Price Increase for Knicks Tickets May Drive Fans Away

As a teenager in the mid-1960s, he was a ball boy assigned to the visiting team bench at the Garden’s previous location on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street.

“I’m 59 and I still tell people it was the best job I ever had,” he said.

Since then, the privilege of remaining close to his beloved Knicks has come at a significant cost. But through a decade when the team was not only unwatchable but often unlikable, Dorf hoped for better days and faithfully renewed his two seats, for which he paid $330 per ticket per game this season.

This weekend, with the Knicks playing their first home playoff games since 2004, Dorf is clinging to an identity that shaped his adult life, to the point where friends have suggested he put on his tombstone, “He had great seats.”

Next season, those seats will cost $825 each, or a combined $1,650 per game, as part of a sweeping price increase that will average 49 percent across the arena. Although prices did not rise in recent seasons, Dorf, a small-business owner from South Orange, N.J., was clearly stunned by the increase, especially in a time of financial stress.

“It’s hard to make people feel sorry for you when you’ve been sitting in a $330 seat, but this has really changed the landscape,” he said. “A normal person cannot afford almost $2,000 to go to a basketball game 44 times a year.”

When Dorf — who watched the Knicks get routed by the in Game 3 of their first-round series Friday night — returns for Game 4 on Sunday, he and many courtside fans he has known for 40 years will be contemplating the end of their era with the May 13 deadline for renewal approaching.

“Everybody is in the same boat, the same quagmire,” Dorf said. “We ask each other, ‘How are you dealing with this?’ My answer is I’m talking to as many people as possible, trying to find someone who will help with the costs and take a lot of the games off my hands. If I let these seats go, I’ll never get them back.”

That is the problem for the oldest courtside fans, who have invested abundant time, money and emotion but now face the biggest markups for what the Knicks have described as beachfront property.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” said Burt Ross, a 41-year ticket-holder and retired commercial real estate developer from Englewood, N.J., who lost $5 million to the . “I certainly can’t take $80,000 and put it down on Knicks tickets. But I’m not blaming the Dolans; it’s a private enterprise system. If they can get it, more power to them. If they can’t, the seats will be empty.”

Given the largely white-collar courtside clientele, several season-ticket holders grudgingly acknowledged the Knicks’ right to charge as much as the market will bear. But some complained about the timing of the increases, announced so soon after the trade for and before the Knicks had even qualified for the playoffs.

“Couldn’t they have won something first?” said one four-decade fan, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by owners who have been notoriously contentious. “What kind of loyalty is that?”

Michelle Musler of Stamford, Conn., has been going to the Garden for 34 years, sitting behind the Knicks’ bench through thick and thin, and in recent years through back surgery, two knee operations, a stubborn case of shingles and a bout with cancer.

Most of her treatment was purposefully timed during the off-season, allowing her to miss only the games she sold off to defray the cost of her tickets.

“It’s been a big part of my life, and I’ve made so many good friends,” said Musler, whose seats, now priced at $330, will rise to $900.

Seldom have the members of her extended Knicks family — scattered about the lower bowl — socialized outside the Garden. But during pregame dinners at Garden restaurants, they watched one another’s children and grandchildren grow up, shared news of triumphs and travails — the team’s and their own.

While networking to hold on to her tickets, Musler chafes about the fine print of the new deal.

“They’ve segregated the sections,” she said, meaning that she — as a holder of premier seats — will have access to what the Garden is calling the Delta 360 Sky Club while friends who sit behind the basket will be relegated to a less prestigious club.

Huibert Soutendijk of Bronxville, N.Y., is one of those friends she will be separated from because of the Garden’s continuing renovation and gentrification. Soutendijk, better known as Hup, has attended Knicks games for 35 years and has renewed with his group. Although each of his seats in the third row behind the basket has increased only to $280 from $240, the addition of two rows in front will turn them into fifth-row seats.

“We fully believe this is just the beginning,” he said. “If they fill up all the seats, they’ll do it all again, and that will be it for us. All these people have stuck with them through the last decade — that’s what smells bad.”

It’s a sad and familiar American story retold in the context of professional sports, said Steffi Berne of Manhattan. She has been a Garden regular since the 1960s with her husband, Bob. Their seats behind Musler’s will rise to $675 per ticket from $330, and she has suggested to her husband that they not renew.

“What it has been is a community, a funny kind of family and a really important part of our lives,” she said. “And for those of us who go all the way back to the championship teams, that made it more special.”

Berne’s two most cherished possessions — “what I’d grab first if our apartment was on fire,” she said — are a dollhouse her daughter made in fifth grade and an authentic game jersey.

How do you let go of something of such intangible consequence, and at a time of your life when there tend to be more losses than wins?

“This is not like losing your parents or your kids growing up and moving away,” Ross said, adding that he was considering moving to California, where his children live. “Leaving the Garden will be a big change, but from the Dolans’ point of view, someone else will sit in those seats.”

If that is to happen next season, Ross said he would leave with the belief that those who do go will not care about the Knicks as much as he does.

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