Bruce Ratner is the minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise, and the majority owner and developer of the team’s new arena, the Barclays Center. Real estate mogul Ratner bought the Nets in 2003 with the expressed aim of moving them from New Jersey to downtown Brooklyn. Having successfully negotiated several obstacles along the way – notably several lawsuits following the controversial use of eminent domain, and the economic crisis – Ratner was finally able to break ground in March 2010. The new US$1 billion arena, designed by SHoP Architects and part of a multi-billion dollar real estate development called the Atlantic Yards, is due to open on 28th September this year.
For Ratner though, the work has only just begun, as he looks to transform the Barclays Center into the preeminent venue in the country.
You’ve been involved in lots of different real estate projects. Does this feel more pressurised because of the media interest and is it therefore more satisfying for you?
"We all need whoosh moments. We need those two or three hour periods"
I have done very large projects before. I did a project called MetroTech in downtown Brooklyn - six or seven million square feet of office space and done over a period of 12, 15 years, and obviously people see now how seminal it was for a lot of them. That being said, because of the supreme difficulty of this – let’s say we struggled for seven years and then opened an amazing office building, we’d cut the ribbon and people would go in the building, and big deal; I’d have great satisfaction but the world doesn’t really recognise what we went through to get it. Here, with the Barclays Center, because it was so public and because it has an opening date and a large, large number of people out to be entertained on September 28th, it’s a much more defined moment of ‘oh my God, this has started, it’s been finished and it’s opening up’.
Why bring the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn?
The first I think is the sports aspect. It’s urban. Sports does incredibly well in an urban environment. And that’s opposed to a team that represents a state – New Jersey, Golden State – or even minor urban areas where arenas are located in suburban, rural areas. Sports is urban. Cities were built by people getting together and creating community, and that’s what you get with urban sports. And Brooklyn is probably one of the oldest cities in this country in its own right. It has its own long history. Apart from maybe Anaheim, which no-one has heard of except for Disney, I don’t think there’s a part of a city that has a team named after that part of the city. That was unusual and I knew it would be a game-changer for Brooklyn.
Could you point to some of the venue’s features you are most proud of?
I think the single and most important thing is the transportation, which the world is just beginning to understand. Imagine 11 train lines underground, coming into a facility. It’s more than any place in this country. It’s more than Times Square. It’s more than any location in downtown Manhattan. Every train, virtually, comes into this arena, and then the Long Island railroad. The transportation is absolutely unbelievable, and people are only just waking up to that. The second is the design of the arena, which was made very intentionally to be very tight. It turns out that what’s important to the fan is the horizontal, not so much the vertical. So the horizontal distance is minimised so that people feel very close to the action. It feels very tight. When you walk it you don’t feel like you’re in a barn, you feel like you’re all together. There is a certain viewpoint in sports in particular that we have lost a sense of community. But now sports lets us for two or two and a half hours all be part of the same thing, the same team. And this arena emphasises that. The architecture is absolutely incredible. People obviously still talk about the Bird's Nest, well this is in the same category of spectacular. It’s a spectacular piece of architecture, both inside and outside.
"People obviously still talk about the Birds Nest, well this is in the same category of spectacular"
The likes of Jay-Z, Barbara Streisand, Andrea Bocelli, Justin Bieber, and Leonard Cohen are already lined up to play at the Barclays Center. What’s your take on the programming?
Content at the end of the day is the most important thing, and I think we’re going to be number one in content for what we’re offering. Just as people look at things and say, ‘oh my God look what’s playing at Carnegie Hall, or oh my God look what’s playing at Madison Square Garden,’ they’re going to say ‘look what’s playing at the Barclay’s Center’. As opposed to searching around the different venues to see what’s on, they’re already going to know that we curate the best of the best. We all need whoosh moments. We need those two or three hour periods. I’m playing bridge; I love bridge – not me in particular – but when I’m playing bridge for two and a half hours the world is totally tuned out. I like to fish, say – I don’t but a lot of people do – and when I’m fishing the whole world is tuned out. I like sports, and when I’m watching sports I’m happy as can be. I’m doing something I love and I’m in flow; I don’t know what’s going on. For some people that may be Justin Bieber. And Justin Bieber is just as important, honestly, as somebody older going to a philharmonic and being carried away for two hours. The other part of it is not only the issue of trying to find some more long range thinking about the musicologists, it’s also that there’s no corner on what’s good and what’s bad and what’s important to somebody. But what is important for everybody is to take them away for two hours into a flow moment with a whoosh, and that is our job; that’s what people are paying for. If Justin Bieber whooshes your children or you for two and half hours, it’s our job to make sure that we bring that, and it’s our job to make sure that it’s not interrupted by being uncomfortable, or by not being able to see, or not being able to hear or having a tough time with your tickets.
How would you describe your own leadership style?
I guess I was always one of those people growing up who was always elected to this thing and that thing, high school and stuff and I went work for the city out of law school and in the second or third year my boss left so I became leader of a group. Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes but I would say where I fit on that scale, I’m in a lot of ways consensus-based, really willing to make decisions, I don’t look back and I’m not critical of people looking back – if we’ve made a mistake we’ve made it together. No one person does anything, it’s all teamwork. If I can’t do it I can’t expect anybody else to do it. If I don’t bend down and pick up the piece of paper in my office building I can’t expect anybody to do it. If I’m not willing to work hard nobody should have to work hard. The other thing is I do believe that people have lives outside of work and that balance is very, very important. That’s part of leadership too, recognising that lives have to be balanced and I communicate that to people. The wholeness of a person is leadership to me and recognising when somebody works for me they better be whole, they can’t be uni-dimensional because it doesn’t work.
A comprehensive interview with Bruce Ratner appears in the July issue of SportsPro. Subsribe here today.