Nassau could try to bring Islanders back to Coliseum, or Post could be on the pipe again

Hey, check it out, it’s yet another unsourced New York Post rumor about the New York Islanders moving somewhere!

Despite the team’s new ownership giving no indication it was open to such a move, county officials are in talks with the team’s current landlord about a move back to the Nassau Coliseum, sources said…

Mikhail Prohorov, who owns Barclays Center, the team’ s current home, and operates the Coliseum — which is undergoing a top-to-bottom $260 million renovation — supports the concept of the Islanders moving back east, two sources close to the situation said.

The Post has a long history of “exclusives” that never panned out, but sure, maybe? “In talks with” just means somebody put in a call to somebody, after all, and with Prokhorov (the Post couldn’t be bothered to spell his name right) running the Coliseum, presumably his people are regularly talking to Nassau’s people anyway. So it’s completely feasible that along the way somebody said, “Hey, if the Islanders wanted to move to Nassau would you be cool with it?” and they said “Sure, whatev.”

The more interesting bit here is tea-leaf reading to try to figure out who among the multiple sides at work would have chosen to leak this to the Post. Nassau County officials? Sure, it lets them remind people they still have an arena (albeit downsized in ongoing renovations) and a bunch of Islanders fans, so why not? Prokhorov? As a gambit to tell the Islanders owners “We don’t care if you’re threatening to move to Queens,” possibly, though that seems a bit convoluted.

The reporter breaking this story is a Post business writer, not a sports writer, so that would tend to indicate government official more likely, but really it could be anybody, including the guy in the next cubicle. It’s all gamesmanship and clickbait right now, so don’t take anything too seriously until it comes with some actual money attached, or at least a named source.

Islanders move threat looks like big game of chicken, doesn’t mean no one’s going over cliff

If you wanted to hear more from me on the subject of whether the new New York Islanders owners will go through with threats to move to Queens if their Brooklyn arena isn’t made more hockey-friendly, you can check out my article at Vice Sports. Short answer: probably not, but it’s at least conceivable; long answer: read the article already!

Writing about the Islanders move threat for Vice also afforded me the opportunity to research teams that spent the shortest time in a new home before skedaddling to greener pastures again:

If the Islanders actually leave Brooklyn after four years, this will be, to be sure, one of the shortest honeymoons in sports history. Not counting expansion teams like the Seattle Pilots or New Orleans Jazz that barely got the shrinkwrap off before they’d been repurposed for a new city, the shortest pit stops I can find are the Milwaukee Hawks (moved to St. Louis in 1955 four years after relocating from Tri-Cities) and San Diego Clippers (six-year stopover between Buffalo and Los Angeles). In the NHL, the record shortest stay between two other homes is the Colorado Rockies, who lasted six seasons after departing Kansas City before ending up in New Jersey with a nickname honoring a mythical winged goat.

I probably should have given honorable mention to the Phoenix Coyotes, who lasted a little over seven seasons in Phoenix before decamping for Glendale — similarly in a beef over an arena that wasn’t built to comfortably house hockey. The lesson hear seems to be that if you’re a hockey team you probably want to play in a hockey arena, and if you’re building an arena and want to be able to host hockey you should probably make it big enough to do so, but I guess owners figure why worry about that now when there’s always time for more gamesmanship later? Or they just don’t think beyond “But I’m mad now!

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.

New Islanders owner noncommittal about playing in Brooklyn, Long Island, anywhere

When developer Bruce Ratner signed a deal in 2013 to take over and renovate the Nassau Coliseum, then-home of the New York Islanders, it included an agreement for the Islanders to play six home games in Nassau even after moving to Ratner’s Brooklyn arena in 2015. Ratner doesn’t own Brooklyn’s Barclays Center anymore, though, and the new co-owner of the Islanders, Jon Ledecky, tells Newsday that he’s not 100% sure he wants to go through with playing home games on the Guyland, either:

“I think the key is neither party’s principal [representative] was there when that deal was made,” Ledecky said at a meet-and-greet luncheon with reporters at 21 Club in Manhattan. “In other words, that deal was between Bruce Ratner and Charles Wang at the time and now we’re the owners of the Islanders.”

Besides, Ledecky can’t say enough about how great it is to be in Brooklyn, and is totally not considering jumping back to Nassau County when his lease out clause kicks in starting in 2019, right?

“Obviously we’ll never be able to replicate the home feeling of Nassau Coliseum and I think in the first year people longed for that,” he said. “I know I did. Bluntly, I missed the Coliseum.”

But Ledecky was encouraged by the atmosphere in the playoffs, saying he thought it was even louder than the Coliseum got, and he believes Barclays Center is willing to work with the team to make necessary improvements.

“There were challenges last year,” he said. “I would be lying to you if I said there wasn’t. Does that mean you blow up Barclays Center and leave? No. You try to improve the home you have.”

Yeah, that sounds less like “commitment” than like “keeping your options open.” The Islanders are stuck in Brooklyn for another three seasons, and are surely going to try to build a fan base there and figure out how to make hockey work in an arena that was built solely for basketball. If it doesn’t work out by 2019, though, Long Island is still there. If nothing else, it’s leverage to try to get Brooklyn arena owner Mikhail Prokhorov to do some hockey-friendly upgrades — assuming Prokhorov cares about having hockey there instead of booking more concerts. At least it’s nice to see rich guys exerting leverage on each other for once, instead of on the public, so enjoy this while it lasts.

Three weeks after promised arena announcement, Coyotes owner still hasn’t revealed site

It’s now been three weeks since Arizona Coyotes owner Anthony LeBlanc’s promised announcement of a new arena site for his team, which he met by saying he had one but he wasn’t going to tell anyone where it was yet. Supposedly he was going to tell us all about it once a “real estate agreement” had been worked out, but either the lawyers are still haggling or he was blowing smoke, because there hasn’t been a peep since. Look, here’s an Arena Digest report all about how there’s no news to report!

Tune in next Thursday to see if LeBlanc is still twiddling his thumbs on this. What, you had something better to do this summer?

Michigan residents’ $300m for Red Wings arena buying slightly closer seats, plus lasers

This week’s Sports Illustrated has a long profile of the Detroit Red Wings‘ under-construction new arena, which almost entirely consists of quotes from team execs and the arena’s designers, so take with a huge grain of salt. It does include a few tea leaves we can try to read, though, so let’s get to it:

The design starts with putting fans as close to the ice as possible. “We brought in our general manager, Ken Holland, to find which was the most intimidating place we play,” Tom Wilson, CEO of team and arena owner Olympia Entertainment, tells SI.com. “Without question it is Montreal. There is no light. No open concourses. Just a sea of red jerseys screaming at you in French. We went there to see it and, my gosh, they are on top of you.”

George Heinlein, HOK Sports principal, tells SI.com that they designed Little Caesars with Montreal’s Bell Centre’s vertical rise, but with added legroom. “It is about the steepness of the seating bowl,” Heinlein says. “But also the proximity of those fans to the rink.”

This is garbage: Since a hockey arena’s seating starts, by definition, at the edge of the rink, the only way to get fans (in the first deck, at least) closer to the ice is to reduce legroom. This is a tradeoff, obviously — less legroom is bad for the people sitting in those seats, but good for the fans sitting in the rows behind them — but unless HOK has reinvented geometry, they can’t accomplish both at once.

While Detroit’s current Joe Louis Arena has about 40% of seats in the lower bowl, Little Caesars flips the script, putting about 10,500 of the total 19,600 seats in the lower bowl, but with the last row in Little Caesars still able to fit within the last row of Joe Louis.

“More seats in the lower bowl” is actually HOK dogma at this point, apparently because team owners think they can charge more for a seat in the last row of a lower bowl than for a seat in the front row of an upper bowl, though they might be equally good for seeing the game. The last row being no farther from the ice than in the old arena is more promising, if that’s indeed what “fit within the last row of Joe Louis” means.

The baddest bowl eliminates the trendy concept of opening up the concourses to the rink. Instead of creating sightlines through the entire venue, the Red Wings wanted to focus on creating noise, eliminating any holes where noise or energy could escape. “We don’t want to blow out concourses, we want to contain all the energy in the seating bowl,” Heinlein says. “It is a throwback in that regard.”

This sounds like marketing gibberish — “we’re eliminating this thing that everyone has been claiming is one of the best things about new sports venues, and claiming it’s ‘throwback’ and trendy for not being trendy” — and it is, but it’s also potentially kind of cool. One staple of stadium and arena design the last couple of decades has been a large gap between decks, so that fans in concession areas can see the game while waiting on line for food. If you’ve ever been at one of these buildings, though, you know that this usually means “see maybe one corner of the game, or more likely a thin strip of the crowd that is watching the game, while peering around everyone standing around the concourse,” which is entirely useless, especially since there are typically TV monitors everywhere showing you the actual game.

Getting rid of that gap, though, enables the designers to move the entire deck above maybe 10-20 feet down and forward, which is a huge benefit to the people actually sitting in those seats, and could help explain that “worst seat is no worse than in Joe Louis” claim. I’m tentatively optimistic, anyway.

Connecting the interior of Little Caesars with the Via and surrounding neighborhood by blurring the entry plaza concourse with the external streets of the district, Wilson says the space offers diversity and will encourage fans to return over and over to experience new spaces. “The Via is a very active space,” Wilson says. “We want to change the way people come to games. Come at 6 (p.m.), have your choice of sports bars, a market house, a spaghetti house and have a full evening. At the end of the game, there are tons of experiences to still have and discover.”

In other words, the Via (a glassed-in concessions concourse that is meant to feel like it’s “outdoors”) is a cross between traditional concessions areas and an outdoor space controlled by the team like Eutaw Street at Camden Yards or Yawkey Way at Fenway Park. Nothing new, in other words — it’s just team-controlled restaurant space by another name.

Using a 12-laser projection system, the Red Wings can animate the arena, projecting full motion video and images on the arena’s “forward-thinking” metal-panel skin all the way through the Via. “There is nothing like it in Vegas, Disney or Times Square,” Wilson says. “It is an immersive sort of experience that everybody is going to enjoy.”

Dear lord, that sounds awful. Unless you like the stimulation overload of Vegas and Times Square, which I guess lots of people do, but if I count among “everybody,” I expect I’ll be able to personally disprove that last statement.

And that’s more than enough time to spend on a team PR statement. Let’s close with a reminder of the $300 million in public money this is costing Michigan residents, since SI somehow forgot to mention it.

Flames and Calgary agree to keep discussing new arena, can’t agree on where to find $1.3B

The Calgary city council voted 12-3 on Monday to continue discussions with the Flames and Stampeders owners on a new hockey arena and football stadium, either via the mammoth CalgaryNEXT complex or a cheaper Plan B whose details have yet to be determined. And the two sides had very different interpretations of where things go from here, not least over what the actual price tag, which for CalgaryNext the city says will be $1.8 billion, while the team owners say they can do it for a mere $1.3 billion. First, Flames CEO Ken King:

“Frankly, who knows which may emerge better. We have a luxury here. We get to choose between what may be two very, very good ideas.”

And then, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi:

“Certainly there’s a difference of opinion on numbers, but if I’m looking at their numbers they still say this is a $1.3 billion project. Obviously there’s a lot more questions, including who’s got $1.3 billion. … Even their best-case scenario is still a lot of money that we don’t have.”

There’s nothing wrong with talking, really, and Nenshi and the council seem to remain determined to take a hard line that any new venue proposals don’t involve shoveling piles of money at the teams that the public would never get back. This could drag out forever — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re King and his fellow Flames and Stampeders execs, wringing their hands about how their profits aren’t as big as they’d be if they got massive public subsidies for a new building or two, and I’m guessing most of you aren’t. Though with municipal elections coming up in 2017, you have to figure King and friends have in the back of their minds that maybe they can wait for a new, more-profits-friendly city government — I tried checking on Nenshi’s latest poll numbers, but they haven’t turned up, though I did discover that Calgary residents are strongly in support of playground swings.

ADDENDUM: And then there’s this:

Columbus Dispatch editorial: Never mind, Blue Jackets arena is a money pit

I called out the Columbus Dispatch last week for a misleading headline implying that the publicly owned Blue Jackets‘ arena was turning a small profit, so credit where credit is due for a Dispatch editorial today pointing out exactly how and why that was oh so wrong:

Nationwide Arena reports it will end its fiscal-year budget on June 30 with a profit of $316,000. That’s a paper profit, courtesy of a public bailout and the kind of creative accounting that would land an ordinary property owner in foreclosure…

Most people would see their financial situations vastly improved if they, too, could dispense with property taxes and mortgage payments.

The editorial also notes that Columbus residents voted five times against using public money for a sports arena between 1978 and 1997, only to have the Blue Jackets pursue a privately funded arena in 2000 — and then demand a public bailout eleven years later because they claimed they were losing money. Fighting against sports subsidies is really hard when teams owners only have to bat .167 to get everything that they asked for.

Coyotes owner announces planned arena site, won’t tell you where it is

Arizona Coyotes owner Anthony LeBlanc made his long-awaited announcement yesterday about new arena plans, and it’s that: He’s picked a site, but he’s not saying where it is. Seriously:

Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said Thursday afternoon that the team has chosen a site for its new arena and is working through the legal documentation of the real estate agreement.

LeBlanc declined to provide any other details, or name the site.

This is officially the weakest non-announcement ever, especially since there’s no way even to know if he’s telling the truth about having settled on a site. (I suppose the people he’s working out the real estate agreement with know, but if he later switches to another site before revealing what it is, how will anyone on the outside tell?) Technically, it’s an announcement in advance of tonight’s NHL draft, which is what LeBlanc promised, but it’s still not much more than waving a piece of paper in the air and claiming it has specifics on it.

It’s still pretty likely that the report from earlier this week is correct and LeBlanc is aiming for a site in Scottsdale that’s part of the Salt River Pima Indian Reservation, but it’s also possible that he isn’t, or that he is but he’ll change his mind later if a better offer comes along. I’ve been saying for a while that LeBlanc’s best leverage here is to get a bidding war going among various Phoenix-area governments, and it sure looks like he’s trying to drag that war out as long as possible.

Las Vegas gets NHL team, clearly anyone with a $500m check can have one

As expected, the NHL announced yesterday that it will add an expansion franchise in Las Vegas in 2017, leading to celebration in that city and lots of derisive snorts from people who’ve noted that there are at least half a dozen bigger markets without NHL teams, most of which have a stronger history of hockey support than Vegas. (Seriously, Hartford has more TV households than Las Vegas.) What they don’t have, as I discussed last night in an article for Vice Sports, is a bunch of rich guys willing to sign a $500 million expansion fee check (at least not $500 million in U.S. dollars), and since the rich guys in question include one Florida financier and two Maloofs, there’s at least some suspicion that this is more an attempt to get into the NHL club than a long-term commitment to Las Vegas.

As for the arena angle, the new team (possibly to be called the Black Knights after owner Bill Foley’s financial company, but that’s yet to be decided) will play in T-Mobile Arena, which was privately built by MGM and AEG as part of Vegas’s arena land rush, and which is all new and shiny and apparently exciting to NHL bigwigs. What I haven’t been able to find any record of, probably because it’s a transaction between two private parties, is how much Foley and the Maloofs will be paying the arena as part of their lease, or how long the lease is for, all of which will have a huge impact on the team’s profitability, and on whether the Vegas franchise ends up there for the long haul or follows the Atlanta Thrashers into the long NHL history of failed experiments.

As for cities that didn’t get a team this time around, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman left the door wide open for further expansion, particularly citing the strength of the Quebec application, which was unfortunately undermined by the weakness of the Canadian dollar. Given the glut of billionaires compared to the limited number of major pro sports franchises, the NHL is clearly interested in following MLS’s lead and cashing in on expansion fees while the cashing is good — so if you have half a billion dollars burning a hole in your pocket and a desire to watch hockey from the owner’s box, give them a ring.