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.

Islanders may look to break Brooklyn lease already, claims terrible excuse for newspaper

The owners of the New York Islanders are already looking to get out of their lease at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in their first season there, according to the New York Post:

The lease includes a little-known out clause that kicks in after the fourth season that both sides could take advantage of, sources said.

“I don’t think either side ever believed the full lease would be honored,” said a source briefed on the matter. “I just didn’t think we’d be talking about this the first year in.”

Although the Islanders own one of the NHL’s top home records, their fans have been quite sour about the move, complaining about obstructed-view seating, jacked-up ticket prices, the nixing of longtime team traditions and feeling like second-class citizens in a building monopolized by the NBA’s Nets.

Jonathan Ledecky — who heads a group of investors set to replace Wang as the team’s majority owner July 1 — apparently is listening. A source close to the Islanders and other industry sources say he’s enamored with possibly moving the team to Queens or back to Long Island.

If you’re reading carefully, you’ll notice that the above report comes with a major caveat — namely, “according to the New York Post,” which has never been known to pass up an “EXCLUSIVE!” just because it’s not so much actually true. (Past Post reports based on unnamed sources have included the imminent construction of an MLS stadium in Queens and the possible purchase of the Nets arena by AEG, neither of which ever happened; Islanders blog Lighthouse Hockey notes that the co-author of this story, Josh Kosman, himself previously reported the Phoenix Coyotes being about to move to Las Vegas and the NHL taking over control of the New Jersey Devils, which also turned out to be vapornews. And don’t even get me started about the “beggar invasion.”) A new arena in Queens is extraordinarily unlikely to happen — the cost would be prohibitive, and there are no available sites with good transit for both drivers and transit riders — and the Nassau Coliseum is in the midst of being renovated down to 13,000 capacity, so there are some major roadblocks here.

Still, new owner, new strategy, maybe? Wang only moved the team to Brooklyn out of frustration with not getting a new arena out of Nassau County; it seemed like a dubious idea at the time given that the Barclays Center was designed specifically not to fit hockey, and it hasn’t been all that popular with fans, so sure, if there’s really an out clause in the lease, this might be a good time to use it. It’s hard to see Ledecky getting much of a local bidding war going for his team’s presence, but hey, he can always start rattling the Kansas City saber.

Islanders play a hockey game in Brooklyn, sky doesn’t fall

The inaugural exhibition hockey game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center was held on Saturday — Brooklyn’s soon-to-be home team, the New York Islanders, got creamed 3-0 — and if media reports can be trusted, fans were alternately impressed, unimpressed, and just generally weirded out:

  • “To me, there’s still no better place to watch a game than Nassau Coliseum, but we’ll see how the new place works out,” longtime Islanders season ticket holder Andrew Caprio told the New York Times.
  • “There’s no place for tailgating,” Long Island resident Megan Leach complained to the Times. “You get the creature comforts of a new arena, but I was unimpressed with the spectator area. There were a lot of terrible sight lines.”
  • Islander forward Colin McDonald’s dad Gerry says “the sight lines look good for hockey.” (Maybe he had better seats than Leach?)
  • Hockey’s debut in Brooklyn seemed to be met with positive feedback from players and fans alike.
  • “The fact that I can sit here talking to you in the corridor here and not get bumped into, standing in front of a men’s room with no line, at a sporting event, that’s everything,” one unnamed season ticket holder from Yonkers told the New York Daily News.
  • “It’s a hockey rink crammed into a concert hall,” Chris Elwood told ESPN, complaining that he and his daughter and her friends had a hard time seeing the puck at one end of the ice.
  • Season ticket holder Amy Zaum of West Hempstead managed to encapsulate the entire range of fan opinion, telling Newsday that the Brooklyn arena is “pretty cool,” that she hopes “they can put the scoreboard on something that moves so it’s not off-center” (don’t hold your breath), that it’s “very sad” to see the Islanders leave Nassau Coliseum and that she’ll “absolutely” go to games in Brooklyn.

If I had to sum it up, given that the game was a sellout and tickets were sky-high (one reason I didn’t check it out myself), it sounds like Islanders fans have given the move a tentative thumbs-up, or at least a tentative “What choice do we have?” For more, see Atlantic Yards Report’s Norman Oder’s excellent report on the opening game — and while you’re at it, check out his analysis of the Daily News’s thinly sourced look back at the Barclays Center’s first year in action, which focuses on anecdotal stories of fan spending but ducks issues like local stores being displaced by landlords seeking all these arena-related riches they’ve been told to expect, but which haven’t so much materialized.

Islanders return to Nassau unlikely, but shared custody could work

Now that Forest City Ratner, owner of the Brooklyn Nets‘ Barclays Center, has been picked to renovate the Nassau Coliseum, there’s been increasing speculation whether this could mean the New York Islanders staying in Long Island instead of moving to Brooklyn in 2015. It’s mostly thanks to this Tom Van Riper piece in Forbes, which noted that 1) the Islanders were previously going to stay put if they got a renovated arena, and now FCR plans on renovating the arena; 2) at 13,000 seats, FCR’s arena plans wouldn’t take much expansion to beat out the 14,000 that Barclays will seat for hockey; 3) FCR can make more money selling signage at two arenas instead of one; and 4) the Islanders at least have a fan base on Long Island, and who knows how they’ll fare in Brooklyn?

All of which are reasonable points — as is the one that with Barclays Center doing bang-up business with concerts, they might no longer be so eager to jam up winter dates with hockey on top of basketball — but right now this is still just some Forbes writer thinking out loud. Bruce Ratner has come out and said that a renovated Coliseum will be too small for hockey, and the Brooklyn move is way too far along at this point to just up and abandon it for fear that fans won’t show up.

Ratner has indicated that the relocated Islanders could play six home games a year in Nassau under his plan, though, which leaves open an easy strategy to for him and Islanders owner Charles Wang to hedge their bets: Watch attendance in Brooklyn vs. Long Island, and tweak the number of home games hosted at each as they fit. (Ratner could even shift some games last-minute if, say, Beyoncé suddenly needs Barclays for some dates, but that would risk pissing off Brooklyn Islanders fans who have no idea where Nassau is and how to get there by artisanal transit.) It’s probably not a long-term solution — eventually the team needs to have an identity, and Brooklyn and Long Island are very distinct markets — but it would be one way to keep their options open.

Nassau looking at downsizing Coliseum once Islanders leave

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano was set to announce a plan last night to scale down Nassau Coliseum to between 8,000 and 12,000 seats, and everyone is so excited that nobody has bothered to report on it at all! (Okay, Newsday seems to have said something about it, but it’s behind their iron paywall so I have no idea what it says — I’m actually an Optimum TV subscriber, but not Optimum Online, so no dice.)

The upshot seems to be: Once the New York Islanders leave the year after next, scale down the Coliseum to be able to host more mid-sized concerts that don’t need a 16,000-seat facility. It sort of makes sense — New York is desperately lacking any venues in between 6,000 seats (Radio City Music Hall) and 18,000 (Barclays Center). Except, of course, that Nassau Coliseum isn’t really all that close to New York City, so it’s not clear whether touring acts will be looking to pass up a trip to Manhattan or Brooklyn in order to find cozier digs in Uniondale.

But that’s the current plan, anyway. And apparently lots of people are set to bid on the operating rights, so now all that’s left is … let’s see, there must have been something … oh, right, figuring out how much it’ll cost to do the renovations, and whether any of the prospective operators is offering enough money to actually pay for it. Details, details…

Nassau comptroller: Damn, now we have to watch hockey again

The hockey lockout is over! The hockey lockout is over! Everybody celebrate the return of the firehose of economic benefits that will be restored to arenas the nation over—

The same week it was announced that the National Hockey League had reached a tentative deal that would end the league’s lockout, Nassau Comptroller George Maragos said the county “may be” better off without the NHL this season.

While the difference in loss of revenue is minuscule between having the season and canceling it, Maragos said other events that could be booked at the Coliseum if a full-season lockout were to occur would see a bigger crowd.

“If they do in fact settle, then the loss could be less than $500,000 because we would have the benefit of half of season,” Maragos told Patch Thursday before the lockout was settled. “If they actually cancel the season, we may be a little better off because the Islanders are not a big draw compared to other events.”

To be clear, what Maragos seems to have been saying was that if the NHL season had finally been cancelled, the Coliseum would have freed up the remaining hockey dates to re-sell for concerts, which some people might have actually wanted to see, unlike the Islanders. Cancelling two weeks of games at a time, as the NHL had been doing so far, didn’t leave much time to find acts to fill in the available dates.

Anyway, if the Coliseum is really better off without hockey, you have to wonder whether it wouldn’t make sense to let the Islanders buy their way out of their remaining lease and relocate to Brooklyn before 2015 — the Islanders would get a head start on their new life, and the Coliseum would get to book more, um, monster truck rallies? I’m somewhat skeptical — with the New York City arena now boasting five major arenas (MSG, Barclays, Nassau, Prudential, Izod), I can’t imagine there are that many extra concerts to go around — but if the Islanders are really only paying $500,000 a year to play in Nassau, as Maragos indicated, that’s a pretty small nut to replace. Islanders owner Charles Wang has previously said he doesn’t plan to buy out the last two years of the lease, but you have to wonder if an amicable divorce might not be the best thing for all concerned at this point.

Islanders-to-Brooklyn postmortem: Hockey sightlines still crappy, economic impact uncertain

As expected, every news outlet in New York has reports out today on the Islanders‘ announcement of a 2015 move to Brooklyn, which given that it’s New York means an awful lot of coverage. Some of the more interesting tidbits:

  • The Daily News reports that while lease details weren’t disclosed, “the monthly rent is expected to be more than the $14 million a year the Islanders were willing to pay for a new Long Island home.” If so, that’d be a mild coup for the Barclays Center — $14 million a year comes to $350,000 per game, which should be enough to make up for any loss of concerts — though the more interesting question is how and whether the Islanders will share in proceeds from such things as concessions and sale of luxury suites, which currently all go to the arena owners. [UPDATE: As Norman Oder notes below, the New York Post projects the rent as $6 million a year, which is, obviously, a lot less.]
  • Barclays Center “might just be an awful place to watch a hockey game,” writes SBNation’s Travis Hughes, noting that the overhead scoreboard will be off-center and some sections will have obscured views. There are two Russian hockey league games scheduled for January 19 and 20 — you can bet that plenty of people will turn out for those just to see how things will look for the Isles starting in 2015.
  • Islanders fans aren’t all that upset, at least not those who were at a basketball game at the time.
  • Okay, some Islanders fans are a little bit upset.
  • Forbes contributor (read: unpaid blogger) Teresa Genaro asks: “Teams move all the time, leaving behind a devastated fan base and going to new markets that welcome their arrival…but has there ever been a team that has so brazenly stepped into one of its rival’s markets?” Um, the Nets?
  • The Islanders will be keeping their old logo, but they might want to add back in Brooklyn and Queens to their map of Long Island.

Meanwhile, one topic that I didn’t get to talk much about in yesterday’s coverage is what this will likely mean for the environs of both the Islanders’ new arena and their old one. Mayor Bloomberg’s Economic Development Corporation has estimated that the arrival of the Islanders deal could generate $175 million in annual economic activity, but as Atlantic Yards Report rightly notes, that’s economic activity (i.e., all money changing hands in the arena), not city tax revenues.

The actual impact on Brooklyn is likely to depend on how many current Islander fans take the LIRR into Brooklyn to see games (or more likely, take the subway there after work and then take the LIRR home), since that’s the only way to get actual new money — money spent by city residents will largely be cannibalized from other spending within the city. Ironically, the more “Brooklyn” the team becomes, the less it could benefit Brooklyn.

As for the impact on Uniondale, Long Island, it’s tough to say: While this isn’t necessarily the death knell for the Nassau Coliseum, it’s going to be really tough for the building to survive — less because of the Islanders leaving than because the New York area is now suffering from a major arena glut, and Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center are the clear front-runners for luring acts. (Newark’s Prudential Center would be third.) Even if the Coliseum were to shut down, though, it probably wouldn’t have a huge impact on Nassau County — most attendees almost certainly come from within Long Island, and in any case it’s not like there’s anywhere to spend money around the arena.

One potential bright note for Brooklyn: Adding an extra 40 dates a year to the 200-plus that are already booked does increase the chances that the Barclays Center could be one of the rare arenas that promotes nearby development: While it’d be crazy to open a business across the street from a building that’s dark most of the year, once it’s operating two out of every three nights, that might be a customer base you can actually start to rely on, at least if you’re in the business of selling things that people want to eat or drink before or after a sporting event. Or, perhaps, pay toilets.

Islanders announce 25-year “ironclad” lease in Brooklyn, starting in 2015

The New York Islanders press conference at Barclays Center about their impending move to Brooklyn just wrapped up — you can read my liveblog here. The important highlights:

  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said maybe a few hundred to a thousand seats can be added to the arena’s 14,500 hockey capacity, but in any case, given that Winnipeg’s arena is only 15,000 and Nassau Coliseum only 16,000, “it’s not an issue.”
  • The lease will run from 2015 through 2040, and according to Islanders owner Charles Wang, “The lease that is signed is ironclad. We have 25 years with the Barclays Center.”
  • The decision was only officially made last night, though obviously it’s been under discussion for a while.
  • Wang wouldn’t talk specifics about how much rent he’ll be paying to Bruce Ratner, or other financial details of his lease. “It’s obviously very skewed toward attendance and how we do,” he said. “We believe that if we move to a facility like this, we will do better.”

So, obviously I was dead wrong when I said that an Islanders-to-Brooklyn move was unlikely, and any concerns over capacity and the Islanders being tenants in someone else’s building paled in comparison to being able to tap into what’s looking like a lucrative Brooklyn market. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that while most stadiums and arenas aren’t cash cows once you take construction costs into account, and most team owners’ goal is to be the primary tenant in their own arena, not all buildings — and markets — are created equal, and things can work very differently when a market the size of New York City is involved.

Which, of course, raises the question of whether New York City and state should have driven a harder bargain about getting the Barclays Center built in the first place, now that it turns out that teams need Brooklyn more than Brooklyn needs teams. I’d ask Mayor Bloomberg, but he’s already left the building…

Islanders announcement at 1 pm, reportedly to announce 2015 move to Brooklyn

First there was this, about half an hour ago:

New York Islanders & Barclays Center To Make Major Announcement

And now there’s this, albeit anonymously sourced:

Developer Bruce Ratner has scored a major goal by landing the Islanders ice hockey team for his Barclay’s arena in downtown Brooklyn, sources said.

And Chris Botta of Sports Business Journal tweets that the move will be announced for 2015, once the Islanders‘ lease is up at Nassau Coliseum.

If this is true, no one is more surprised than me. (Except maybe Mac McCaughan.) I’ve made the case before that not only would the Barclays Center’s 14,500-seat hockey capacity be awfully small for the NHL (something Bettman himself worried about earlier this year) but that Wang wouldn’t want to have to pay the rents that Ratner would require in order to block out lucrative concert dates for hockey. (The Barclays Center has already booked more than 200 dates for its first year.) But maybe Wang decided that getting more prominent placement in the New York City market was worth the tradeoff of playing second fiddle now rather than trying his luck yet again with Nassau County.

Or maybe this isn’t a signed lease, but just an “intent” to move, and Nassau (or Quebec or whoever) can still counterbid. Or maybe Ratner figures that the lockout isn’t going to end by 2015, anyway, so he won’t have to move any concert dates. We’ll know more in two hours and counting…