Islanders owners discussing new arena in Queens or LI, all hell about to break loose

So when new New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky answered questions last week about the team’s future — previously planned to include staying in Brooklyn but playing six games a year in a renovated Nassau Coliseum — by saying “Barclays Center is our home,” I called it “noncommittal,” on the grounds that 1) Ledecky was still pretty gripey about the flaws of the Brooklyn arena and 2) “Barclays Center is our home” could mean either “we would never leave a place with so many important memories made over the last nine months” or “it’s where we live, we have to deal with it until we figure out something better. It sounded like typical owner weasel words, a way to keep your options open without actually saying you wanted to keep your options open.

But even I didn’t expect this, just a week later:

The New York Islanders are in talks with the owners of baseball’s New York Mets about building a hockey arena adjacent to Citi Field in Queens, people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Willets Point is emerging as a persuasive alternative to the team’s current home at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center if the Islanders’s owners and arena officials can’t agree on a series of hockey-specific improvements, said the people, who asked for anonymity because the negotiations are private.

That was from Bloomberg News, but the anonymous sources were soon talking as well to Newsday (which cited “two people familiar with the situation”) and the New York Post (just “sources” — the Post doesn’t get too hung up on attribution). The Post’s article also included this tidbit:

But if that doesn’t work out, Islanders owners Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin could move the team to Elmont, LI, sources said…

A state source confirmed the Islanders have made preliminary inquiries about moving the club to vacant state-owned land near Belmont Park. That is near another parcel being eyed by the Cosmos for a soccer stadium.

With all this, a clearer picture is starting to come into focus. When Ledecky and partner Scott Malkin bought the team from Charles Wang earlier this year, they inherited Wang’s lease on the Barclays Center, which he had agreed to despite the building’s problems for hockey — it was deliberately “value engineered” to be too small for the sport, in order to save on construction costs — because he was sick and tired of fighting with Nassau County officials over a new arena there. They also, however, inherited the opt-out clause that Wang had negotiated to allow the Islanders to break their lease in 2019 — and that’s the kind of leverage that you’d have to be crazy as an owner not to try to use.

So is an arena next to the Mets stadium feasible, and what would it take to build one? The parking lot to the west of Citi Field is already designated for the giant “Willets West” mall, but that’s currently held up in court because the lots are technically still city parkland. Could the Mets try to build an arena instead if the mall is nixed? Would the courts allow that more readily? Who knows?

Then there’s Willets Point proper, to the east of the Mets stadium, a melange of auto repair businesses that the city has been working to seize and evict for years to make way for a mixed housing and commercial development. Could the city agree to incorporate an arena as well? And on either site, would it provide the land for free, and leave it exempt from property taxes, which might be enough to entice the Mets and Isles owners to actually build this thing? And if they did, could it possibly be successful in a metropolitan area already glutted with arenas (Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, the New Jersey Devils‘ Prudential Center in Newark, plus soon the redone Nassau Coliseum) and only so many concerts to go around?

Of course, Ledecky and Malkin may never have to determine if a Queens (or Elmont) arena project is feasible, if they can use the mere possibility as a hammer to get Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to redo Barclays for hockey. The Isles owners haven’t come out and said what “improvements” they want, but to make a genuinely NHL-scaled space you’d need to knock down the entire west end of the structure and build it out another 50 feet or so, which wouldn’t be cheap, and would also entail shutting the arena for an offseason or two and losing out on revenue from those dates. So to get it done would require quite a formidable threat, and “we’re going to take our puck and go to Queens” might be the kind of thing that gets the attention of their current landlords.

Either way, though, it looks like we have a war on, one that’s likely to drag out for months or years as the various combatants (Ledecky and Malkin, Prokhorov, the Wilpons, the city, maybe Elmont) jockey for position and remake alliances. That should at least help tide everyone over until the final season of Game of Thrones.

Postseason ticket rejection saddens Mets fans, new stadium in part to blame

The New York Mets held their ticket lottery for the National League Division Series yesterday, and me and pretty much everyone I know were among those getting the “Sorry, try again next round” letter. Which put us in good company, according to Mets fan Twitter:

Now, part of this is just the calculus of a team just returning to popularity in a big market: There are only so many tickets to go around, and no baseball fan in the city is willing to bet on Mets playoff appearances becoming an annual occurrence, stocked young pitching staff or no.

There’s another big difference between now and the last time the Mets made it to October in 2006, though, and it has nothing to do with jettisoning Paul Lukas’s least favorite uniforms. Rather, this will be (assuming the Mets don’t suffer an even more catastrophic collapse than their last couple) the first postseason played at the Mets’ new stadium, and as I noted last night for Vice Sports, Citi Field is way smaller capacity than its predecessor:

In 2006, the Mets still played at Shea Stadium, which—as was the custom in the 1960s, when it was built—could hold a hefty 57,333 fans. Citi Field, born 2009, falls more than 15,000 fans shy of that mark, though it does offer an additional 3,000 standing-room-only slots. The organization settled on this design decision for a couple of reasons:

  1. With all the luxury seating and clubs taking up more space on the lower levels, an additional 15,000 seats would have sent the new upper deck into a stratosphere far worse even than Shea’s famed nosebleeds.
  2. A smaller capacity meant it would be easier to sell out games without offering steep discounts on tickets.

That’s worked out pretty well for regular season games—Citi feels, if not exactly intimate, at least not cavernous, and the Mets have mostly been bad enough for there still to be plenty of discounts. Now that it’s the postseason, however, that’s an extra 20 to 30,000 fans per round who’ll be stuck watching at home.

There are other reasons why non-season-ticket-holder Mets fans might be getting the cold shoulder more than expected about now — for one thing, the team is apparently holding back some postseason seats to try to entice fans into plunking down deposits on season plans for 2016, despite not having indicated yet what prices will be for 2016. Plus, StubHub and its ilk have utterly changed how ticket markets operate — while it’s not completely linear, it has mostly meant that tickets to unpopular games are easy to get for dirt cheap, while the sky’s the limit on popular ones.

All of which means that the trend that rich fans are increasingly buying a larger and larger share of sports tickets should be expected to be even more true for playoff games, in all sports. Too bad New York City couldn’t have left Shea Stadium standing in the parking lot for big postseason series, like in olden times.

Court blocks mall on former Shea Stadium site, because oops, it’s still city parkland

If you’ve been to a New York Mets game ever, you’ll have noticed that the area right around the stadium is pretty desolate — there’s the parking lot, which includes the site of the former Shea Stadium (the old diamond is helpfully marked off in concrete), and the auto shops across the street in the neighborhood of Willets Point. New York City has long planned to redevelop Willets Point, most recently by building a shopping mall in the Mets parking lot and razing some of the auto shops for replacement parking. But that plan was unexpectedly shot down last week by an appeals court ruling noting that the Mets parking lot is still technically city parkland, and so can’t be used for commercial development:

The construction of a mixed-use, mall-anchored development on the former site of Shea Stadium in Queens, without the state Legislature’s approval, would violate the doctrine restricting the use of public lands for private purposes, a Manhattan appellate court ruled Thursday…

Justice Angela Mazzarelli said that purposes for the use of the subject law—”considered in vacuum”—are not necessarily related to a stadium, but that the law contains specific examples of purposes that are traditionally associated with a stadium, including athletic events, concerts and assemblies.

“Its focus is on the stadium, and the stadium only,” Mazzarelli wrote. “There is simply no basis to interpret the statute as authorizing the construction of another structure that has no natural connection to a stadium.”

In short, the city was trying to use a 1961 state law authorizing the construction of Shea Stadium on city parkland (which also was used to justify the later construction of Citi Field next door) to build a mall there as well, on the grounds that the old law said that a stadium would promote “trade and commerce,” so anything that promotes trade and commerce should be fair game, right? The appeals court told the city to stick it in its ear, though it did note that the state legislature could still amend the 1961 law to allow the mall to proceed.

This is good news for fans of parkland being protected space, certainly, though in the short run all it means is that people will still get to run the old bases in an asphalt parking lot for the foreseeable future. (Not that that’s not legitimate public recreation — it’s fun for all ages!) Also, there’s nothing stopping the city and developers, presumably, from switching up their plan and building the mall in Willets Point and leaving the parking where it is. That would be good for Mets fans wanting to buy whatever it is people buy at malls before games, I guess, and bad for merchants in the rest of the city that have been selling turkey sandwiches to fans to cart on the subway to games.

But hey, either way we can cheer the principle of the thing, right? After all, Mets fans are used to cheering pyrrhic victories.

Mets owners proposed building casino next to stadium (in 2011) (then they dropped it)

I’ve been trying to ignore this one all day (because see below), but it’s on the front page of the New York Post staring up at me from newsstands, so fine, okay then: The owners of the New York Mets proposed building a casino in the Citi Field parking lot as part of the shopping-mall development they and developer Related Cos. want to build there. The casino would be run by Long Island’s Shinnecock Indian Nation.

“Would be” because the Mets owners proposed this way back in 2011, and it was rejected by the city as too difficult to get approvals for. Casino gambling being illegal in New York state, you see, other than on tribal lands, which the onetime Corona Ash Dump certainly is not.

There is a bill in the state legislature that would legalize gambling in New York, so it’s always conceivable that this casino plan could end up being revived. Even then, though, it’s hardly big news, since the idea of a casino on the site was already reported last summer. There are plenty of interesting questions about the Related/Mets development plan — my City Limits colleague Pat Arden raises a bunch of them in his in-depth article today — but “Mets Are Proposing To Build A Casino (Two Years Ago, And Not Anymore)” isn’t really front-page material. Though I suppose any opportunity to show Mr. Met in a green visor playing craps (do people wear visors for craps? isn’t that just poker?) with giant novelty dice is one not to be passed up.

Mets offer Citi Field for soccer, MLS says “nuh-uh”

In this week’s New York City soccer news, the New York Mets owners say they’d be “open to discussing the use of Citi Field for a potential MLS team,” while MLS officials call the idea a “nonstarter.” Which is news, that is, if you missed all the other times the Mets owners have expressed interest in owning an MLS team, or all the times MLS commissioner Don Garber has said he only wants teams to play in soccer-only stadiums. Though I suppose this is the first time the Wilpons have explicitly offered to host a soccer team at Citi Field itself, and so the first time MLS could reject it.

On the one hand, soccer at Citi Field is a pretty terrible idea — though it’s fine as a plus-sized venue for the occasional international friendly, it’s way too big and oddly shaped to be ideal for an MLS franchise. On the other, it doesn’t require spending $300 million or taking public parkland, so as an interim measure to test whether there’s really a big market for MLS in Queens, you could do worse.

Except, of course, that right now “build it, or we won’t come” is the only leverage that MLS has to extract approval for a new stadium from the city, so they’re not going to give it up and risk having their interim solution stretch on for years, like things have with D.C. United. Of course, New York City has leverage, too — city officials could easily say, “Play in the place that’s already built, or take your act to some smaller media market” — but it’s not clear how willing they are to use it. Right now negotiations seem aimed at finding a way to make everybody happy, which is a nice goal, but when you’re talking about a building that will cost $300 million, plus $100 million in tax breaks, plus relocating public soccer fields and public parkland, there’s not going to be a lot of extra happy to go around.

Could the Mets’ Madoff woes torpedo Citi Field bonds?

I haven’t had much to say here about the New York Mets owners’ Bernie Madoff-related financial woes, but there is one potential way they could have a major impact on stadium issues: In the unlikely (but not that unlikely) case that the Mets owners declare bankruptcy, the payments on Citi Field stadium bonds would be thrown into disarray.

As I just wrote this morning for the Village Voice website:

To get people to nonetheless buy these bonds backed by nothing more than the promise of the Wilpons, the Mets took out bond insurance with a company called Ambac Assurance Corporation, which pledged to pay out if the Mets defaulted. Which would have worked great, except that Ambac — like so many of the financial insurers caught up in the economic meltdown — filed for Chapter 11 in November, and doesn’t actually have $500 million to pay out to anybody. And after Ambac, there’s nobody: Anyone who bought Mets stadium bonds thinking that their money was safe with the nation’s third most valuable baseball team would be left holding worthless paper.

At that point, the [city Industrial Development Agency] would be faced with a choice: Tap the city treasury to make good on the bonds, or risk future bond buyers growing wary of city-related bond offerings. Disclaimers about “faith and credit” be damned, it’d be a tough call for an agency already facing one high-profile stadium-related default.

Do I really expect this to happen? Probably not. But nobody expected the Texas Rangers to end up in bankruptcy court either. It’s a situation that bears watching, let’s just say that.

Times blames Mets’ ticket sales on road losses

Not to keep picking on the New York Times’ Ken Belson, but it’s just so easy, especially when he writes stuff like this:

Every time the Mets compile an impressive homestand, they undo the good feeling with an atrocious road trip. And because many fans consider the team’s most recent performance when deciding whether to attend a home game, the Mets’ buzz-killing road losses (including the game-winning grand slam that sunk the Mets on Wednesday in San Diego) have taken their toll. … It seems the team’s contrasting home and road records are making it harder for fans to justify running out to Citi Field.

The notion that fans are staying away from Mets games, not because the team was terrible last year or ticket prices are too high or the stadium honeymoon has worn off, but because they win too many games at home might seem too plainly demented to debunk … but I’ve done so anyway for the Village Voice. The short version: All teams coming off of lousy years draw lousy, and the Mets’ attendance was artificially inflated last year already with curiosity-seekers looking to check out their new digs. But why settle for facts when you can instead choose the contrarian wisdom that Mets fans are being driven away by the bad taste of giving up 18 runs in a road game that ended at 1:20 am local time?

Internets Celebrities debut “Stadium Status”

The fine folks at Internets Celebrities have released their latest video, titled “Stadium Status,” and I can say without hesitation that it’s the finest (and funniest) web video ever made on the subject of stadium scams.

Featured are myself (in the role of talking-head stadium expert) and Killian Jordan (as the angry Bronx resident), plus IC hosts Rafi Kam and Dallas Penn providing an 18-minute tour of the machinations behind the new Yankees and Mets stadiums and Nets arena. Find out why the the New York Times called them a cross between Michael Moore and Dave Chappelle! (Not that Moore has been funny in years. Or Chappelle, for that matter. Hey, wait, was the Times actually dissing them?)

Seriously, it’s a great video, and you couldn’t ask for a better primer on the ill effects of new stadiums on both our cities and sports fandom. At least, not until I finally get permission to upload video of the Shoddy Puppet Company’s shadow puppet play based on Field of Schemes. It’s hard to beat shadow puppets.

Mets’ league-leading attendance drop: Sign bloom is off stadium rose?

The New York Mets have seen the largest drop in attendance from last year of any MLB team, and somebody thinks they’ve spotted a trend:

“The problem is last year the tickets were really expensive and the team stunk and that can really stick with fans for a while,” said Jon Greenberg, the executive editor of Team Marketing Report, an industry publication.

In the mid-1990s, Greenberg said, teams could count on new stadiums to help them boost ticket sales for several years, but that trend has ended.

“Stadium fatigue sets in much faster than it did before,” Greenberg said, noting that new stadiums built in Baltimore and Cleveland in the early 1990s led to long periods of increased attendance for both franchises. “When Camden Yards and Jacobs Field were built, they were a big deal and were a complete change. The novelty has worn off.”

That last note about stadium fatigue isn’t entirely untrue, but it’s also worth noting that the Orioles and Indians both got really good on the field around the same time they opened their new stadiums, which is the main reason their attendance honeymoons were so long. Cellar-dwelling teams have not been so lucky: The Pittsburgh Pirates jumped 41% in attendance the year they opened PNC Park, then fell 28% the next year after losing 100 games in 2001; the Cincinnati Reds had a similar but less-dramatic drop two years later.

Some of this is no doubt stadium fatigue &mdash Camden Yards could have drawn fans in the early ’90s even if the Orioles had been playing like, well, the Orioles — but mostly it’s just an expression of the same principle at work as always: If your team is winning, you can stretch a honeymoon out for a few years; if not, it’ll likely fizzle in two to three. Every stadium draws curiosity-seekers its first season, and every stadium is pretty much back to baseline attendance levels ten years down the road. Florida Marlins, you have been warned.

Mets “talking” with Islanders, MLS about Queens move

More rumors of rumors, but: New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon tells Newsday (via its new sister publication Gothamist, since Newsday has hidden all its articles behind a $5/week paywall) that he’s “had conversations with Islanders owner Charles [Wang] and we’ve talked about Queens,” and that he’s also talked to MLS commissioner Don Garber about a soccer stadium, though “we probably can’t do both.”

Any hockey or soccer venue would presumably be built in the Citi Field parking lot, though Willets Point is always a possibility as well if New York City follows through with its redevelopment plans. The bigger question — who would pay for it — Wilpon and Newsday left undiscussed.

If nothing else, anyway, this gives Wang some added leverage on his move threats to kick Nassau County into approving his plans there. And who knows, maybe Wilpon is just doing his fellow owner a favor by tossing out some red meat to the tabloids — though right now it’s not like his team doesn’t have its own ways to get itself into the paper.