There are rumors, and then there are rumors that lead to eyebrow-raising headlines:
A supergroup of New York sports executives, including owners of the New York Rangers and the New York Mets, is lining up to invest in a new arena just outside of Queens for the National Hockey League’s Islanders, according to people familiar with the discussions…
The new arena proposal is a joint venture between the Islanders, Oak View Group and Sterling Project Development, said the people, who asked to be anonymous because the talks are private. James Dolan’s Madison Square Garden Co., which controls the Rangers, long the Islanders hated rivals, is an investor in Oak View Group, the private equity group run by Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff. The Wilpon family, which owns the Mets, controls Sterling Project Development.
Much of this isn’t new: Bloomberg News reported last summer that the Islanders owners were looking at the Belmont Park racetrack site as a potential backup to building an arena next to the Mets‘ stadium in Willets Point, and apparently (according to those “people familiar with the discussions”) it’s now moved up to being Plan A. The new bit is the involvement of Oak View, the company run by former AEG exec Leiweke that has also expressed interest in renovating Seattle’s KeyArena, and which includes Dolan’s Madison Square Garden Co. as an investor.
Let’s start with the ways this makes some sense: Belmont Park is close to the Islanders’ old fan base, it has decent transit and highway access, and the state has been looking for a way to redevelop the site for years to no avail. And if you’re going to look to build a whole new arena in an already-glutted market, who better to turn to than Leiweke, who is desperate enough to make a splash in the arena game that he could well be willing to take on plans that more established arena operators might consider too risky.
On the other hand … this makes no damn sense. The New York City area already has arenas in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Newark, and Nassau County — it just had to close one in New Jersey because there weren’t enough concert acts to go around, and it’s now apparently being used as rehearsal space. Adding another arena would just put one of the existing ones on the brink. And it really makes no sense for MSG to want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to compete with itself — unless Dolan thinks he’s better off owning two arenas to try to drive Mikhail Prokhorov’s two arenas (Brooklyn and Nassau) out of business, which would be a strange kind of loss leadering, but then, Dolan is after all an idiot.
There’s also always the possibility that the Islanders owners, Mets owners, and Oak View could try to demand public money to sweeten the pot: Bloomberg reports vaguely that “New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken part in the proposed arena talks and is seeking to attach infrastructure improvement projects to it,” and we know that Cuomo is big on building things that he can call “infrastructure,” especially when he can do so via a combination of tax breaks for private developers and Ida Know. There’s also always the possibility of going back to Nassau County voters to see if they’d be more amenable to funding a new arena now, or maybe seeing if Islanders fans on Long Island would buy commemorative bricks or something to stop having to trek to Brooklyn to see games.
All of which is to say that there are way too many unknowns here to say whether this story could have legs, or is mostly just the Islanders owners trying to leverage Prokhorov into giving them a lease extension in Brooklyn that lets them keep their guaranteed-income deal and/or renovates the Barclays Center to be a less sucky place to watch hockey. I’m in an optimistic mood today, so I’ll say I hope that this is another indicator of a burgeoning arms race within Big Arena that sees billionaires throwing money at new venues without demanding big public subsidies, just because they’re trying to drive each other out of business. It couldn’t end well — anybody remember the Borders-Barnes & Noble war? — but at least the only casualties would be some private corporation’s bottom line.