The Islanders, Brooklyn, and the Good-Enough Compromise

(L-R) Mayor Michael Bloomberg, owner Bruce Ratner of the Brooklyn Nets and New York Islanders owner Charles Wang announce the team's move to Brooklyn in 2015 at a press conference at the Barclays Center on October 24, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Mike Bloomberg, Bruce Ratner, and Charles Wang.

This much had become clear in recent years: The Islanders could not continue to play in the outdated Nassau Coliseum, and despite the team’s efforts, getting a new arena built in Nassau County wasn’t going to happen. Which basically left the team with two options: to leave the area altogether or move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. (Bruce Ratner had made no secret of his desire to get the team to move into the building.) We’ve written before that if staying in Nassau County was the preferred scenario and leaving the area altogether represented the worst-case outcome, a move to Brooklyn offered something of a compromise. But make no mistake — there are plenty of reasons why this is not ideal.

It’s no surprise that the first question asked during this afternoon’s press conference — which was streamed online — was about the arena’s hockey capacity. Currently, the official capacity for hockey is listed as 14,500, and Gary Bettman said today that there had been talks about maybe bumping that up to 15,000 or “15,000-plus.” Bettman said the arena size wasn’t an issue, noting that Winnipeg plays in a building with a hockey capacity of about 15,000 and adding that the Isles’ current home is relatively small as well. And maybe a small capacity isn’t such a bad thing for the Islanders, who finished 29th out of 30 in attendance last season. But even if the arena’s size isn’t an issue, it’s shape is.

Barclays Center, quite simply, was not designed to accommodate hockey. Remember, a regulation NHL rink is more than twice the length of an NBA basketball court. So while the original Frank Gehry plans would have fit an NHL rink without issue, the version that actually got built requires a funky horse-shoe setup for hockey, in which the rink isn’t located in the dead center of the building and entire sections on one end of the arena are off-limits because of sight-line issues. Now, more than ever, the decision to build an arena that can’t easily accommodate an NHL rink seems short-sighted.

The arena hasn’t yet held its first hockey game; the preseason matchup between the Islanders and Devils was canceled because of the NHL lockout. But the seating chart released for that game was a total mess. Playing in a building with a relatively small capacity is one thing, even if it requires a comparison to the size of the arena in Winnipeg (population: 663,617) to justify it. But playing in a building in which hockey is such an afterthought is hardly good for the NHL’s brand. Perhaps there will be changes to the arena over the next three years to correct some of the issues evident in that seating chart (and in these photos), but unless they’re significant, one wonders how the Islanders will ever been seen as anything other than second-class citizens in their own building when the configuration itself is a constant reminder that the building was designed for basketball and not hockey. You know why Barclays Center execs talked up the building as a viable destination for a hockey team? Because they had to. The building sells itself in so many other ways, but it doesn’t here.

Meanwhile, configuration issues aside, the Islanders are betting heavily that they’ll be able to maintain the Long Island fan base they’ve built up over the years. (And by “Long Island” here, we’re referring to Nassau and Suffolk counties. We’re aware that Brooklyn is located at the western end of Long Island.) Unsurprisingly, during this afternoon’s press conference, there were multiple references to the Long Island Railroad, which stops at the arena. Unlike the Nets basketball team, which left New Jersey and will largely try to form a new identity with a strong fan base in the five boroughs, the Islanders will try to have it all — maintaining their current fans while winning new ones. But there will be issues with both.

The fans on Long Island — the ones in Nassau and Suffolk counties — are accustomed to driving to games. (In fact, many are accustomed to driving pretty much everywhere.) But Barclays Center isn’t meant to be driven to. The mayor can talk up public transportation all he wants, but will those fans get in the habit of taking the LIRR to games? (As Newsday points out, fans in Suffolk County especially will face long travel times.) This isn’t the Jets and Giants — who’d sell out their games if they played them on the moon — moving to the Meadowlands from the five boroughs but maintaining their New York City fan base. This is a team that already struggles to draw fans, and the question of whether they’ll be so quick to use public transportation, even to a state-of-the-art building, is a very real one. Already, the Times asks it here, and the Rangers’ beat writer for the Bergen Record — who totally supports the move — wonders about it, too. For that matter, many Queens residents — particularly in the eastern end of the borough — would rely on the LIRR as well, instead of driving to games as they currently would.

A new arena should pump some life into the Islanders franchise, even if the team’s young core hasn’t already done that by 2015. But they could face more issues than the Nets in winning over new fans. And here, the dynamic between fan bases matters a great deal. The Knicks-Nets rivalry has never been particularly heated, but that’s not the case with the Islanders and Rangers. Knicks fans hadn’t been trained to despise the New Jersey Nets in quite the same way that Rangers fans are raised to hate the Islanders. Maybe the casual fans can be convinced to switch, but there are far more casual basketball fans than casual hockey fans. Hockey tends to rely on the type of die-hard fan who would never consider changing allegiances.

Plus, unlike the Knicks, whose fans are regularly upset with the way the organization is run, the Rangers are one of the best teams in hockey and are poised to remain one for the foreseeable future. Frustrated Knicks fans are more likely to jump ship right now than Rangers fans, who are generally quite happy with the way the team has been built and excited for what lies ahead. And even if the Islanders’ move is three years away, the Rangers would need to squander a lot of goodwill quickly to anger their fans the way the Knicks have for their fans over the past decade. If the Islanders are looking to add new supporters, they’ll need to create new hockey fans, and preferably young ones — ones who don’t already pledge allegiance to the Rangers and whose fandom isn’t handed down. And as much as it pains us to say this as a lifelong fan of the sport: Creating new hockey fans isn’t easy.

Still, at the end of the day, this is good news for Islanders fans. Even a move to an imperfect hockey arena in Brooklyn is better than a move to, say, Kansas City or Quebec City. And it’s good news for Rangers fans, too: Rivalries make sports fun, and while you want to beat a rival at every opportunity, you don’t want them to cease to exist altogether. With the Islanders locked into a 25-year lease — a lease owner Charles Wang said today is ironclad — that rivalry is only going to get more intense going forward. Wang — who, it was mentioned more than once today, attended Brooklyn Tech — called this a “beautiful ending.” In a way, it is: The team is staying in the area, which is what Wang wanted and what the team’s fans wanted. But it’s hardly a perfect ending.

The Islanders’ Good-Enough Compromise