acquired 21-year-old point guard Emmanuel Mudiay… to go along with 19-year-old point guard Frank Ntilikina? A day earlier, the Knicks had shipped out center Willy Hernangomez, who might finally have a chance to show what he could do after Porzingis got hurt, but will now do that in Charlotte.
With the exception of that time they somehow thought that if they cleared enough salary cap space, they could get LeBron James, the Knicks under Dolan have been run like a team that thinks a championship is right around the corner. While the Knicks in 1999 did sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, and made it to the NBA Finals before losing to the Spurs, it is hockey, not basketball, where a mediocre team getting hot and winning the championship is far more likely.
Both the Knicks and Rangers fill the Garden in both good times and bad, though lately there have been at least a few seats available for basketball in Manhattan. The idea that New York fans will stop paying attention if the team is not winning should have been disproven by the fact that the Knicks have been to the second round of the playoffs once in the last 15 years, while the Rangers, despite regular playoff appearances and occasional deep runs, have won the Stanley Cup exactly once since World War II.
Both teams would figure to do better business outside of ticket sales when they are contending, but what fans’ continued attendance shows is that they like these teams and want to support them through thick and thin. What does it hurt, then, to be honest with fans (albeit through a layer of corporate babble and pandering) about what the strategy is going forward?
It is, in fact, good business practice, to give customers the idea that you do not view them simply as a collection of marks, saps, and stooges. You may still see them as just that, but being able to control the narrative means that they don’t get that idea, because that’s when they turn on you. For the example of that, all you have to do is look across New York, where the Mets have had one of baseball’s better offseasons, but have managed to antagonize their fans by continuing to operate with such low regard for their intelligence that they try to pass things off like the idea that David Wright’s insurance is too expensive to bring in big-time talent, rather than what everyone can see, which is that team ownership is too broke and/or cheap to spend with the big market big dogs of baseball…like the Milwaukee Brewers.
It’s a lesson that appearance is everything, and the Rangers aced it, dressing up their fire sale as a way to build for the future, rather than dwelling on the way their season has gone up in smoke.