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Pandemic, Social Upheaval Spur Changes At Barclays Center, But Brooklyn Boxing Will Survive

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It’s unwise to assume that something will necessarily look tomorrow as it looks today, but that’s a natural tendency as the world battles this pandemic.

Finding spots of light as you trod down the dark tunnel is a challenge, as the toll of the coronavirus piles up. Loss of life is the primary tragedy and the economic effects add to the misery index, without a doubt.

We look to hobbies and for sources of entertainment, to give us respite from pondering the swath of destruction. And then we receive word that interrupts a period of respite…

On Tuesday, word dropped that layoffs hit at Barclays Center, and that included someone who rode the wave of Brooklyn Boxing from the get go, Joseph DiMitri of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

“The end of an era…Yesterday, I along with many other of my closest colleagues were let go by Barclays Center. After 8 1/2 dedicated years, I will not be able to finish…what was started,” the 37 year old sales ace shared on social. “Prior to the stoppage in March, Brooklyn Boxing was set to have another big year to host some of the biggest fights in the game.  All I can say is a big ‘thank you’ to my great clients, family and friends who have loyally supported throughout the years. I hope we all can stay in contact as I seek my next venture and hope to announce it soon.”

You could say this marked an end of the “Yormark Era” at the Brooklyn arena, for boxing. The Prospect Heights, Brooklyn entertainment venue is staging ground for the Brooklyn Nets and NY Liberty, and had elevated as a popular landing zone for top tier boxing events since opening in 2012.

Barclays Center has featured boxing prominently since opening in 2012. But will the sweet science be part of the mix when COVID falls back and patrons can start flocking back to the arena?

There have been 39 pro boxing events held at Barclays Center…and the changes at the arena led NYF to wonder if more are to come.

Now, does it hang in limbo what sort of role boxing might have, if any, at the building purchased by Joseph Tsai, who gained possession of the venue and the Nets in August 2019?

Changes brought about by the exit of owner Mikhail Prokhorov rippled, and that included a biggie for boxing fans. Yormark, now co-CEO of Roc Nation Unified, had been a proponent who pushed boxing as a building staple since coming aboard as the first CEO of the complex which broke ground in 2010. “There’s a rich heritage of boxing in Brooklyn and we are thrilled to make the sport a major part of the new arena,” Yormark said half a year before the facility opened. The inaugural boxing event unfurled on Oct. 20, 2012, with Danny Garcia-Erik Morales II topping the nine-bout offering, and DiMitri was there. He’s been a seat-filler, literally, since 2012 and told me he holds masses of fond memories from his stint at the joint. He had to think a bit when I asked him to narrow down the moments to a No. 1, and we shouldn’t be surprised that he chose the Danny Garcia v Keith Thurman fight, from March 4, 2017, because that was the largest crowd of all the fight cards placed inside the rival to Madison Square Garden. 

“I’m going to miss it so much, this allowed me to fulfill a dream, as a boxing fan,” DiMitri told me. “To see the guys in the Golden Gloves, the Chris Colberts and Richardson Hitchins, then graduate to the pros, and succeed, it’s been a blessing.”

But this coronavirus is a curse. New York City is a densely packed melting pot, and citizens here were reminded of that when COVID started knocking on doors last March. I live a 20 minute walk from Barclays, so some of the wail of ambulance sirens carrying COVID patients to NY-Presbyterian Methodist Hospital in Park Slope would touch the arena and then my eardrums. Until the virus is corralled and quelled, bringing patrons into an arena, where social distancing is difficult, we cannot expect to see a fight card play out at the venue. 

John Abbamondi is now CEO for BSE Global, the parent company of the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets, Barclays Center, the Long Island Nets of the NBA G-League and Nets Gaming Crew of the NBA 2K League.

Yormark bid adieu soon after Prokhorov handed over the reins, and even if the former VP for ticketing at MSG Abbamondi is a legit lover of the sport to which all others aspire to, it’s unlikely he will be in the same league as Yormark. That’s not a knock at the new guy, either, it’s just an acknowledgment that boxing is a niche sport. Yormark always tried to make Brooklyn the equal to Las Vegas, where the borough could be the magnet for those massive events which Nevada has been able to land since the 80s; and even if you thought the desire was an exercise in quixotica, if you were a BK fight fan, you probably appreciated his passion.

The MIT and then Stanford grad Abbamondi did a stint at the NBA and MLB before that. But boxing? We’ll have to see what place it has in his heart, or to be more correct, his business plan. 

DiMitri said he didn’t know Abbamondi’s take on whether or not boxing could make a comeback at Barclays when arenas start humming again, which is anyone’s guess. He shared that yes, the powers that be did indeed do the right thing in how they clued him in that his tenure would be over and crafted an exit package.

“They’ve been great,” he said.

Owner Tsai decided back in March 2020 that workers would receive the same pay they’d have gotten if lockdown hadn’t halted business, through the end of May. Last summer, anxiety bubbled in brains about a dreaded “second wave” of COVID carnage, and it became clear, as fall transitioned to winter here in the Northeast, that best case hopes of a miracle vaccine-fueled turnaround wouldn’t play out. The virus became a political issue almost from inception, and the lack of a coordinated federal government response and strategy has left 50 states fending for themselves, and often adrift as state leaders dither. Boxing fans have enjoyed action inside “Bubbles,” contained zones where a strict protocol for COVID testing exists, in the summer, and of late, we’ve seen bouts taking place in arenas in states like Texas, which has more of a “live and let live” vibe to it.

It’s not unfair to say that New York has more of a “blue state” vibe where the miracles afforded by science are more so revered than symbolic stands for “liberty” undertaken by anti-maskers who mistrust official institutions as deep-state dupes intent on making America less great, or something. 

Barclays Center attracted persons looking to choose between Trump and Biden Nov. 3, and was a gathering place for activists taking to the streets to make clear that enough is enough, Black Lives Matter, and the repeated incidences of casual violence and needless fatalities signals that America is in need of a systemic rinse in “law enforcement” practices. But we moved into 2021 with no blue sky to smile at, though workers felt gratitude that despite no Islanders games–they play at Nassau Coliseum now–or concerts, or the like, Tsai would keep paying workers through the end of 2020.

“In the COVID era, with social distancing and people not being able to congregate in a place, that’s really going to prevent the economics,” said the businessman, worth some $14 plus billion, who with his wife pledged $50M for “BIPOC” causes in August 2020. “But these are challenges that can be overcome with time because we know … that there’s going to be a vaccine. You can have rapid testing programs before people come into the building. So at some point, that’s going to come back to normal.”

Alas, not yet. The NBA is doing a shortened slate, 72 games, in-market, out-of-bubble, and the Nets started play on Dec. 22. Abbamondi expressed cautious optimism on a CNBC hit before Christmas: “We are optimistic that before this season is over, which will be in the summer of next year, things are going to look very different. There is a lot of caution, but there’s also a sense of optimism, and I think all Americans share that.” Nets fans are feeling some of that, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the the fold. But NY-region boxing fans, who’d enjoyed being in the melange of patrons at Barclays for Golden Boy and then PBC product, I confess to starting this story a bit worried that it may not pay for them to get their hopes up. 

My anxiety got quelled, though, when I talked to Mandy Gutmann, senior vice president of communications and community relations for BSE Global. 

“In 2012, Barclays Center brought major professional championship boxing back to the borough for the first time since 1931 and we plan to keep building on that legacy when the time is right,” Guttman told me.

I’ve known Guttman for the entire run of Barclays boxing, and we’ve chatted before about the importance of having personnel involved which reflect the community at large. It’s not a secret to anyone that business from the most humble bodega to massive revenue generators have been subjected to challenges from the coronavirus’ long arms, and that companies the world over have had to make hard choices in staffing levels. I feel for Regular Joes and Janes, especially, who’ve taken an economic hit because of COVID, and hope hard workers like DiMitri find other outlets. COVID has and continues to impact me, because those club shows we have streamed since 2017, on Facebook Fightnight Live are not viable, and that revenue stream for me dried up in total.

Personally, I have been disappointed that we haven’t seen a cohesive federal plan of attack and smart strategizing in getting COVID in control and make no secret that I’m hopeful that scatter-shot nature in dealing with the severe public health crisis improves noticeably post Jan. 20. A return to an employment level circa February 2020 will be cause for relative rejoice.

Now, it looked to me, on surface, that the late November 2020 additions of some senior executives to bolster BSE’s business and venue operations is a positive step, which factors in the trending we’ve noted in corporations’ acknowledgement that achieving better diversity can’t be a box to be ticked, but a component of a needed societal reset. 

The Nets owner Tsai enjoys and supports a variety of sports–but we don’t yet know what he thinks of the sweet science.

BSE Global named Emerson Moore as executive vice president, chief people officer, Peter Stern as executive vice president, chief financial officer and Jackie Wilson II as executive director of diversity and inclusion. “As we have brought on new leadership over the last several months, our company has gone through a detailed review to determine the best way to improve the organization and grow our business,” Guttman told me. “Based on this review, which was carefully and thoughtfully conducted, it was determined that a reorganization was necessary, and as a result, some positions have been added, others will be added, while some are no longer needed.”

I hope to sit down, fate willing, as soon as possible, with Abbamondi, see where he stands on bringing boxing back into the mix when our COVID stats allow it, and local governing regulators agree to give the “all clear” thumbs up to large-scale gatherings of strangers. 

As it stands now, you can go to BoxRec, and click on “Barclays Center,” to bring yourself down memory lane. Thirty nine boxing events at the Brooklyn facility, the Oct. 20, 2012 debut featuring a who’s who of local products.

ESPN New York had a fight blog which offered boxing news centered around the NYC boroughs.

Danny Garcia took out Erik Morales, in the Mexican’s last outing, Peter Quillin treated Hassan N’Dam like a yo-yo, and Paul Malignaggi, Luis Collazo, Danny Jacobs and Dmitriy Salita enjoyed getting Ws in front of friends and neighbors, if not being pestered for comps from frugal buds during fight week. Yes, I think it’s a safe bet the March 7, 2020 event topped by a Robert Helenius upset win over local Polish power Adam Kownacki won’t be recalled as the last one in the run at Barclays. They’ve hosted more than 250 bouts, and more than 60-plus title fights, with hopefully more to come. More opportunities to surpass that 16,533 in the building to watch the Danny Garcia-Keith Thurman PBC card, the biggest crowd ever for boxing and the highest grossing non-Nets sporting event in venue history.

 

As a fan, I very much hope that the boxing program continues in Brooklyn. But this is the boxing business, and I hold no illusions about the breadth of the appeal of the sport. So it doesn’t surprise me, really, when folks make decisions to pivot off boxing, to events and programs that are “easier,” and are likely to enjoy a higher ceiling of potential popularity.

As a Brooklyner, and boxing fan and someone who cares about the sport, though, I’m happy to be feeling fairly optimistic that boxing at Barclays is not something to be spoken of in the past tense, but in fact has a future to look forward to. 

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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