The news was announced Wednesday afternoon in separate statements from O’Neil and the Garden. The reasons for O’Neil’s departure were not immediately clear, but it appears he is not leaving for another job. Neither statement offered any specifics.
O’Neil, 42, had a tenuous relationship with James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman — a fact that was well known among people with ties to both men. Young, ambitious and driven, O’Neil was constantly pushing to expand his influence in the daily operations of the Knicks and the Rangers, as well as on the business side, creating some tension with Dolan.
Still, O’Neil was well regarded around the league, and he generated millions in new revenue for the Garden, securing major partnerships with JP MorganChase, Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola, among others.
O’Neil’s departure comes just as the Knicks are facing a new challenge for fans and corporate dollars in their home market, with the Nets moving to Brooklyn this fall. The need for a strong, creative voice on the business side has perhaps never been greater.
The search for O’Neil’s successor will begin immediately, according to the Garden’s statement.
“We are grateful for Scott’s years of service and his many contributions to the company, and wish him the very best of luck as he moves forward,” the statement said. “We are fortunate to have a talented team in place at MSG Sports who will continue to build on the company’s successes while we undertake a search for a new president of MSG Sports.”
The Garden issued its statement about 30 minutes after The Daily News first reported that O’Neil intended to step down. A Garden spokesman said the company would have no further comment. O’Neil did not respond to messages but issued his own prepared statement.
“My time at the World’s Most Famous Arena has been nothing short of incredible, and I am proud of our results,” O’Neil said. He gave no hints about his future, saying only, “I could not be more excited about the process of discovering what lies ahead.”
Hired for his business acumen, O’Neil gradually increased his involvement in the Knicks’ personnel decisions, often to the annoyance of the basketball operations staff. O’Neil was in the room for the Knicks’ presentation to LeBron James in 2010, and he was involved in the trade talks for Carmelo Anthony in 2011. O’Neil also has deep ties to Creative Artists Agency, which represents Anthony, Coach Mike Woodson and two members of the front office.
The Garden is now searching for its third president in nine years. Steve Mills held the title from 2003 to 2008, presiding over a tumultuous Knicks era that included five straight losing seasons and a sexual-harassment lawsuit — aimed at Thomas — that cost the Garden $11.5 million in a settlement. Mills, who had hired Thomas, was reassigned in July 2008 to make room for O’Neil. Mills left the Garden the next spring.
Before joining the Knicks, O’Neil spent seven years with the N.B.A., serving as senior vice president for team marketing and business operations from 2004 to 2008. He was named one of the top 40 sports executives under age 40 by Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Advertising Age.