Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bruceski's Netskis

Dearie me, is there anything Russian money can't buy? New York has so far been less than welcoming to the richer and brasher type of new Russian. For sure, the southern reaches of Brooklyn have long been a home to working class Russian immigrants, many of them Jewish immigrants from the early nineties. Quick tip: if you ever have a yearning to head to the Russian baths in Midwood, do so on the Sabbath when they're less crowded, although regulars swear blind that the owners turn the heat waaaay down.

But New York, maybe because it has always preferred to nurture its own breed of unbelievably crass new rich, has lost out to London in attracting Russians. You can read more about London's, um, superior attractions in this column by Nick Cohen. And you can get a hint of how Uncle Sam reacts to Russians with wealth of clouded provenance here.

The US sports market has so far evidenced little desire to attract overseas cash, in stark contrast to the inexplicably popular brothel that is English football. Indeed, more than one US team owner has looked on enviously as football does what no US sport outside basketball has managed to do - expand into the growing parts of Asia. A few have even bought up English clubs.

US team owners are a strange bunch, cosseted by a wealth of legal exemptions, given to opaque finances, lovers of the taxpayer's largesse, and frequently at odds with their fans sentiment. But they're fairly keenly aware, normally, of the importance of good PR. It's one of the big reasons I'm a fan of the Mets - that management plainly cares what I think of them.

It's what makes Bruce Ratner's ill-starred ownership of the New Jersey Nets so fascinating. He's got no interest in basketball, has very little grounding in New Jersey politics, and has made no attempt, on a personal level, to connect with the fans. Sure, there's this Brett Yormark character, who seems to get sports marketing on a technical level, in much the same way as many baseball front offices have a stats wiz on staff these days.

But Bruce, if he had the faintest sense, would not have allowed the faintest hint of a rumour, true or not, that he planned to seek foreign capital to see the light of day. It's not so much that the sports fans of the Greater New York are not a xenophobic bunch (I'm thinking of you, drunken fans on the Mets' Loge level). But they're comforted by the idea that the extortionate seat and concession prices they bear are essentially being recycled within their community by local ownership.

There's appropriate symmetry to the move. Barclays Capital, which, at least for the next month or so, owns the naming rights to the arena, is also looking for Russian cash, and displaying a similar lack of tact when doing so. Barclays, see, wants to keep paying humungous bonuses to senior management, and cannot do so if it is forced to go to the UK taxpayer for more equity. But it needs to raise more equity so as to benefit from UK guarantees of its debt and deposits.

It's called having your cake and eating it, and while the man on the Clapham omnibus is less angry about this than Lloyds, which has taken government cash, paying such bonuses, such a posture does somewhat undermine the "we're all in this together narrative" that the financial services sector would like to prevail.

We probably don't need to worry too much about the prospect of either coming through. The commodities bust, and the spread of the credit crunch to Russian financial institutions, has severely hurt the wealth of many of the newly-rich Russians. Russia was much more frugal with its oil earnings than other countries, but will strain to keep its economic growth going using government cash. This linkage between commodity prices and interest in sports teams was pointed out, strangely enough, by NBA Commissioner Stern, who we wish displayed as much awareness of the linkage between the location of an All-Star Game and its traffic problems.

Still, I don't think that this was what the Gowanus Lounge's Mr Guskind had in mind when he compared Brooklyn pols' performance over term limits to the post-Putin political scene in Russia. You never know, though, handing over control of the Atlantic Yards project to strange oligarchs might even rouse that lot from their torpor. A blog that knows multiples more about sports than I seems to be thinking along similar lines.

But do teams need Russian cash to compete at the top level? Ladies and gentleman, I give you the mighty Hull City

I can't help but think that the end-game for Atlantic Yards is looming.


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