I’ll admit, I called this one wrong: when the Islanders moved into the Barclays Center, I gave up on getting tickets for a few years, thinking it would take at least that long for the novelty to wear off and face-value seats to become available. Well, the Isles’ first regular season in Brooklyn isn’t over, and they are third-from-last in NHL attendance. And here comes a report in the New York Post that claims both the team and the arena are trying to blow up their lease.
The story notes that the 25-year lease contains an out clause after four seasons, so the great Brooklyn experiment could only run through 2019. If not sooner: the report claims that “both sides are secretly exploring ways to cut ties or modify the existing terms of their lease.”
What’s the problem? Money, of course. If the Islanders, in the thick of the playoff picture, can’t draw in their first year in their new digs, it’s probably only going to get worse. There’s no suggestion the team is losing money—the terms of their lease make it more likely the Barclays owners are the ones in the red—but they clearly don’t think they’re profitable enough.
“The Islander deal was forced from the start because the club was hemorrhaging so much money playing on Long Island … and had to bail,” another source said. “Now you’re left with this weird situation where Barclays’ folks pay the Islanders to play there — but aren’t getting the bang for the buck they desired, not to mention all the crap they’re getting from Islander fans who are finding every little fault they can with being in Brooklyn.
“On the Islanders’ end, they might be better off financially than at Nassau Coliseum. But under the current deal, I think they realize they’ll never be able to have the type of revenue coming in to compete with other big-market teams to sign top players.”
The Barclays Center is a fine arena for most things—cozy feel, open concourses, good food—but it’s got more than a few drawbacks, especially for hockey. It’s weirdly dark and cavernous, and the upper levels are frightfully steep, and the limited-view seats are painfully bad. They’re dirt cheap, and they’re still largely empty most nights.
But more than that, the vaunted downtown Brooklyn location hasn’t been the promised panacea. Someone severely overestimated how far the established Islanders fan base was willing to travel—and underestimated how slow the process of finding and winning over unaffiliated fans in the city would be. (They’re doing a ton of community events, but those will take decades to pay off.)
Depending on where on the Island you’re coming from (and it a very long island), taking the train to Barclays will either suck a little, or suck a ton. The layout of the Long Island Railroad also means that only a tiny percentage of commuters can do it without transferring trains.
For the Islanders themselves, it’s more than an hour’s ride in from their Syosset training facility, near which they all still live. Constant complaining about the commute led the team to change its game-day routine last month. Instead of riding in for a morning skate at Barclays and napping at a nearby hotel, the Isles now practice out on Long Island, go home, then catch a train in just before the game. So much for making Brooklyn feel like home.
Islanders’ majority ownership changes hands on July 1, and Jonathan Ledecky, the head of the ownership group, is said to like the idea of building a new arena in Queens or back in Nassau County. The former, depending on location (especially if it’s on the Main Line of the LIRR), would probably do a lot better in drawing in fans from Long Island. The latter makes sense, but could run into a lot of the same problems the Nassau Coliseum did before the move: that team never drew unless it was winning.
(The big-picture answer might be grim, but don’t think Ledecky and the NHL haven’t considered it. Given the Devils’ attendance problems, perhaps one metropolitan area just can’t support three franchises.)
It’s important to understand this Post report in context, even if we don’t quite have that context in the form of balance sheets. Leaking this stuff to the paper doesn’t necessarily mean anyone’s moving anytime soon, but it does mean someone’s not happy with the current terms of the lease—and is putting on a little public pressure for renegotiation. That’s fine, that’s how this business works. But it feels like it’s going to be a real problem when neither side feels like it has a good deal; I don’t know where they can go from here.