Who Says You Should Go Home?
Why the New York Islanders and Nassau Coliseum Are a Poor Fit
(Updated September 2017)
Since the rumors started that the New York Islanders might leave Barclays Center in Brooklyn after the 2018–19 NHL season, fans have been in a frenzy trying to figure out where the team will end up. A lot expect the team to remain in Brooklyn with a renegotiated lease. Others see Fred and Jeff Wilpon at a game and start to think an arena near Citi Field is in the cards. Still others point to the aborted RFP at Belmont Park and think that a hockey arena would be an even better idea for the lot than bare asphalt. But the most vocal fans all appear to be in agreement that the team needs to return to the soon-to-reopen Nassau Coliseum, their home for 43 of their 45 seasons in the NHL.
Do not count me, a native Long Islander, among them.
When the Islanders announced they were leaving the Coliseum in 2012, they were leaving a building that was in dire need of improvements. The only good thing fans could say about it was that its sight lines for hockey were second to none. Opened in 1972, it was a building that showed it age, with its single narrow concourse, cramped locker rooms and aging facilities. And despite many attempts to renovate or replace the building, team ownership had been stymied at every turn by local government that was always a combination of financially strapped, incompetent, and obstinate. The best chance at a renovation came under Charles Wang’s stewardship with his overly ambitious Lighthouse project, and a subsequent attempt to fund just an arena overhaul failed at the ballot box in 2011. With that in mind, Wang took the best available option and moved the team to Barclays Center, which has greatly updated facilities and provides the team with much needed guaranteed revenue, but whose footprint creates seat obstructions due to its floor not being made for an NHL-sized rink, an ice plant that leaves the ice softer than most players would like, and a longer commute for fans who live on Long Island. With the team a ready candidate for relocation back then, moving to Brooklyn solved one problem while creating others. And while the assumption was that by moving to the Five Boroughs attendance wouldn’t be a problem, enough fans on the Island have stayed away, and the team finds themselves, once again, in an imperfect arena playing to much less than capacity crowds. And the reason they’re playing to less than capacity are the number of fans who won’t get on a train, either due to the time involved or laziness. I can understand fans from the far reaches of Long Island skipping games, especially if the train trip is more than an hour. I can understand families, who now might have to pay $20 per person to get to Brooklyn instead of per carload to park. But there are plenty of fans who, like me, live about 30 minutes away by train but can’t be bothered to go to a game, even when they live on a train line that doesn’t require changing at Jamaica. And those fans, willing to abandon the team over a train ticket and an extra 10 minutes of travel time, make up an alarming majority of the fan base.
Several local politicians have found ways to use this to their advantage. State Senators Kenneth LaValle and John Brooks, Democratic Nassau County Executive hopeful Laura Curran, and Town of Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino have all talked in glowing terms about bring the Islanders “home” to Nassau Coliseum. Santino himself even went on Joe and Evan on WFAN to talk about “rolling out the red carpet” for the team. Anyone who’s been a fan of the team for longer than a few years is probably laughing at Santino’s complete 180 on the topic. Those fans remember that Santino was the hatchet man for his former boss, then-Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray, during the hearings on the Lighthouse Project in 2009 that doomed both the project to failure and the Isles to leave in the first place. Sen. LaValle represents Long Island’s East End, which is between one and two hours away from the Nassau Coliseum on a good day, so his constituents stand to see little benefit from the team moving to a closer site outside his district. Sen. Brooks, who won his seat in the Senate by barely 300 votes over the incumbent last fall, doesn’t have a suitable site for the team in his district either, and is resorting to horrible pandering early on in his term. Ms. Curran is the Democratic front-runner for County Executive (ahead of ex-Republican George Maragos, who himself once suggested that the Coliseum would be better off without the Isles), and with an election coming in November she is further along in campaign mode than Sen. Brooks.
Ms. Curran, along with several other politicians from Nassau and Suffolk, appeared at an embarrassment of a press conference in front of the Coliseum last July, which served to highlight two things: the limited understanding politicians have of the economics of professional sports, and how incredible it is that local politicians in both parties are just now looking to work together on a solution, when they were at each other’s throats five years ago when they could’ve kept the team from moving in the first place. The Republicans in the Town of Hempstead stymied Democratic County Executive Tom Suozzi in his support of the Lighthouse. Nassau County Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs organized a massive phone campaign against Republican County Executive Ed Mangano’s referendum proposal in 2011. To see these same politicians, many of whom did nothing while the team was being forced out the door into Brooklyn, fall all over themselves in an effort to bring the team back highlights the shortsightedness local government has shown over the last two decades.
As for the building renovation itself, it comes down to lipstick on a pig, at least in terms of NHL suitability. Currently, the Coliseum is set for a capacity of only 13,000 seats for hockey, a 17% drop from Barclays and a 19% drop from the old Coliseum. Even Bruce Ratner himself admitted after Nassau Events Center was selected to redevelop the building that scaling down the capacity would make it a poor fit for a major league team. The concourses are still every bit as cramped as they were before the renovation despite being widened by two feet. Half the suites are gone. Nothing is yet known about any changes to the building’s ice plant, and it isn’t like the Coliseum had great ice to begin with. Public transportation options for fans who don’t have cars are limited to NICE buses (which the County is looking to scale back, mind you). Most importantly, there is no talk of how the team is going to make money there without supplemental income from adjoining retail (which, by the way, has been put on hold for the moment), concessions or parking. It would take a sweetheart deal, one even better than the current deal with Barclays Center that guarantees the team between $35M and $54M per season, to make this workable, and there has been no indication that one is forthcoming. In fact, little is known about what portions of the lease agreement with Nassau Events Center are even being upheld. Given all of this, it’s clear that bringing the Islanders back is an afterthought. How else do you explain not renovating the arena to NHL standards in the first place?
In addition, while the Islanders would be the only major league team in the building if they moved, it would be a stretch to call them the primary tenant. Much of the hype around the Coliseum positions it as primarily a concert venue. And, to be fair, the Coliseum is booking better acts this year than it has in a long time. The talk of the Isles leaving Barclays Center is predicated on the belief that Barclays makes more money off concerts. Why doesn’t that hold true for the Coliseum?
Ultimately, the Coliseum talk feels like a red herring. If the team is going to move back to Nassau County, the best option is at Belmont Park. The lot south of Hempstead Turnpike still sits largely empty, and with the State having tried since 2012 to develop it, they appear to be motivated to get something done with the current RFP. The land is controlled by New York State and the NYRA, so development can take place with minimal interference from Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead. The site does have an LIRR spur off the main line that is used on race days, and Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, who represents the area immediately surround Belmont, has already called on the State to increase service to and from that station. The wording of the RFP specifically calls for a project that enhances the existing racing and parimutuel betting at the Belmont Park racetrack. With a hockey arena as the most likely fit, it then becomes paramount that Sens. LaValle and Brooks stand as the first of many allies in Albany, something that the developers from the original 2012 RFP, from the New York Cosmos to Blumenfeld Development Group, apparently didn’t have enough of.
Failing that, moving to Citi Field would provide enough parking for fans with an irrational fear of trains, along with mass transit access from the Port Washington LIRR branch and the 7 train for fans coming from the city. But building there comes with its own issues — anything the Wilpons have wanted to build there besides the baseball stadium has been fraught with red tape over zoning and environmental concerns. And with four arenas already in the metropolitan area (MSG, Prudential Center, Barclays Center and the Coliseum), with Barclays Center and Nassau Coliseum essentially sharing management, even the idea that a fifth arena could happen might be enough to give them pause as it would compete with both buildings for events, and take away the sheen those two buildings have as the newest in town.
The most likely scenario if Belmont falls through? That all of this talk is nothing more than saber rattling, the Islanders and Barclays rework the terms of the lease, and the Isles continue to play in Barclays, warts and all, until the lease expires in 2040. I would gladly take either over the team returning to Nassau Coliseum full-time in order to satisfy nostalgia hounds, then being stuck fielding a team at a league-minimum payroll because the revenues just aren’t there. I’m still not interested in trading John Tavares and the LIRR for Jon Sim and the Meadowbrook Parkway.