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Local sports execs try to stay upbeat in down market

Local sports executives Wednesday expressed uniform optimism about obtaining naming rights, selling premium seats and - in the case of the basketball Nets - continuing the frenzy of erecting new playpens in and around Metropolis during a two-day facilities and franchises convention in midtown Manhattan.

While acknowledging the sluggish economy's impact on their decidedly grand plans, business chiefs representing seven pro teams mostly echoed the upbeat expectations of Brett Yormark, president and CEO of Nets Sports & Entertainment, who proclaimed that "we will break ground in September" on the team's long-delayed and recently redesigned arena in Brooklyn.

Though the Nets have downsized from an elaborate Frank Gehry blueprint and repeatedly put off the team's move from New Jersey, Yormark noted that Barclays chose not to activate its right to terminate a 20-year naming-rights deal at a December deadline. "That speaks volumes about the project," he said. "So I will say to you, there is no option" aside from the Brooklyn move.

"As dismal as people make it out to be," Yormark said of the recession and its potential squeeze on the sports business at a time of remarkable building locally, "this is still New York. People still have disposable income in this market."

A new Nets home would be the fifth stadium to come on line in the area since the Devils opened Newark's Prudential Center in 2007; besides the debuts of new Yankees and Mets ballparks this spring, the Giants and Jets await the opening of their shared Meadowlands palace in 2010. Devils' chairman Jeff Vanderbeek characterized the current economic environment as "bad as I've seen in my adult life," yet he concurred with the convention's general tone that, while "there is less money around for people to spend on entertainment, certainly I think the worst is behind us."

Mark Lamping, still seeking a title brand for the Giants-Jets home as president and CEO of the New Meadowlands Stadium Company, insisted that "the turnaround is near" and argued, "There's a lot of value out there" for corporations.

Furthermore, said Dave Howard, Mets vice president of business operations, peddling expensive premium seats "is not a dramatic issue for us. It is more challenging in this marketplace . . . I'm so glad we're selling Citi Field now; it would be much more challenging at Shea Stadium. The quality change is exponential."

Yormark conceded that "people need to see the justification" for ticket prices. "But premium seats do drive ticket revenue. It does come back to the value proposition. But people do have money is this market."

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