New York

New York Loves to Hate Him. Can a $2.3 Billion Sphere Redeem Jim Dolan?

In his 26th-floor office, high above Midtown Manhattan, James L. Dolan sits on a white couch by a large desk and armoire decorated with family photographs, with an electric guitar on a stand in the corner. His eyes are trained on a wall-mounted surveillance screen.

Mr. Dolan, 68, oversees a family empire that includes some of New York’s most famous brands, including Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, the Knicks and the Rangers. At the epicenter of professional sports, marquee concerts, politics and real estate, he is one of the most powerful forces in the city. He is also one of New York’s most vilified public figures, a punching bag and a punchline.

But New York is not where his brain or his video monitor are focused. Mr. Dolan — son of Long Island, commander of beloved New York sports teams, and magnet for the type of caustic mockery that only New Yorkers are capable of expressing — is looking 2,500 miles southwest for respect, redemption and reputational rebirth.

Foremost on his mind, and on the live-feed beamed into his New York office, is his new arena in Las Vegas, an audacious project that he believes could revolutionize the live entertainment industry.

Rising behind the Vegas Strip, the arena, called the Sphere, is an enormous orb wrapped — inside and out — with more than 700,000 square feet of programmable video screens. It has the capacity to use sound, vibration and even smells to transport audiences into a virtual reality, no headset required. The Sphere is scheduled to open next week with a series of largely sold-out performances by U2.

The project cost $2.3 billion to build, mostly during the pandemic, with the sheer force of Mr. Dolan’s legendary stubbornness propelling it to completion, albeit two years late and $1 billion over budget.

In this case, Mr. Dolan’s aggressive and exacting ways seem to have benefited him and his company. But that is not always so.

He has long carried a reputation as a mercurial and sometimes callous corporate manager — a grown-up rich kid with the good fortune to have been a son of Charles F. Dolan, who founded HBO and Cablevision, the company that bought its controlling stake in the Garden, the Knicks and the Rangers in 1997.

Mr. Dolan controls properties including (clockwise from top left) the Sphere in Las Vegas, the Chicago Theater in Chicago, Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.Credit…Photographs by Bridget Bennett, Jamie Kelter Davis, Bing Guan and Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

When the Knicks perform poorly — as they often have under Mr. Dolan’s ownership — fans excoriate him. Politicians and bureaucrats castigate him for leading a company that enjoys enormous tax benefits while insisting that he will not financially contribute to the renovation of Pennsylvania Station, the rail depot that sits dank and dark beneath the Garden. He is entangled in a protracted public fight with a revered athlete, and uses facial recognition technology to ban from his venues people whom he says are adversarial toward him. Fans holding signs that say “Sell the Team” risk being booted because, Mr. Dolan said, they violate a code of conduct barring the harassment of the arena’s workers, including him. “I am an employee,” he said.

This month, with the Sphere set to open, he is approaching one of the most pivotal moments of his professional life. “The entire thing is a huge bet,” he said. In interviews, those closest to him stressed that the Sphere is wholly a Jim Dolan creation, a big gamble that places him outside of his father’s shadow and, perhaps for the first time, without the benefit of the safety net that owning some of New York’s most beloved institutions has provided.

“This is something he has done,” said Joe Lhota, a former senior Madison Square Garden executive who is on the board of the Sphere’s parent company. “It’s not something he inherited — it is him bringing his vision to life. It is totally, 100 percent his vision.”

Since the exterior of the Sphere was lit in July, social media has buzzed over the changing digital displays of fireworks, basketballs and even a 360-foot-tall eyeball that can be glimpsed from hotels along the Strip. Once guests experience the immersive visual and sound effects inside, Mr. Dolan believes the Sphere will become a premiere venue for music and video productions. He hopes to build replicas around the world.

But the Sphere’s success is far from guaranteed. And no matter the excitement over his project in the desert, back home in New York, anger stoked by his perceived highhandedness is bubbling over.

‘What Am I Doing?’

The Sphere, near the Las Vegas Strip, is set to open this month, but its exterior screens have already attracted viewers. Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

Mr. Dolan generally does not enjoy himself at his own venues. He can’t relax, can’t stop being the domineering boss. It was May, and Mr. Dolan had just arrived at the Beacon Theater, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he would take in a Bono show. He entered through the stage door and immediately began demanding information.

“Where is the G.M.?” A man silently motioned at himself, wearing a look of panic.

Mr. Dolan unleashed a torrent of questions about the scaffolding outside. When was it erected? How long would it remain?

“This is not acceptable,” he said. “I want a memo on all of this.”

It is in this manner — sweating the details, to the occasional terror of his employees — that Mr. Dolan set out to build the Sphere.

Back in 2021, he recalled, he stood on scaffolding in Las Vegas more than 100 feet off the ground and beheld the Sphere construction zone. He was temporarily gripped by a feeling that approached panic. “It was the first time I really felt the enormity of the building,” he said. “And I looked at it, and I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’”

He tried to push through the worry and let it embolden him, as he had seen his father do when he was creating HBO and bringing cable TV to New York and some of its suburbs.

When he saw an opportunity to assert greater control, he grabbed it. Earlier this year, as costs were spiraling and 2,400 people per day were working on-site to ready the Sphere for its scheduled opening, Mr. Dolan fired the project’s top executives and took charge — “Managed it down to the invoice level,” he said.

To call the Sphere merely “an arena” is to significantly undersell it. It is a sensory experience inside a globe with 17,600 seats and three football fields’ worth of video screens. An “immersive” sound system will ping bespoke audio to your seat, with the potential of serving you dialogue in English, for instance, while the people sitting down the row hear the same presentation in Chinese. Underground pipes will deliver blasts of air that can approximate wind, steam, raindrops or various smells, such as roses, forests or chocolate chip cookies.

Mr. Dolan said the idea began to percolate in 2015, as he was trying to decide how to use more than $1 billion in cash and credit that were available to the companies under his control.

He considered expanding his sports portfolio, perhaps by buying a baseball or soccer team. But while the Knicks and Rangers are “near and dear to my heart,” he said, “I don’t really like owning teams,” calling the economics of major league sports “kind of sleepy.” He ruled out that option.

He thought about buying more venues, “but the venue business is not a great business,” he said.

If a musical act performs at Madison Square Garden, he said, there might be ticket sales of about $5 million per night, and the company takes just $600,000 or $700,000. And there is always a hustle for bookings. Plus, he said, once you own Madison Square Garden, “how are you going to beat that?”

The way to improve the economics of the venue business, he said, is to own the content — to keep as many aspects of the operation as possible directly under his own control. His inspiration was the “Christmas Spectacular,” performed each year by the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

In its annual seven-week run, the show “pushes over a million people through the building,” he said. “Because we own both sides of the equation, all of the revenue comes to us, and that sustains Radio City Music Hall.”

Mr. Dolan (left) posed with Jerry I. Speyer, the head of Tishman Speyer Properties, and the Rockettes in 1997, as they announced that Mr. Dolan’s company would acquire Radio City Productions.Credit…G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times

He tried to conceive of a way to do something that took full use of that $1 billion and thought of his favorite childhood tale: Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt” about a home in which the children’s imaginations are beamed onto the walls of their nursery. After the parents express reluctance to let them use the technology, the children lure them into the nursery, which has transformed into an African savanna. “I was impressed by the parents getting eaten by lions,” Mr. Dolan said, with dry sarcasm.

He took his germ of an idea — an arena whose walls were screens that could transport spectators to other milieus — to David Dibble, a technologist who works for him. Mr. Dolan brought with him a white legal pad with an orb-like arena sketched on it. “Let’s reinvent the live entertainment industry,” Mr. Dibble recalled him saying.

Crews broke ground in 2018, with an initial anticipated price of about $1.2 billion. As costs swelled, Mr. Dolan sold off some assets to help cover expenses and restructured his companies so that investor concerns about the Sphere didn’t harm Madison Square Garden Entertainment’s stock price.

The Sphere will generate revenue by hosting concerts and events and by selling advertising on the exterior screens. Like at Radio City, it will create its own content, starting with an “immersive production” from the filmmaker Darren Aronofsky called “Postcard From Earth.”

Officials in Nevada are eager for the opening. “The Sphere is going to change Las Vegas,” said Tick Segerblom, a Clark County commissioner, in whose district the Sphere was erected.

Shareholders appear optimistic too, said Robert Routh, managing director for equity research at FBN Securities.

“It doesn’t look like there is as much to worry about as people might have thought,” Mr. Routh said, but “there is risk until the thing opens.”

‘We Don’t Want You.’

Mr. Dolan (center) watches an NBA playoff game between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden in May. Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

This is what Mr. Dolan wants to be thinking about: the Sphere and the possibilities of a new, high-tech empire of his own making.

But in New York, he has been mired in controversy over his use of a different technology — one that identifies attendees at his venues, especially inside the 20,000-seat Garden. He uses facial recognition technology to help bar from entry those he believes to be in violation of the arena’s code of conduct and those he simply does not wish to accommodate, particularly lawyers suing him.

To hear Mr. Dolan tell it, there are two types of fans who come to events at Madison Square Garden: those who are there for a good time and those who are “confrontational” and behaving inappropriately, intent on spoiling everyone else’s fun. Members of that second group, he believes, should be removed or kept out.

Exactly what counts as inappropriate behavior? In an interview, Mr. Dolan provided this metric:

If an otherwise well-mannered spectator at a Knicks game held a sign overhead urging Mr. Dolan to divest of the Knicks, Mr. Dolan would support their ejection by ushers or security guards. “We don’t want you there,” Mr. Dolan said.

A Madison Square Garden code of conduct, he said, prohibits attendees from being confrontational with other fans or Garden employees. Signs like “Sell the Team” — a rallying cry from long disgruntled fans — are “directed at, on a personal basis, the guy who’s in charge — me.” (The code of conduct does not actually say anything about conduct toward employees but does stipulate that “guests shall be respectful of others around them.”)

He went on to explain what he considers permissible: “If you held up a sign that says, you know, ‘Play better, this team sucks,’ you can do that. That’s part of being a fan.” The reason it is permissible to criticize the team but not the owner, Mr. Dolan said, is because insulting a group is different from insulting one person.

Mr. Dolan says fans with signs criticizing individual employees of Madison Square Garden should be ejected. “I am an employee,” he noted.Credit…Brad Penner/USA Today Sports, via Imagn

The Garden began using facial recognition technology in 2018 to sort through video footage captured by security cameras at the Garden. If someone complains about an interaction with an usher or says someone else has taken their seat, an image of the person’s face can be popped into the facial recognition system “to trace that person’s entire experience from camera to camera to camera to camera,” Mr. Dolan said.

But it can also be used as a digital bouncer to spot those he wishes to keep out. At the top of that list: lawyers who are suing him or the companies he oversees.

Mr. Dolan said he does not understand why anyone would expect him to be welcoming of “troll attorneys,” as he calls them, who are coming after his business interests. It surprises him that lawyers think he would not take it personally. “What do you mean I shouldn’t be upset?” he said.

Mr. Dolan’s “attorney exclusion list,” which he said he conceived of last year, drew widespread criticism after Kelly Conlon, a lawyer from Bergen County, N.J., arrived with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop at Radio City Music Hall to see the “Christmas Spectacular,” only to be told that she had been spotted by the company’s facial recognition technology. Her law firm was representing a client in a slip-and-fall claim against a restaurant group that was at the time owned by a company under Mr. Dolan’s control.

She was denied admission, creating an actual Christmas spectacular for the press covering the extraordinary crackdown on the “Girl Scout Mom.”

Larry Hutcher, a Knicks fan who bought season tickets for 47 years, learned last October that he, too, was on Madison Square Garden’s exclusion list — in his case because his law firm represented ticket resellers who were suing Madison Square Garden Entertainment. Mr. Hutcher then sued the company for banning him.

Reached by phone this summer, Mr. Hutcher said, “That’s what happens when your dad gives you a toy and says, ‘Do anything you want with it.’”

But after a judge dismissed his clients’ suit against Mr. Dolan’s company, there was just one thing standing between Mr. Hutcher and his ability to watch his beloved Knicks: the lawsuit against the Garden he had filed because he was banned.

So earlier this month, he dropped it. “I am no longer banned from Madison Square Garden,” Mr. Hutcher said, happily.

In essence, Mr. Dolan’s tactics had worked.

A Willingness to Fight.

Fans wait in a security line at Madison Square Garden during an NBA playoff game in May. Mr. Dolan’s company uses facial recognition technology in part to keep certain people out of the Garden.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Talk to some of Mr. Dolan’s business associates, relatives and close friends, and they will tell you that the short-fused, thin-skinned man portrayed by journalists is not the person they know. Mr. Dolan himself insists that he does not instigate most of the skirmishes that get aired in the press.

“You’re running the world’s most famous arena, so most of the time the fight comes to you,” he said. The “best way to avoid having those kinds of fights,” he said, “is to let the other side know you’re willing to fight.”

As the steward of his business empire, Mr. Dolan said, he considers which battles are in the companies’ financial interest and which are important for employee morale.

He considers his notorious fight with Charles Oakley, a beloved former Knicks forward and N.B.A. All-Star, a battle to support his employees. “It’s a principle kind of thing,” Mr. Dolan said.

In 2017, Mr. Oakley, a vocal critic of Mr. Dolan, was ejected from the Garden during a game between the Knicks and the Los Angeles Clippers. In a spectacle before fans and cameras, a physical altercation broke out between Mr. Oakley and eight security guards and police officers as they tried to remove him.

Charles Oakley, the former Knicks forward, was ejected from Madison Square Garden in 2017. The incident has dogged Mr. Dolan for years. Credit…Elias Williams for The New York Times

Mr. Oakley said he was minding his own business when he was swarmed by guards telling him to leave and that they instigated the fracas. Mr. Dolan said that Mr. Oakley was using abusive language and initiated the scuffle with the guards who were responding to his conduct.

The incident, which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit, remains a source of anger among Knicks fans and has dogged Mr. Dolan for years.

But asked if there was any part of the incident he wishes he could change, he didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” he said. “I wish I could change Charles Oakley.”

In a brief phone interview, Mr. Oakley reacted with incredulity.

“That’s embarrassing for him to say that,” he said. “He is the one who should handle himself better.”

‘Until You’re Dead.’

Mr. Dolan was not happy to find the Beacon Theater covered in scaffolding one evening this spring, when he arrived to see a Bono show.Credit…Bing Guan for The New York Times

Last spring, as Mr. Dolan was waiting for the Bono show at the Beacon to start, he showed off iPhone photos of one of his grandsons to a reporter and reminisced about taking his children to visit Madison Square Garden when they were young. (“We bought this,” he said he told his sons. “Can we buy Universal Studios?” one boy replied.)

As he chatted, a fellow concert goer nervously approached and said, “Let’s go Knicks,” a cheer for the team during the second round of the playoffs, its best performance in a decade.

Mr. Dolan nodded dismissively, pre-empting further conversation.

Ardent New York sports fans feel a deep interest in his teams that approaches a sort of ownership of its own. This is not Mr. Dolan’s vibe. “Basically every fan thinks of themselves as the owner/general manager,” he said.

Often, those who approach him to talk about the team — at public events, at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, at his mother’s wake — offer unsolicited advice.

On handmade posters at the Garden, and in posts on social media, Mr. Dolan is regularly the subject of Knicks fans’ personal venom.

“Being a professional sports owner in New York,” he said, “you’re not beloved until you’re dead.”

Some athletes who play for Mr. Dolan’s teams consider him among the most generous in the league, said Henrik Lundqvist, who played for the Rangers for 15 seasons and now works for Mr. Dolan as a public face of Madison Square Garden. “I saw someone who was fully committed to being sure that we had the best resources and opportunities to succeed,” said Mr. Lundqvist, who was recently elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Henrik Lundqvist, who played for the Rangers for 15 seasons, is a fan of Mr. Dolan. “I saw someone who was fully committed to being sure that we had the best resources and opportunities to succeed,” he said.Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times

And despite Mr. Dolan’s reputation for inserting himself into the running of the Knicks, Leon Rose, the president of the basketball franchise since 2020, said he finds Mr. Dolan invested but not meddlesome. “He places a lot of faith and trust in our basketball operations,” he said.

But under Mr. Dolan’s control, the team’s performance has been mostly uninspired, and personnel troubles have resulted in scandal and controversy.

Before he took over in 1998, the Knicks had made it to the playoffs in each of the previous 11 seasons. In the 25 years since, the team has reached the playoffs nine times, including three times in the past 11 seasons and has had 14 different coaches and nine presidents or general managers.

This spring, the Knicks completed their best season in a decade, making it to the second round of the N.B.A. playoffs.

The conflicts over Mr. Dolan’s tenure go deeper than the team’s win-loss record. In 2007, a federal jury ruled that Madison Square Garden and Isiah Thomas, then the team’s coach, subjected Anucha Browne, a former Knicks executive, to a hostile work environment — and that Mr. Dolan fired her when she complained. Mr. Dolan and Madison Square Garden paid her more than $10 million. “I, to this day, think that we were wronged” by the verdict, Mr. Dolan said.

Mr. Thomas, who declined to comment, is no longer working for the Knicks but sits on the board of directors of Sphere Entertainment Co. Ms. Browne declined to comment.

‘You’re Going to Bomb.’

Charles F. Dolan (left) and James L. Dolan in the control room of Cablevision Systems in 1997. The company took control of the Garden, the Knicks and the Rangers that year.Credit…Vic De Lucia/The New York Times

Until he had the Sphere — “his baby,” as Mr. Lhota called it — Mr. Dolan invested himself in hobbies.

He grew up on Long Island, where he learned to sail. As he was building his portfolio at Cablevision under his father, Mr. Dolan raced 70-foot, 12-man sailboats around the world, from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro. Often his parents and a few of his six sons traveled to watch him race.

Though Mr. Dolan said he never drank while at sea, the culture of sailing deepened his growing dependence on booze. “The whole sailboat/yacht-racing culture was around alcohol,” he said. “You go out on the boat and you come back and get trashed at the yacht club, with your pink pants and Izod shirt.”

In the summer of 1993, Mr. Dolan checked into the Hazelden Betty Ford addiction treatment center. He has been sober since, he said.

About a decade later, he shifted his focus to music, forming a band, JD & The Straight Shot. Mr. Dolan calls the sound, which can evoke bluesy rock, “swampy.”

Mr. Dolan rehearses with his band, JD & The Straight Shot. He calls their sound, which can evoke bluesy rock, “swampy.”Credit…Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Their songs include “Better Find a Church” (2015) and “I Should’ve Known” (2018) about Mr. Dolan’s former friend Harvey Weinstein, the former Hollywood producer and convicted sex offender. In “The Great Divide” from 2019, JD & The Straight Shot address Mr. Dolan’s distrust of the press (“In the morning/I get the news/So hard to know/Know what’s true”).

Mr. Dolan ran the show, but he was committed to creating a bond among the musicians, said Erin Slaver, the band’s fiddler. In 2016, she became pregnant and was worried she would lose her job as a touring member of the band. But, she said, he paid her through her maternity leave and, when she was ready to rejoin the tour, he paid for her baby and nanny to travel with them on his private plane.

Mr. Dolan used his connections to hook them up with their best-known gig: opening for the Eagles, a band managed by Irving Azoff, a longtime business associate who is representing the Sphere in negotiations with artists. When Mr. Azoff broached the idea with the Eagles, he said, “certain members said, ‘You’re going to bomb.’” As they predicted, JD & The Straight Shot mostly played for the ushers and security guards. “There weren’t a lot of people in their seats,” Mr. Azoff said.

But he said Mr. Dolan’s experience of performing at big venues helped shape the Sphere. “He’s bound and determined to create this experience for both musicians and audiences,” he said.

The Airing of Grievances.

Madison Square Garden, seen in an aerial view of Manhattan, was involved in a municipal skirmish.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

In mid-July, politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, architects, engineers and ordinary citizens crowded into a City Hall hearing room — many of them specifically to vent about Madison Square Garden, and by proxy, Mr. Dolan.

The stated purpose of the hearing was to discuss the proposed renewal of the Garden’s “special permit,” which allows it to host more than 2,500 people at a time. The company had requested that the permit be renewed in perpetuity.

But many New York political leaders have for years felt exasperated by Mr. Dolan, whom they perceive as profiting from his control of important institutions at the city’s expense. (Representatives of the Garden pointed to the company’s charitable efforts and to the more than $2 billion they said the arena contributes to the city economy.)

“It’s important that we keep Madison Square Garden on a short leash,” State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal testified.

He and others railed against a state law exempting Madison Square Garden from paying property taxes and the company’s use of facial recognition technology. They discussed the possible renovation of Penn Station — and what support the Garden should provide.

Mr. Dolan was not present and was rarely mentioned by name.

But later in the summer, after two City Council committees voted to extend Madison Square Garden’s permit by only five years, he reflected on the role that he might have played.

As a general measure, he said, New York creates impediments for business owners, but “I might exacerbate it a little bit by being Jim Dolan,” he said.

“Things like the lawyer ban policy poked a stick in people’s eyes,” he said. He is not sorry. “We’re going to continue to be ourselves and do what we think is right.”

That would include not contributing to the cost of a future Penn Station project. “That’s a civic responsibility,” he said. “We’re a private enterprise. But we will certainly cooperate with it.”

He does not expect progress anytime soon. For more than 20 years, there has been talk about improving Penn Station, he said. “The best I give it, personally, is 50-50 that anything will happen,” he said.

The rancor directed toward him as well as what he sees as the city’s sluggish pace are among the reason he decided to build the Sphere in Las Vegas. Had he tried to build it in New York, “My kids would be lucky if they saw it” completed, he said.

But Is He Lucky?

Mr. Dolan, at Radio City Music Hall. With just days until The Sphere opens in Las Vegas, he is obsessing over the details.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Less than a month before opening night, Mr. Dolan sat in his office, sipping matcha tea from an I❤️NY mug. “Across the entire organization, the anxiety level is geometrically increasing,” he said. At the top of that pyramid? “That’s me.”

That day’s headache involved the Sphere’s Wi-Fi system; it was glitching and would require the installation of boosters.

But there was plenty going right too. The next two musical acts to perform in residency at the Sphere had been booked. “Big names,” Mr. Dolan said but would not specify.

As the new business ramps up, he will be traveling west a few times a month for the foreseeable future.

Vegas is not his favorite city, but it has its charms. “Black jack,” he said.

“Am I good? That’s not the right question,” he said.

Is he lucky?

Mr. Dolan leaned back in his chair at his conference table in his office high above the most famous arena in the world, and took a hit off his nicotine vape.

“That,” he said, “is the right question.”

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