Home. A truly special thing, home is somewhere that one feels comfortable and at peace, but for the New York Islanders, that has been a complicated concept.
When William Shea was tasked with bringing a franchise to Long Island, he founded the team that is known and loved across the area today. The supposed lifelong home for this team sat on 1255 Hempstead Turnpike and was named the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. At first, it was simple: the Islanders played all their home games at the Coliseum, a barn with one of the craziest atmospheres in all of hockey. Four Stanley Cup winning seasons were played at this sacred place, and the Coliseum cemented itself as a historic piece of Long Island culture.
In 2015, Long Island changed forever. The Islanders were ripped away from the Coliseum and plopped into Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. While this was certainly a better alternative than a move to Kansas City, Barclays Center never had the feeling of home.
The situation surrounding the move to Brooklyn was unique. The late Charles Wang dedicated his life to the community, and the Islanders were no different. He made continuous sacrifice to keep the Islanders in New York, but this came at a cost.
Jim Baumbach, Newsday reporter and New York arena guru, sat down with me to discuss the crazy relationship between the Islanders and home.
Baumbach noted that after years of hardship, including the ballad of John Spano, many losing seasons, and small crowds at the Coliseum, Wang was low on funds. This led him to taking a unique deal with ArenaCo, the company that finances Barclays Center, to move the Islanders to Brooklyn.
“The move was a financial savior to Charles Wang,” Baumbach stated. “It really solved Wang’s financial troubles. He was fighting a losing battle, and they really could not make it work. The new business model at Brooklyn, as awkward as it was, guaranteed the Islanders money, which Wang needed.”
Unlike other teams in the National Hockey League, the Islanders do not make money in a traditional way. According to public records obtained by Drive 4 Five, the Islanders receive a payment from ArenaCo once a year as opposed to profiting off day-to-day operations.
“Pursuant to the NYI License Agreement, the Islanders pays to ArenaCo an annual license fee of $2 million, plus an operating expense reimbursement based on certain actual expenses and costs incurred for ArenaCos operating of the Arena for Islanders Home Games. Separately, ArenaCo makes an annual payment to the Islanders, which was $53.5 million for the 2015-2016 NHL season and which escalates at one and one-half percent (1.5%) annually (the Islanders ArenaCo Payment); provided, however, that the Islanders ArenaCo Payment is subject to annual reduction based on certain non-game day operating costs incurred by ArenaCo in connection with the NYI License Agreement, with such annual operating costs approximating $6.7 million.”
While a lot of money is going back and forth between ArenaCo and the Islanders, one thing is clear: ArenaCo pays the Islanders a lump sum and ArenaCo collects profits from each game. In the simplest sense, as Brett Yormark stated, the Islanders truly are a “rent-a-team.”
However, there is one clear problem between this agreement. Barclays Center is no longer profiting off the Islanders. While the first year of the move was a moderate success — the team played well and hosted five Playoff games — Barclays Center no longer draws enough fans for ArenaCo to make money off housing the Islanders.
It is common knowledge that ArenaCo wants the Islanders out. Concerts and other events are more profitable than the Islanders, so ArenaCo has been looking for a reason to end this failed relationship.
“It was a marriage of convenience, but when the convenience is over, you usually get a divorce,” said a New York government worker. “The arena was never built for hockey, so it was always destined to be a failure. I think most people involved didn’t truly believe they would be there long.”
ArenaCo has nothing to hide anymore, and it is apparent that attendance numbers are no longer being exaggerated. Entire empty sections, obstructed seats, and unattended games have always been issues for the Islanders at Barclays Center, but the numbers are starting to back it up. The Islanders have been last in the NHL in attendance the last two seasons, averaging a putrid — and exaggerated — 11,761 fans per game. A toxic situation is becoming unbearable, and it is time for change.
For these reasons, among countless others, after this season, I not only expect, but am certain, the Islanders will never play another game at Barclays Center.
A Complicated Situation
As the buzzer sounded on Game 6 of Capitals at Islanders in the 2014-2015 Playoffs, fans were ready to face the reality that it was the last ever game at the Coliseum. On Jan. 28, this all changed, as the Islanders announced that after working extensively with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, the Islanders would return home to the Coliseum temporarily.
But only for select home games. Not full time.
This confusing, one-of-a-kind arena situation transcends common sense, creating a difficult environment for players and fans. The players cherish every game at the Coliseum, but the spilt season is nonsensical, and subject to change after this season.
Since the deal with ArenaCo was terminated, the Islanders have renegotiated a new deal to house their home games.
“This is the last year of the original Islanders Barclays Center deal,” said Baumbach. “They have a new deal in place for the next two years, but we have no knowledge of it. We know they have a deal in place to play at the Coliseum, but the deal is a minimum. It can always go up.”
Everything agreed upon between the Islanders and ArenaCo is short-term and can be reworked, leading one to speculate that Nassau Coliseum could emerge as a temporary home until the Islanders arena at Belmont Park is ready.
The Islanders are the only team in professional sports with not only two arenas that are utilized, but potentially three arenas, and Belmont Park is the wildcard in this situation.
“If they like the Coliseum, the Islanders will play more games there,” Baumbach remarked. “If the Islanders have a shovel in the ground at Elmont, there is no motivation for ArenaCo to fight a losing battle, especially if the fans show up at the Coliseum and do not show up at Barclays Center.”
Jon Ledecky recently promised that by the spring of 2019, the Islanders would have shovels in the ground. If that is the case, the speculation could and should become reality, and the Islanders will get the best possible situation: a new arena at Belmont Park and games at the Coliseum until it is ready.
Over the next few days, public meetings will be conducted regarding the new arena’s Environmental Impact Statement. If these meetings are a success and the Islanders can overcome protesters like Tammie Williams, the team will be on pace to start construction on their new arena and hopefully return to the Coliseum until it is ready.
Belmont opposition gets real this upcoming week with three days of public meetings regarding the draft environmental impact statement. https://t.co/YOH6UjbsAZ
— Jim Baumbach (@jimbaumbach) January 5, 2019
Throughout this entire process, from the moment the puck was dropped in Brooklyn until now, there have been misconceptions about Barclays Center and the Coliseum. Whether it is the suites, finances, or conditions of both arenas, myths have arisen surrounding the Islanders and their two homes.
Let’s disprove them and show why it will benefit all parties involved for the Islanders to play home games at Nassau Coliseum until their new arena is ready.
The Myths: Suites
The flaws of the Nassau Coliseum are endless, but perhaps the most common fault of the Barn is the lack of luxury suites.
Barclays Center houses over 50 suites, each with amenities including food, comfortable chairs, and great, non-obstructed views of the action on the ice. The Nassau Coliseum, on the other hand, is devoid of suites, sporting a humble select luxury boxes only available to management, alumni, and those with connections.
How would the Islanders make more money of suites at the Coliseum than Barclays Center?
At Barclays Center, one would think that the Islanders cash in on suites, making a huge sum of money off their fancy, expensive seats.
However, the opposite could not be more true. At Barclays Center, the Islanders make a whopping $0 off suites.
Due to the agreement between ArenaCo and Charles Wang, that lump sum that the Islanders receive is not contingent on suite sales. That means the Islanders have nothing to lose by moving to the Coliseum full-time until the Belmont Park arena is ready relating to suites.
“Islanders suites are licensed in a similar manner, at prices ranging from $60,000 to $180,000. One hundred percent (100%) of the revenues from Islanders suite licenses is retained by ArenaCo, except for revenues from suite licenses sold on a single event basis for playoff games, which are not retained by ArenaCo.”
If the Islanders were to make the Playoffs this season, a debate would arise over which arena should house the games. The obvious choice is the Coliseum due to its atmosphere, but would ArenaCo and the Islanders choose Barclays Center simply because of suites? Money drives this sport, and the Islanders are entering shaky waters in which their arenas start to affect their chance at a Stanley Cup.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster, especially after the team concludes their home slate with 12 straight home games at the Coliseum.
In regards to the Playoffs, the Islanders, not ArenaCo, will benefit greatly from the Playoff games being played at Barclays Center. When the power is switched, the Islanders have the opportunity to make a decision that impacts this team for years to come.
I am confident that if the Islanders make the Playoffs, millionaires Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin will make the correct call and play home games at the Coliseum. Long-term success must be prioritized over short-term financial benefit, leading one to expect the owners will do the right thing and give the Islanders true home-ice advantage unmatched by any team in the NHL for the Playoffs. Eventually, this can lead to home games getting played at the Barn until the team’s new arena is ready.
Suites are an x-factor in the arena debate. The surprisingly decent Brooklyn Nets complicates the situation even more. Therefore, Nassau Coliseum, while imperfect, offers the Islanders more potential profit, and less conflict, from luxury boxes than Barclays Center.
The Myths: Total Profit
While one may expect that the Islanders struggled financially during at their time at the Coliseum due to lack of crowds, the team still grossed more money than they currently do at Barclays Center.
According to documents obtained by Drive 4 Five, the Islanders did just fine during the 2014-2015 season at the Coliseum, selling an average of 15,224 out of 16,170 total seats and making large sums of money from concessions and parking.
On opening night against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Islanders grossed $258,495.91 in concessions and $61,366.75 in parking, two areas that the team does not profit off of at Barclays Center. Not to mention, this season, the Islanders have sold out every game at the Coliseum so far, with the exception of Friday’s game against the Blackhawks which was a few hundred people short.
When the Islanders put a competitive team on the ice, which is fully expected with Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello leading the way, fans show up and spend their hard-earned money at Fort Neverlose. As shown this season, the Coliseum is a sustainable short term option for the Islanders where management can turn a profit.
An interesting development is John Tavares’ return to New York, scheduled to take place on Feb. 28. That game was supposed to be played at Barclays Center, but was moved to the Coliseum earlier this season.
If money was a factor here, the Islanders and ArenaCo would have never moved their one sellout in Brooklyn. But, alas, they did.
One of the best games of the season in the NHL was yanked away from Barclays Center and brought to the Islanders true home. Could this be a sign of things to come?
The Coliseum may have its flaws, but fans embrace them with open arms as opposed to making the trek into Brooklyn, dispelling the myth that the Coliseum is not profitable.
The Myths: Player Happiness
This argument is one of truly pathos. There are little facts backing up whether Barclays Center or the Coliseum is in better condition, as both are so far from ideal, but one thing is certain: the Islanders love playing in the Coliseum.
Players cherish the idea of truly playing at home, and being able to live, practice, and play games in a central area is important for the general morale of the team. The rambunctious home crowd makes playing at the Barn that much better.
“The ceiling is low and it’s so loud,” said Matt Martin. “I just remember sitting in this dressing room for the playoffs and 10 minutes before you go on the ice, you hear Let’s Go Islanders chants and you get the butterflies going through.”
Not only that, but players do not love the idea of playing at Barclays Center, and the trip back and forth between Brooklyn wears the team down.
Perhaps most importantly, opposing players hate the Coliseum. The subpar locker rooms, the walk from the Marriott, and the dense crowd is every opposing player’s worst nightmare.
Even Barry Trotz, ex-Capitals and current Islanders head coach, touched upon the brutal playing conditions he experienced when his Capitals took on the Islanders in the 2014-2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It was the most physical series that I’d been involved in as a coach,” said Trotz. “I know the fans had a big effect on that. The fans stood the second half of the game.”
When the Islanders are winning games at the Coliseum, the debate becomes more and more clear. The Old Barn is the Islanders true home, and no matter how rundown it is, players and fans love playing at 1225 Hempstead Turnpike.
The Coliseum is Home
A riddle that has bewildered the Islanders since leaving the Coliseum continues to wreck havoc. But for the first time, the answer is right in front of everyone’s face.
The Islanders must (and will) return home to the Coliseum until their new arena at Belmont Park is ready.
Barclays Center is no longer profitable for all parties involved, and with new management and ownership leading the way, I have full faith the Islanders will do the right thing and return home.
All it takes is one tailgate, one Yes-Yes-Yes chant at a sold-out Barn, or one walk through the crowded concourse after a win to realize that the Islanders were made for the Coliseum. And the Coliseum was made for the Islanders. Not the Long Island Nets. Not Disney on Ice. And certainly not professional lacrosse.
One day soon, this painful narrative will be over and the Islanders will be hopefully settled in at a luxurious, state-of-the-art arena at Belmont Park. But that day has not come yet, and until it does, the Islanders should play their home games at the Barn.
Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin: the ball is in your court. Make us all proud and do the right thing. Bring the boys home.
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