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Best: Knicks fans have seen the light (at the end of the tunnel)

Fans pack the seats at Madison Square Garden

Fans pack the seats at Madison Square Garden for a game between the New York Knicks and the Toronto Raptors. (January 28, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Photo by Jason DeCrow

LeBron James presumably will study the Knicks' record and roster - in addition to their bank account - as he ponders his next career move about five months hence.

But it might make more sense for him to consider numbers that better reflect the future, given the fact that while many current players won't be a part of it, the franchise's fans will.

Their apparent love of the team and sport continues to outstrip anything the Knicks have done to earn that support during nearly a decade of losing seasons, illustrating a potential that is waiting to be revived.

The Knicks entered last night ranked fifth in the NBA in paid attendance, averaging 19,530 - almost 99 percent of capacity - with 15 sellouts, six more than at this time last season.

They were the only team among the top eight with a losing record, and one of only eight in the league with more than 10,000 full season tickets, up 13 percent from last season.

That still is a far cry from the 433 consecutive sellouts from 1993-2003, but the average is up 3 percent over last season at this time, with fewer discounts and promotions than in 2008-09.

Some of that reflects interest in the current team; much of it reflects interest in future teams.

Sean Cronin, 30, an attorney in Mineola whose family has had season tickets for 21 years, said that after a long wait, this is no time to give up. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel,'' he said. "There's a plan in place.''

Tickets are only part of the phenomenon. The Knicks - who, like Newsday, are owned by Cablevision - rank fourth in merchandise sales at the NBA's store and Web site and for the first time since '02-03 are in the top five for in-arena sales.

(Danilo Gallinari has the best-selling adult jersey; David Lee leads among children.)

What have the Knicks done on the court to deserve this? So far, with a record of 18-27, not much. But they appreciate it. "There is something special about New York Knicks fans,'' said Scott O'Neil, president of Madison Square Garden Sports.

That does not necessarily mean this many of them would pay big bucks solely to watch a sub-. 500 team. O'Neil acknowledged that sales are being helped by a desire to reserve a place in a brighter tomorrow.

"It's obviously a factor,'' he said. "It would be naive to think otherwise.''

Said Cronin: "People are really excited for 2010. Whether they think it's a 5 percent chance or a lot higher, they're latching on to that.''

(Cronin's brother, Kevin, maintains a Web site called Countdown2LeBron.com.)

Even given the benefits of drawing from the nation's largest market, the Knicks enjoy remarkable fan loyalty.

Not counting pro football, the only other area franchise that could sustain this level of attendance after this much losing is the Rangers.

The Yankees? No way. The last time they had a losing year, in 1992, they averaged 21,589 customers, their lowest figure in 33 seasons at the renovated Yankee Stadium.

The Mets? In 1996, the last of six consecutive losing seasons, they averaged 19,609, slightly more than what the Knicks average this season in a building less than half as large as Shea.

"Knicks fans have declared, 'I'm in,' '' O'Neil said.

Now it's up to Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni to make that bet pay off.

Cronin's two tickets are in Section 21 behind the basket. "Yeah, they're expensive," he said. "This season they might not be exactly worth it. But I think they will be.''

NBA attendance leaders
Average attendance through Wednesday
BULLS - 20,627
CAVALIERS - 20,562
MAVERICKS - 19,939
TRAIL BLAZERS - 19,608
KNICKS - 19,530

Best's bets: NFL stars dim on Pro Bowl

CBS and Fox both cryptically (and comically) informed viewers last weekend to “check local listings” for Pro Bowl information, but TV sources tell me the game is on ESPN at 7:20 p.m. Sunday.

Producer Jay Rothman said he will take full advantage of unusual access, including cameras in locker rooms and huddles, listening in on coach-quarterback communication, etc.

So you should watch, right? Not necessarily. Selected players have begged off in droves and many of those who have not have criticized holding the game before the Super Bowl — and not in Hawaii. Plus, Colts president Bill Polian said it was “stupid” that Super Bowl participants are being asked to fly to Florida to appear at the game even though they won’t play.

What did ESPN analyst and Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden have to say about that?

This: “There is a lot of truth to what he said. I can’t disagree with him at all.”

Gruden and partner Ron Jaworski did insist that many talented players remain. And don’t be surprised if television ratings are respectable.

What else do sports fans have to watch Sunday night? Outside New York, I mean. Around here we have this unique lineup: Islanders at 4 p.m., Devils at 5, Nets at 6, Knicks at 7, Rangers at 8. A straight flush of winter sports!

Just wondering: Will live sports play on iPad?

Tech geeks still are analyzing the potential impact of Apple’s new iPad, but one obvious use is live sports on a relatively larger screen than customary mobile devices. MLB Advanced Media participated in Wednesday’s much-ballyhooed unveiling and already is marketing MLB.TV subscriptions for 2010 that includes the iPad. The basic service costs $99.95.

Tom Richardson, president of the consulting firm Convergence Sports & Media, told Sports Business Journal, “We’ve seen what’s happened with the iPhone and a three-inch screen. Can you imagine the possibilities with the larger real estate?”

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