Last year, following the revelation that the owners of the New York Islanders and the owners of the Barclays Center had a mutual out clause to escape from their 25-year lease in 2018 or 2019, I wrote at length about why the Islanders owners might and might not want to avail themselves of this option. (Might not: They didn’t have anyplace better to go. Might: At least it could provide them some leverage to demand improvements to Barclays for hockey.) What I didn’t expect was what happened yesterday: Bloomberg News revealed that the arena owners were preparing to ask the Islanders to remove themselves from their place of residence, effective following the 2018-19 season:
The arena, which is already home to the NBA’s Nets and one of the world’s top-grossing concert venues, would make more money without the National Hockey League team, according to people familiar with the facility’s financials.
Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the building and the Nets, has since November been seeking an investor to take a stake in both. As of earlier this month, a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season — a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said.
That’s a little hand-wavy as evidence goes — that financial projection could just have been accounting for the possibility the Islanders owners might choose to leave, and the lease out clause requires the two sides to be engaged in “good-faith negotiations” before it can be triggered — but let’s give Bloomberg’s unnamed sources the benefit of the doubt and assume there’s something to this. Given the weird lease deal between the Isles and the arena where Prokhorov pays the team a guaranteed $53.5 million a year and in exchange for its revenue from ticket and suite sales, and the fact that the Islanders haven’t been able to draw flies (outpacing only the sad-sack Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes), and that the arena has maintained a busy concert schedule (even if by offering steep discounts on rents), it isn’t all that crazy that Prokhorov might think, “Go play in the street, Islanders, it won’t be hard to find some musicians who can sell more than 12,000 tickets at a time.”
As for where the Islanders would go, that’s the excellent question that the news media spent most of yesterday asking. There’s been talk previously of building an Islanders arena on the Willets Point land near the Mets stadium in Queens that is currently being cleared of its venerable collection of auto shops by eminent domain, something that was again raised by Queens borough president Melinda Katz in her state of the borough address last week. (In case you’re wondering what power a borough president has to build an arena: Mentioning it in an annual speech is about it.) Nobody’s offering to pay for an arena in Queens, mind you, and building one with your own money seems daft in a metro area already suffering from arena glut, but it can’t entirely be ruled out.
There’s no way a Queens arena would be ready in two years, though, so in any case the Islanders would need somewhere to play starting in the 2019-20 season. That could be Nassau Coliseum, the same building they left in a huff two years ago, but which has since been sold and renovated by Bruce Ratner, the same guy who signed the Islanders to their Brooklyn lease before selling that arena to his then-business partner Prokhorov*. The Coliseum will only hold 13,000 for hockey in its new configuration, but that’s not all that much smaller than Brooklyn’s hockey capacity (15,795), and the Islanders aren’t drawing that many fans anyway, and at least there everyone would be able to see both goals.
And then there’s this:
The recurring fear then among the yo-yoed fan base, of course, would be an outside city such as Quebec or Kansas City or Seattle or Hartford, making and snaring a bid for relocation.
My gut feeling says all this is jumping the gun just a bit: While the Islanders owners and their landlords may indeed be contemplating a divorce, there’s a lot of time for haggling between now and 2019, and this could still all just be a negotiating tactic. What this does mean, though, is an intensification of talk about a new arena somewhere in the NYC area — which almost certainly means the Islanders owners, Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, will try to get a good old-fashioned bidding war going among New York City, Nassau County, and anyone else they think they can rope in. (Quebec? Probably not, since New York is such a lucrative TV market even when fans aren’t showing up, but sure, use Quebec as a threat, can’t hurt.) This could get almost as ugly as the view from those obstructed seats.
*CLARIFICATION: Prokhorov has since bought operations of the Nassau Coliseum from Ratner as well. This could be a problem for the Islanders owners if you think this is about a feud, or not if it’s just about both sides realizing that Brooklyn isn’t really working all that well for either side. It certainly complicates the leverage aspect, though.