When it comes to dream jobs, it may be impossible to land a gig better than Scott O’Neil’s. As President of Madison Square Garden Sports, the 42-year-old executive occupies unique real estate at the intersection of professional sports and big business, but from his perspective, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This season, in particular, has been a roller coaster for sure,” says O’Neil. “But just like it is for the fans and players, it’s the same for us here [on the business side]. It’s fun, in a sadistic kind of way.”
Since joining MSG almost four years ago, O’Neil has become a powerful force at the Garden, not only because of his jaw-dropping corporate revenue generation, but also for his attention to detail and his unabashed passion for the product itself. A graduate of Harvard Business School, and a former executive with the NBA, the New Jersey Nets and the Philadelphia Eagles, it’s obvious in person that sports literally course through O’Neil’s veins. That is not to say that he involves himself in player-personnel decisions, though.
At least, not officially.
“[When it comes to the Knicks], Glen [Grunwald] makes his own decisions on how to run the team. Sure, the choices he makes or doesn’t make might impact me in my role, but I do not impact him. I am so happy that he is being rewarded for his hard work, he deserves this opportunity. Glen is a terrific partner, a wonderful guy and he’s very smart. My job here is to take what I see of the on-court or on-ice products and help build and grow our business from there.”
This, despite rumors that O’Neil has the ear of Madison Square Garden Company Executive Chairman James Dolan and the widely-held belief that his close ties to Creative Artists Agency virtually ensures his involvement in roster moves.
Regardless of where the lines are drawn between official capacities (O’Neil’s umbrella covers the Knicks, Rangers, Liberty, college basketball, boxing, tennis and all sporting events at any of MSG’s venues) and behind the scenes facilitations, there is no denying that he has brought Madison Square Garden firmly into the digital age, steward of a wide-sweeping directive that permeates the entire organization. From MSG’s embracement of advanced analytics – utilized by both the business itself and its sports teams alike – to its truly remarkable dedication to fan and community outreach programs, O’Neil’s marketing-fingerprints can be seen everywhere you look.
“We track everything, we use metrics for every aspect of our business, says O’Neil. “So naturally, with the unpredictable and amazing developments of this [Knicks] season, we definitely raised our expectations on the fly and set the bar higher in terms of what level of interest in the team we were aiming for.”
Given his tremendous influence, it should come as no surprise that a driven O’Neil found last year’s NBA lockout to be torturously frustrating. Self-described as ambitious, sometimes to a fault, one gets the sense that he isn’t a fan of being told no. Yet despite the conventional wisdom that fans would shy away from the league after the work stoppage, O’Neil says there was no such concern at MSG.
“We were licking our chops from a marketing perspective. I can’t recall one meeting where concern over the lockout impact was even discussed. To have Carmelo [Anthony], the best scorer in the game, Amar’e [Stoudemire], an all-NBA caliber player, and then to acquire one of the best defensive guys in league in Tyson Chandler? We knew we would light this city on fire. And that was despite no one knowing who Lin was at the time!”
Of course, mere mention of Jeremy Lin quickly sends the characteristically cool O’Neil into a near-euphoric state. “When Linsanity hit, it was like nothing I have ever experienced this or any other business. There has never been anything like it. At one point, 45% of all Knicks merchandise sold in The Garden was connected to Jeremy. And that was after just two weeks. We saw a 2000% increase in our online video views. Our television ratings doubled. When compared against any other league-wide measurable, be it sales, page views, you name it, the gap between us and anyone else was unprecedented.”
When pressed on whether Lin must be re-signed, particularly in light of MSG’s widely-publicized efforts to partner strategically in the Far East, O’Neil demurred to Grunwald, but it seems clear that the organization is committed to expanding its footprint independent of the present or future roster(s).
As if all that weren’t enough, O’Neil also manages marketing partnerships and suites sales for Madison Square Garden’s ongoing renovation – the project is overseen by MSG President and CEO, Hank Ratner – which at last check was fast approaching nearly $1 billion in total cost. “We all knew what we were getting into from the start. Everything remains on schedule, but to put things into perspective, it’s like renovating your kitchen at home and throwing a dinner party every night along the way. We have to be able to do [completing the project and servicing the fans] simultaneously, so it can be tricky. Honestly, the process has been as terrifying as it has been electrifying, as maddening as it is fun. Fortunately the feedback has been outstanding; walking into this building remains special and magical. And it will only be more so when all is said and done.”
And on the Garden’s iconic ceiling, which has certainly seen its best days? “The roof will be restored, not replaced,” says O’Neil. “We are confident that the acoustics will be even better for concerts when it’s done.”
One issue that O’Neil laments not having more control over is those ever-increasing tickets prices. “It is a business, but we try to be responsible. We sell 500 seats to every Knicks game at $10 a pop. That is cheaper than a movie ticket! We try very hard to ensure that there are kids sitting in those seats, but one has to understand the market we operate in. Demand [for tickets] is off the charts, so there is a lot of pressure.”
For a franchise that has seen its share of controversy and upheaval over the past decade or so, it should comfort Knicks fans that the pragmatic and forward-thinking O’Neil remains as excited about his role now as he was when he first joined the organization. Though he often travels to see both the Knicks and Rangers on the road, he doesn’t envision leaving MSG permanently anytime soon. “We’ve got a great thing going here and I am just happy to be a part of it.”
When it comes to the Knicks versus the Heat, however, O’Neil’s clairvoyance was a tad more ambiguous, if not politically correct. “I am predicting sold out crowds, earsplitting cheers and a lot of sore throats throughout New York.”