If Islanders Flee, Where Will They Go?
The hockey season is underway, which is bad news for Islanders fans in two ways. First off, they have to watch the Islanders for another year. Second, Saturday's season opener marked owner Charles Wang's self-proclaimed deadline for final approval of his gazillion-dollar Lighthouse development project. When the date passed without the town of Hempstead acting, Wang let loose with an outright move threat — or at least as close as sports team owners, who usually borrow their threat protocol from the Vercotti Brothers, get to outright — declaring that "we're going to explore all our options" and that "anything is open," including moving the team out of Long Island.
Of course, this is a tried-and-true sports owner strategy, whether you're serious about moving or not: The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, don't forget, shopped themselves around the country during their own arena talks, only to have owner Mario Lemieux later admit: "Our goal was to remain here in Pittsburgh all the way. Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go, and have a nice dinner and come back." But whether Wang is serious about relocation or just looking for an excuse for a foodie tour, there's another question here: If the Islanders are looking for cities to play footsie with, how many are out there?
A few weeks back, as Wang's deadline neared, Fanhouse.com cited a "league source" as saying that "at least six municipalities" would be suitors for the Islanders, but only cited two by name: Queens and Kansas City. Queens is in there solely thanks to Queens Chamber of Commerce president Jack Freidman, who back in February mentioned off-the-cuff that a hockey arena would look nice as part of the city's rezoning of Willets Point. (Friedman tells the Voice he's still psyched about the idea, noting a hockey arena could replace the convention center that the Bloomberg administration has planned for Willets Point, and adding, "Reality says this is not going to be a shovel-in-ground project for three or four years, but that fits very well with the timetable of the Islanders," who have a lease on Nassau Coliseum through 2015.) Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards arena has been mentioned in the past as well, but in its latest downsized incarnation it would have too small a floor for hockey.
For now, though, most eyes will likely be on Kansas City, which shelled out $216 million for its brand-spanking-new Sprint Center in 2007, then waited in vain for an NBA or NHL franchise to show up to play in it. (An Arena Football League did arrive in 2008, only to have the league promptly go belly-up.) Both the Pens and the NBA Seattle Sonics publicly considered moving to K.C., but neither took the plunge.
One reason may be the Sprint Center's unusual operating arrangement. Normally, cities that have built arenas "on spec" are considered prime candidates to overpay for a team just to avoid an empty building, but K.C. no longer controls its new arena: It turned over the building to arena managers AEG in exchange for $50 million towards construction costs. AEG, no dummies, made sure that they'd get their $50 million back — plus a guaranteed 16% profit — before K.C. would see a penny of revenue. And AEG has used its leverage as one of the world's biggest concert promoters — you may have heard of a dead living legend named Michael Jackson — to book enough concerts that the Sprint Center has actually made money hand over fist (not counting construction costs), lack of a sports "anchor tenant" be damned.
What this means, as my colleague Justin Kendall of The Pitch has pointed out, is that AEG has a huge disincentive against throwing money at, say, the Islanders, since the only reason they'd want to come to town would be if they could get the lion's share of arena revenues, something AEG won't want to give up. "As long as that continues to generate activity like it has been, it'll be profitable for AEG to operate," K.C. budget director Troy Schulte told Kendall. "Obviously an anchor tenant would have an effect as far as pulling down the available revenues because a lot of those revenues would then go to an anchor tenant."
After Kansas City, Wang's options dwindle fast: Hamilton still wants a team but doesn't have an arena, and its top prospective local owner is an officially designated NHL pariah; Seattle has an arena that's newer than Nassau Coliseum, but still lost its junior hockey team to the suburbs last year; Winnipeg has a really excellent domain name and not all that much else. And let's not forget that the Phoenix Coyotes could be on the move as early as next year, meaning that even if a viable relocation target emerges, the Isles could end up edged out.
With alternatives like this, you'd think Wang might want to just give in and hand over the documents — how many buildings he wants to build, how many millions of dollars in traffic improvements the town will be expected to kick in, little details like that — that the Hempstead town council says it needs before it can sign off on the Lighthouse project. But then, as another prospective NHL owner once memorably noted, "a savvy negotiator creates leverage."