Are the Islanders Moving to Brooklyn Now or What?
So Nassau County held its vote on the $400 million New York Islanders arena plan yesterday, and for team owner Charles Wang things went about as well as ... it's tempting to say "as well as a typical Islanders game," but that'd be cruel. In any case, the final vote was 57-43% against funding a new arena (plus a new minor-league baseball stadium for an as-yet nonexistent Atlantic League team) with a 4% property tax hike, one that just might have been illegal.
Wang responded to the pounding at the ballot box by saying he was "disappointed" and "heartbroken," and promising that the Islanders would remain at Nassau Coliseum through the end of their lease four years from now. This, naturally, was immediately taken as a threat to leave as soon as the clock strikes 2015 — reasonable enough on the face of it, since Wang has repeatedly threatened to yank the Islanders if this arena plan, the latest in a long series that at one point involved building a 600-foot landlocked lighthouse, was not approved.
The question, though, is where the Islanders would go? CBSSports.com runs down the likely leading candidates, marking Brooklyn, Quebec City, Kansas City, Houston, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Hamilton as the front-runners. But each option comes with significant hurdles:
- Kansas City has a new arena, but as our K.C. sister publication the Pitch revealed, it's not likely to throw a sweetheart lease deal at a hockey team. That's because AEG, the management company that runs the publicly owned Sprint Center, would have to give up "a very sizable chunk of the arena revenues" to lure an NHL (or NBA) club, K.C. budget director Troy Schulte told the Pitch, making a full year of concerts sound great by comparison.
- Likewise, Quebec City, which announced its own $400 million arena plan back in February, has said it will want a significant cut of arena revenues to help pay off construction costs — presumably more than the 11.5% that Wang was willing to kick back to Nassau County in exchange for yesterday's defeated deal.
- Seattle has an arena that is considered ancient by sports poobah standards (it's almost as old as Miley Cyrus!), so much so that the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City two years ago. Houston has a new arena, but last played host to a major-league hockey team 33 years ago, and Sunbelt NHL teams haven't exactly been doing bang-up business. Hamilton has a newish arena and a hockey fan base, but the NHL officially hates the likely local owner. Milwaukee ... wait, why is Milwaukee on this list again?
That leaves the greater New York City area, and here's where it starts to get interesting. Brooklyn's new Barclay Center, the home of the Nets starting next year that is rapidly taking shape atop the ghost of Freddy's, has been widely talked up as a prospective landing place for the Islanders: It's new, and it's easily accessible by Long Island Rail Road if you don't mind the change at Jamaica. Unfortunately, as part of developer Bruce Ratner's plan to downsize the Brooklyn arena's budget, he shrunk the arena as well — to the point where the floor is now far too small to accommodate an NHL rink. (The Post reported today that the Barclays would be an "NHL-regulation size arena," but they appear to be talking about seating capacity, not floor size.) Tearing out the lower seating bowl and rebuilding it to fit hockey might be feasible, but would no doubt be pricey.
(Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark tells the Voice in an emailed statement: "The Barclays Center will have an ice rink that can support professional hockey. Due to the venue's design, the capacity for hockey would be a few thousand seats less than for basketball. While we hope to explore hockey opportunities in the future, our primary focus at the moment is to build the best sports and entertainment venue in the world." Which doesn't answer much about what "can support" means — would it end up like the old America West Arena in Phoenix, with some seats that couldn't see the nets? — and Yormark didn't respond to questions about cost.)
So if the ready-made option in Brooklyn is problematic, what about other boroughs? Queens Chamber of Commerce director Jack Friedman has pushed for for a hockey rink at the city's new Willets Point convention center (back when the city still insisted it was building a convention center at Willets Point), and Mets owner Fred Wilpon dropped hints about building a hockey-specific arena there as well (back when Wilpon still thought he had money to build buildings, let alone a starting outfield). But while there's potentially the space for an arena, the finances are something else altogether: Adding a third 20,000-seat venue to the city (and sixth to the metro area, assuming Nassau Coliseum and whatever they're calling the Meadowlands Arena these days survive the wrecking ball) would set up such cutthroat competition for concert tours that it's unlikely they all could survive — when Minneapolis-St. Paul faced a similar scenario in the 1990s, city leaders chose to demolish the well-regarded Met Center rather than face arena glut.
In the end, where the Islanders end up could be determined as much by Wang's appetite for cutting his losses as anything else: If he throws up his hands and sells the team to, say, a Quebec media magnate at a bargain price, then it becomes more likely you'll see a Sonics-style bolt to a new city. If he holds on to the Isles, though, the best option may well be going back to the well an umpteenth time for a Nassau County deal — or even dusting off the $200 million renovation plan for Nassau Coliseum that was part of the Lighthouse Project. In arena construction, as Bruce Ratner found out, cheap often trumps ideal.