The Islanders are more than two-thirds of the way through their first season in Brooklyn, and the move has not been frictionless. Average attendance at the Barclays Center is pretty bad — 28th out of the NHL’s 30 franchises — even though the team is playing solidly and is likely to reach the playoffs. This weekend, a New York Post report suggested that the Islanders and their arena have been “secretly exploring ways to cut ties or modify the existing terms of their lease,” citing what it calls a “little-known out clause” that both sides can take advantage of after the fourth season. Barclays Center officials deny it all, and in fact the rumors seem way overblown and premature.
Admittedly, the Islanders have not had an easy transition from the crummy old Nassau Coliseum, their home since the team’s founding in 1972. Unlike the Nets, who rebranded in an effort to ditch their New Jersey identity and attract an almost entirely new fanbase, the Islanders had to find a way to keep as many Long Island fans as possible while also attracting new ones. But old-school Islanders fans have been sensitive to even small attempts to “Brooklynize” the team. Early in the season, Barclays tried to replace the team’s “goal horn” — the sound effect that plays when the team scores — with the honk of a subway train. There was such an uproar the team had to switch back. Last month, the team also moved its game-day practices from Brooklyn back to Long Island, where all of the players live.
Much more significant is that Barclays was designed for basketball and not hockey. A hockey rink is more than twice as long as a basketball court, and the arena has managed that by putting its ice surface way off-center, so that the scoreboard in the center of the arena hangs above one of the blue lines. That in turn means many more seats than usual have to be removed, resulting in the second-smallest capacity in the NHL, and many attendees at the western end of the arena end up with badly obstructed views. All of this was well known before the team moved in, but it’s helped add to the perception that the Islanders are second-class citizens in their home arena.
The Islanders have an unusual real-estate deal in their new home. Barclays Center pays the Islanders an annual fee, reportedly averaging around $50 million, and in return handles the business side of the team’s operations and makes money on things like ticket sales and sponsorships. In the Post article from this weekend, Brett Yormark, the CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment (which operates Barclays Center), flatly denied that the arena wants out of the deal early, adding, “We are enjoying the first year of hockey in Brooklyn.” An arena spokesperson declined to tell us much else, saying only that they stand behind Yormark’s comment. (An Islanders spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to our request for comment.)
The Post article quotes a source briefed on the matter who says, “I don’t think either side ever believed the full lease would be honored. I just didn’t think we’d be talking about this the first year in.” And it also cites a source close to the Islanders and other industry sources who say Jonathan Ledecky, who leads the group that’s set to take over as the team’s majority owner this summer, is “enamored with possibly moving the team to Queens or back to Long Island.” But as Randi Marshall, a member of the Newsday editorial board, reminds us, either of those scenarios is a pipe dream. There’s no arena in Queens, and the Coliseum’s renovation will make it too small for an NHL tenant.
Others have expressed skepticism, for a variety of reasons, that the finances are really as bad as the Post implies. On the Lighthouse Hockey blog, writer Dan Saraceni points out that Josh Kosman, one of the Post article’s co-authors, has reported on other in-the-works NHL ownership scenarios that ultimately never came to pass. (Last June, he wrote that the NHL was arranging the sale of the Arizona Coyotes to billionaire William Foley, which would have moved the team to Las Vegas.)
But perhaps the strangest thing about the report is the timing. The team’s first season is less than five months old, and it’s hard to believe that the two sides would already be seriously looking to get out. It’s possible — and, I’d argue, likely — that Barclays officials underestimated how hard it can be to create new hockey fans, especially given that the Rangers are long-established and, lately, playing well. Surely the Islanders and Barclays understand that building a fanbase would take more than a few months.
And while the team’s weak ticket sales are well known, they’re getting better. In the 14 games before December 1, the team averaged 12,393 fans, in a building with a capacity of 15,795. In the 17 games since, they’ve averaged 14,273. Six of the team’s seven sellouts have come during that span, including four since the beginning of 2016. (The team’s only other sellout was opening night.) To put it another way, 8 of the first 14 games drew fewer than 12,000 fans, but attendance hasn’t dropped below that number since. The recent figures still aren’t great — in the NHL, 13 teams average 100 percent capacity or even more — but they’re headed up, not down. It appears that the Islanders are earning their place in our crowded sports market.
As for the Islanders’ side of the money equation, the team gets a minimum amount each year as part of its agreement with Barclays, but can reportedly receive much more than that if certain revenue levels are reached. And everyone’s better off financially than on Long Island (where the team was reportedly losing $20 million a year). Barclays may be an imperfect solution, but it’s far better than any realistic alternative, short of leaving the New York market entirely. Perhaps three years from now, the Islanders’ Brooklyn experiment will indeed prove to be a bust. But it’s still too early to fully evaluate it — and too early for fans to worry about it.