Let’s Monetize Islanders!
An open letter to Barclay’s Center CEO Brett Yormark on the eve of the Islanders historic move to Brooklyn.
Dear Mr. Yormark,
We’re neighbors. I live at 560 State Street — Jay-Z’s old building — directly across the street from the Barclays Center. When my family first moved in I was interested to hear what people thought of the new arena and the Nets so I asked around. In the hardware store, the burger shop, etc. — people said they expected more outreach, more of an effort, more respect. Back then I came to your defense — it’s exciting though, right? A new team, a new arena…
Around the same time I heard you say that black and white are the colors of Brooklyn. That didn’t sound right so I looked it up. Turns out, Brooklyn’s colors for at least the last 120 years are blue and gold. Saying they are black and white is as if McDonald’s were to come to Brooklyn and declare red and yellow the official colors. No one — and I mean no one outside of your office — sees this any other way. To insist otherwise plainly lacks civic authenticity or any basis in reality. Not to mention it’s patronizing to a people world renowned for their collective bullshit sensor.
I am writing this letter because I care deeply about my borough and about the New York Islanders. If there were a Venn diagram describing the audience for the New York Islanders, I’m probably in the middle where all the cohorts collide. I attended my first game in the early 80s — my parents were season ticket holders from year one. I loved it so much I begged my parents to let me play hockey, which I did from Cantiague to Christopher Morley to Grant Park in my hometown of Woodmere, Long Island. I remember my first game at the Coliseum, Denis Potvin chirped at a player on the visiting Penguins. The glass was so low, the crowd laughed at the joke. I also remember, as a seven year old, marveling at the impregnability of Grant Fuhr and the brilliance of the emerging Oilers. From there I hung my hopes on Lafontaine, Turgeon, Palffy, Yashin… Like many of us, I am still on that drive for five.
Now I’ve been living in Brooklyn for ten years. I run a tech startup, my wife is a creative director at an event company. We have two kids and our three year old son already has a John Tavares shirt that he’s very proud to wear. As I mentioned, we live directly across the Flatbush-Atlantic intersection from the Islanders’ new home. When Nassau County rejected Charles Wang’s proposal for a new arena, I was among the first to take to Facebook, publishing a page called “Bring the Islanders to Brooklyn.” Maybe I knew the Islanders were coming even before you did.
When it was confirmed, I was ecstatic. My team was following me to Brooklyn! Of all the things I love about living here, it was the icing on the cake. And I do love living here. I feel about Brooklyn the way I imagine my parents felt about Long Island in the 1970s. With great deference to the generations that came before us, ours has built the businesses and created the culture that is sought all over the world. And now, the Islanders. To me it seemed a perfect fit.
The only thing in this entire experience that is giving me pause is you. I’m guessing if you’re making me feel uncomfortable, you’re making a lot of us feel uncomfortable. Here’s why:
1. You seem committed to changing the colors of the team, although your comments on the issue have been indirect. To us this looks like a strange obsession. To give you a sense of how this makes the average fan feel — we cannot fathom why the colors are even a question. Why? What does it mean to you? We all know that black and white does not “equal” Brooklyn in any sense other than the branding thing you’re pushing with the Nets so what gives? We’ve heard you say, “We won’t change the colors overnight.” You sound like you’re offering bread and circuses in ancient Rome. Overnight?What would be wrong with a full-throated commitment to the beautiful tradition of blue and orange? Why is our enthusiasm for this team and its history not reflected by management?
You see, Brett, colors mean something. Whether it’s the red, white, and blue of the U.S. flag or the blue and orange of the Islanders, colors are the physical embodiment of our shared experience and community. Did you know that the orange in the Islanders uniforms is an homage to the Dutch who settled Long Island, including Brooklyn? Did you know that the blue and gold Brooklyn flag also features a tribute to the Dutch settlers in the phrase, “Eendraght Maeckt Maght” which means, “Unity makes strength.”? Colors evoke history and the narrative we use to understand our place in the world. Black and white, on the other hand, is just an unimaginative, unoriginal thing you made up.
I would love for you and your company to make a fortune with the New York Islanders but if you go with black and white uniforms I sincerely hope you sell none of them. Black and white doesn’t speak at all to the Islanders, the fans, or Brooklyn.
When in the right hands, colors can be used to foment a strong sense of the community that arises and coalesces around sports. If I were you, I would use this to your advantage, especially in Brooklyn where authenticity is prized above all. May future generations get the same feeling from seeing the Islanders crisp white, blue, and orange on the ice that fans get when they see the pinstripes in Yankee Stadium or the Green and Yellow of the Packers, so on and so forth.
When young players put on the Islanders uniform they follow in the footsteps of Bossy, LaFontaine, and Tavares. If they end up putting on black and white, suiting up will mean nothing. Tradition will be replaced by “something Yormark made up.”
2. Where are the banners? My son and I went to the rookie exhibition earlier this summer. Many of the banners that used to hang in Nassau Coliseum were conspicuously absent. I figured they would be there eventually but I just received an email from your team that seemed to think I would be excited to know that only the championship banners are hanging. This is completely tone deaf. The last time you moved did the moving company bring 20% of your belongings and then say, but look, we brought your couch!?
As many of the recent tributes to the late legend Al Arbour have pointed out, one of the Islanders greatest achievements is 19 straight post-season series victories. This is the achievement that makes the Islanders different from any other team in any sport. This is our individuality and identity and it is incarnated as trophies — our banners. Anyone who understands the team and its fans wouldn’t debate hanging these banners for a second, they would be sine qua non. For without which, we would not be who we are.
When people talk about the great arenas and the storied clubs that play in them, the banners hanging from the rafters play a big role. Whether in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, you name it… the fans and the visiting teams feel the power that the banners represent. They are an essential display of the culture of the team. To omit them is to willfully attempt to erase that culture, tradition, and history. More than simply confusing, it feels like an act of aggression toward the team and the fans.
3. Islander fans like me have been through a lot. I think most of us thought that a move to Brooklyn meant we’re the same Islanders simply moving thirty miles away. So, we’re excited. The team is coming off the most exhilarating season in years. Game 6 against the Capitals was an incredible experience, which I will not soon forget. And now the new season in the new arena is getting close. Wang and his new partners have been silent. The first thing we hear from the new guys at the start of the new season is, “…he’s delivered a good team to us and we’re going to monetize it.” Way to stir up the excitement, Brett.
The fact is, that quote would be fine if it weren’t for the ambiguity of the identity issue. If the banners were flying and there were a commitment to the colors, tradition, and fans of the New York Islanders, talk about monetizing all you want. It is a business after all, one that we support.
But as you well know, or ought to know, sports are a deeply personal experience. Sports affect people on an emotional and neurological level. Watching your team win or lose has a direct impact on your chemical makeup, mood, and general well being. Good sports executives understand this connection. Obviously, it also makes for fantastic business. We — all of us fans — are hooked. All any fan ever wants is for the people managing and playing for the team they root for to want the same thing they want, championships. That’s it. When the executives or the players reveal any other motivation it reminds everyone that we’re not rooting for the beautiful endeavor on the ice but for a large-ish corporation. For better or for worse, when the corporate interests are touted as being prioritized above winning, it ruins the experience. Your recent quote about monetizing the team, taken together with the other issues, had this effect.
Now that I’ve plunked down my money for season tickets, I have to ask: Are we being hoodwinked? You already have a team with a fantastic identity, you don’t need to create another. Islanders fans like me might someday see the world the way you want us to but the ride would be a lot easier if you could show that you see things our way, especially during this transition.
In summary, become a fan and we will root with you. I am ready to be a huge driver of support for this team. I already have my son in a blue Tavares jersey and season tickets in my hand. I think you want guys like me on your side.
Recently I’ve been thinking more about those locals I spoke to back when I moved to the neighborhood and I know exactly what they meant. Just as things should be heating up you’re leaving a lot of us ice cold.
To the fifth cup.