Sunday, December 20, 2009

MSG & The Holiday Festival ain’t what it used to be, no matter what the ticket prices say

The only place MSG remains the mecca is in black-and-white photographs.

If you’re like me (once again, I’m very sorry), then you’ve received phone calls and emails this week from the Hofstra ticket office reminding you that tickets are on sale now for the Holiday Festival (if the tournament sponsor wants a mention, it can pay me too!) today and Monday.

All of which confirms something I’ve long suspected: Tom Pecora is the only person excited about the Flying Dutchmen playing in the Holiday Festival.

“It’s always great to play in Madison Square Garden,” Pecora said after the Dutchmen beat New Hampshire last Saturday. “You’ve heard me say it before: I go in there, I still get goose bumps.”

If you’re of a certain age—like, say, between Beach and Pecora—you can understand why Pecora is nostalgic. He remembers the days when MSG was truly The Mecca of Basketball, when it housed an annual NBA title contender in the Knicks and a Big East powerhouse in St. John’s, and when our view of the basketball universe was shaped by the Game of the Week on TV.

To watch basketball on TV in the ‘80s was to think the sport was only played in a handful of arenas. And MSG was one of these places where magic happened, a destination which was rarely attainable for commoners and one that required great effort and sacrifice to reach. I remember going to my first NBA game—Knicks vs. Hawks in the winter of 1983-84—and what a major deal it was.

We drove from our home in northwest Connecticut to a bus station an hour or so to the south, boarded a bus to Grand Central Station, then boarded a subway to MSG. Then we sat somewhere in the nosebleeds and watched someone (I think it was the Hawks) win at the buzzer. Then we got on the subway to the bus station and drove home, getting back to the middle of nowhere around 4 am. It was a HUGE deal to a 10-year-old, who spent all of Monday’s Language Arts class talking about it.

But the decline of MSG’s basketball occupants and the realities of modern times—namely greed and overexposure—have conspired to turn MSG into just another building and a game there into just another date on the calendar.

For most of this decade, MSG has been where good basketball goes to die. The Knicks are in the midst of their ninth straight losing season, during which they have played a grand total of three playoff games—the fewest of any NBA team in that span other than the Charlotte Bobcats, who didn’t exist until 2005.

Under the “leadership” of Mike Jarvis, St. John’s not only became irrelevant nationally but locally as well, where Pecora and Hofstra began poaching the best high school players and pounding the Red Storm on the court (that’s right, I’m talking trash). NCAA violations under Jarvis’ watch led the St. John’s losing 47 wins between 2000 and 2004 and the Red Storm didn’t advance to the Big East Tournament four times in the five years between 2003-04 and 2007-08. Their appearance in the CBI last year marked the program’s first postseason trip since 2002-03.

But even if the Knicks and Red Storm—the latter of whom appear to be crawling their way back to respectability during an 8-1 start—remained vibrant through the ‘00s, the explosion of basketball on the small screen would have made their home less prestigious.

Today’s college basketball players cannot remember a time when they weren’t able to travel the country’s professional and collegiate arenas via remote control, seven nights a week from November through June. There’s so much variety from which to choose that, at some point, there’s no difference between MSG and Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center and whichever corporate-named arena happens to be hosting an NBA game on ESPN.

The Holiday Festival, meanwhile, was once the premier in-season college basketball tournament, but now it’s just one of several to be held at MSG—and by far the most secondary. At least four tournaments have already taken place at MSG, including the semifinals and finals of the Preseason NIT. Had the Flying Dutchmen beaten UConn in Storrs to advance to the NIT semifinals, they would have appeared on ESPN or ESPN2 the day before and the day after Thanksgiving.

This weekend’s Holiday Festival takes place right before Christmas, instead of immediately after it, and the Hofstra-St. John’s game will be played smack dab in the middle of the Jets game Sunday. The championship game will start shortly after the Giants’ Monday Night Football game and will be televised on—we are not making this up—CSPAN2. Filibuster this!

All of which leads us to the biggest problem facing the Holiday Festival: The shamelessly expensive tickets. As Long Islanders, we are used to Cablevision (which owns MSG) being painfully out of touch with the common man it tries to screw 24/7/365 (upon typing that, I expect my wireless and my cable to go out at any moment).

But this is a new low for Cablevision. The Holiday Festival is operated as an afterthought and airs its championship game on an eighth-tier channel and MSG is going to charge…$50 and $60 per doubleheader ticket?! The weekend before Christmas? With the economy in the crapper? To see two local teams who don’t fill up their own home gyms? Let’s not forget Hofstra drew triple digits to both its NIT home games, where tickets were $10 and $15 per doubleheader. Why would anyone pay four or five times and then dig deeper into the wallet to cover the cost of transportation and food? Even before the Blizzard of Doom?

It’s too bad, because this weekend could have been a nice opportunity to tap into the still-vast nostalgia engendered by MSG by making prices affordable and hoping the Baby Boomers (or, gasp, Generation Xers) could take their children to the game and maybe pass on the fondness for the ol’ building to those who might not otherwise realize or appreciate its history. I’m pretty sure Cablevision could still afford its electric bills if the tickets were $30 and $20.

“It’s an exciting time of the year to be in the city and it’s a really good tournament—probably as good a tournament as it’s ever been in terms of great balance and four good teams with ourselves, Davidson, Cornell and St. John’s,” Pecora said. “It’ll be a great challenge. It’ll be fun.”

It will be. Too bad the Garden assured, even before it had the excuse of poor weather, that nobody will be there to see it.

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

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