Sitting courtside for an NBA game is an experience like nothing else. No other professional sport allows its audience such intimate, unfettered proximity to all the action. For fans of basketball, this is bucket list territory. And now the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn has found a way to make it even more heavenly: by pairing it with world-class wine.
Last year, just in time for the start of the Nets’ 2021-22 season, the stadium launched its exclusive Crown Club. “We are believed to be the first arena in the country to have our own full-time sommelier,” according to Jeffrey Porter, who heads up the wine program here, which currently includes over 800 labels.
Reserved mainly for courtside ticket holders, the posh, 7,700-square-foot restaurant and bar was conceived in conjunction with Major Food Group, the same folks responsible for some of the city’s most exclusive reservations—including Carbone and Torrisi. Entry into Crown Club isn’t any easier: Out of the 18,000 ticket holders at a sold-out Nets game, no more than 250 are allowed in to the exclusive venue at any given moment. The fortunate few can include A-list celebrities such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Jason Sudeikis. Almost as notable as who’s going in, however, is what’s coming out.
“When we let fans know they can take their first-growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy to their courtside seats in our to-go wine glasses, they are nearly always surprised and it brings a smile to all that partake,” observes Porter. “It’s also fun to see people come to Crown Club for the first time, open our wine list and be pleasantly shocked upon seeing the selections we have to offer.”
It didn’t come together without its fair share of logistical hurdles. Porter, who previously served as beverage operations director for Bastianich Hospitality Group, had to get creative with his storage. This included installing outside wine fridges and repurposing former office space to create a makeshift wine cellar. “Barclays sits on a smaller footprint compared to most NBA arenas, given its location within a heavily populated area,” he tells Men’s Journal. “Space is in short supply.”
Nevertheless, he’s found ample room for some heavy hitters, including choice selections of Domaine Leroy from the Cote de Nuits region of Burgundy, and a vertical of G. Roumier Bonnes Mares spanning 1999 to 2016. A single bottle of that eldest vintage would set you back more than $4,500 at the friendliest of local wineshops. At Crown Club it is…more. Not that anyone here ought to mind. According to SeatGeek, the average regular season cost for a ticket along the hardcourt is roughly $1,500. Which is why it’s hard to believe that—when it comes to adult beverages—this pricey real estate has remained the dominion of light lagers for so long. It’s proven a stubborn perception to undo.
“Since many people think their beverage options while attending a basketball game or a concert are limited to beer, we must continually work with our guests to let them know we have these incredible wines available for them to enjoy at our events,” explains Porter, noting that many newcomers aren’t even aware there’s a wine list to ask for.
“Historically, people don’t drink great wine when they go to an arena for a basketball game or to see a major concert. But there are a lot of synergies. Wine brings people together and in the sports and entertainment industry we’re also in the business of bringing people together.”
It helps to have a dedicated crew of knowledgable experts to hammer home the point. Over the past year, Porter has amassed a team of some 28 part-time somms. When not working games or concerts at Barclays Center, these wine wizzes enjoy employment at some of New York’s top restaurants. On game night they’ll happily guide you to some hidden gems lurking in the cellar, then guide you directly to your seat. For fans of big-bodied Northern Italian reds, a 2015 Elio Sandri Perno Barolo or a Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto are both slam dunks regardless of the setting. Sipping them courtside is a special sort of flex.
“Every wine has a special and unique story relating to where it’s from or how it’s made,”notes Porter. “We want our fans to enjoy the variety as part of their experience at Barclays Center.”
It’s been so well-received by courtside connoisseurs that the arena is eyeing ways in which it can impress oenophiles in the upper deck as well. “The depth and breadth of the wine list at Crown Club is just the beginning for Barclays Center,” according to a spokesperson for the venue. “[We are] focused on reframing the way sports and entertainment fans think about wine at their next event.”
In other words: come for a 1997 vintage California Cabernet and, who knows, you might even get to enjoy a basketball game along the way.
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