By Daniel Friedman
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Last week, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano selected Barclays Center developer Bruce Ratner’s proposal to revamp the Nassau Coliseum.
At the official announcement press conference, Ratner stood up at the podium and promised Mangano and the local government that they “made the right choice,” and that ”we will prove it.” He also boasted that the new Coliseum “will become one of the most beautiful and striking arenas in the world.”
For me, it brought back memories of May 11th, 2011 — the day I watched from the Coliseum stands as Mangano, Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray and Islanders owner Charles Wang gushed, from that very same podium, about a replacement building on Hempstead Turnpike that would keep the team on Long Island.
Granted, that proposal involved taxpayer money and was therefore very different, but the entire episode still serves as a reminder that one does not simply get things done in Nassau County. Everyone knows how that particular story ended.
More than two years have passed since the referendum failed to. In that time, the Islanders have announced that they’re heading for the greener pastures of Brooklyn’s state-of-the-art Barclays Center. They have signed an “iron-clad” lease that will keep them there for 25 years, commencing in 2015.
Nassau tried to call Charles Wang’s bluff; a gamble that went spectacularly-wrong. Ultimately, what the local government really demonstrated was that their relationship with the Isles had broken down.
With no contingency plan in sight and the clock ticking, Wang knew he had to do something. Had Ratner’s proposal surfaced earlier, things might be different right now but, then again, had the Isles not announced they were leaving, it might not have surfaced at all.
At first glance, it would appear that, hypothetically, the door has opened for the team to stay in Nassau. When asked about it, Ratner was quick to shoot it down and, if you’d approached me with that same inquiry, I’d have given you the same response.
The Islanders are going to move to Brooklyn in 2015; there’s no doubt in my mind. Not only will they be moving there — they’ll stay there as long as Charles Wang owns the team.
He’s sick and tired of the politics and shenanigans in Nassau and the Town of Hempstead, having essentially played a never-ending game of “Broken Telephone” with them. Regardless of what transpires over the next few years, the Isles will leave.
However, to think there’s no chance they could ever return would be short-sighted. A recent article in Forbes suggested that it could happen sooner rather than later. I don’t agree with that premise, but would reason that, at some point over the 25-year duration of the Brooklyn-lease, a homecoming is quite possible.
Since the building first opened, Barclays Center has been a smash hit. There’s no reason to believe the Islanders won’t succeed there, at least initially.
That said, as far as long-term viability is concerned, it won’t be a slam-dunk. There are kinks to be worked out and significant renovations to be made, if Barclays is to properly accommodate hockey. Should renovation costs for Barclays even approach those of expanding the renovated Coliseum to meet NHL-standards, that’s something that would be taken into consideration as well.
It goes without saying but, there has to be a winning product on the ice, or else the Isles won’t put fannies in the seats. Don’t kid yourselves into thinking that attendance is a Uniondale-specific issue.
In my opinion, it’s easier for the person who works in Manhattan or the average high school or college student who doesn’t necessarily have car-access to get to the game in Brooklyn. Whether or not that’s how things will transpire is a different story.
The core of the fan-base is situated on Long Island and has to demonstrate a willingness to make the trek out to Brooklyn 41 nights each year. Additionally, that following needs to expand and permeate into Brooklyn.
Should any of these problems arise, Ratner and Co. will take a long look down the Belt Parkway and into Nassau — of that you can be certain.
Another factor to keep in mind is that, in all likelihood, Charles Wang will have sold the Islanders within a few years of the move. He’s not going to sell them now because the value of the franchise is at rock-bottom. He’s going to move the team, pump some cash into it and, once the Isles are worth more, he’ll strike a deal.
Wang has lost hundreds of millions of dollars on this team; he’s not going to sell low because he needs to recoup as much of those losses as possible.
The future owner of the Islanders, be it Kevin Connolly or whoever, will have a fresh slate and might not share the same animosity towards Nassau County as Wang. That opens up a world of possibilities that simply cannot and does not exist right now.
Of course, there is still the matter of that “iron-clad” lease with Barclays Center. Any good lawyer will tell you there’s no such thing and history does as well. Iron-clad? Try telling that to a Seattle Supersonics fan.
As Kevin Schultz of Islanders Point Blank put it: “Speaking of “iron clad” leases, that 30-year one John Pickett signed in 1985 turned out to be easily breakable.” That is to say, if the Isles wanted to negotiate themselves out of the Coliseum lease tomorrow, they would have the capability to pull it off.
I look at the new Coliseum plan and see that something is missing. Forget about pride or team spirit — from an economic standpoint, it doesn’t seem to work without a major primary tenant.
Considering the $229 million investment by Forest City Ratner, that’s a lot of dough to pony up, just to lure an Arena Football League franchise or a minor league hockey team. I do not see Long Island supporting AHL hockey because this is a region that has grown accustomed to seeing a higher level of play (all jokes aside).
To add 2,000 more seats and some luxury boxes, even after the project is already complete, would not be a major undertaking. There will come a time when all parties involved will realize that, at the end of the day, it might just be the right move.
Let me be clear about something — I do think the Islanders can be successful in Brooklyn, for a number of reasons.
At the same token, I think there’s a very solid chance the team returns to Nassau within the next 25 years. A lot can and usually does change over the span of an arena lease and this particular case is no exception to that.
Unless Ratner and the Isles hit a grand slam here, nothing is off the table. That’s my take, feel free to give yours.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN.
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