By Peter Schwartz
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There are a number of questions surrounding the Islanders these days.
Will they make the playoffs? Will John Tavares sign an extension this summer? Will Doug Weight return as head coach? And who will new co-owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin bring in as team president?
But perhaps the biggest question the franchise needs to answer is where it will be calling home after next season and for the long term. It has been reported that that Islanders are not happy at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for a myriad of reasons, including the poor ice conditions and obstructed-view seating.
There is a mutual out-clause in the supposedly 25-year “iron clad” lease and that has also led to speculation that both sides could be interested in ending the relationship.
So where will the Islanders be playing in a few years should they say “fugetaboutit” to Brooklyn? Better yet, where should they play? A leading expert in sports business says he knows the answer.
“The Islanders belong on Long Island,” said Ray Katz, managing partner of ROI Sports Marketing Group. “That’s where all there tradition is. That’s where all their history of greatness is and they need to be as close to Nassau Coliseum as humanly possible.”
Being close to the team’s former home would certainly make Islanders fans happy, but what about actually going back to the Coliseum? Islanders Country would erupt if that happened. The “old barn” is currently going through renovations and will be run by Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, the same group that operates Barclays Center.
While the Islanders reportedly would like to build a brand new arena next to Belmont Park, there is the option of going back home to Uniondale. There is the issue of the revamped building’s smaller seating capacity for hockey (13,000, according to reports), but there is the ability to add more seats if needed.
So is it time to go back to the future, even if it means a less seats and suites than a brand new arena would offer?
“At the end of the day, what’s the difference in terms of how many seats you have if you generate revenue?” Katz said. “Within a fluid fan base in that (Nassau Coliseum) location, they should have no problem generating adequate revenue for both themselves, as well as for the visiting team. I don’t understand what the problem is and why an intelligent conversation between the league and all the executives can’t resolve this.”
Regardless if that conversation ever happens, one would think that Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment would prefer the Islanders simply move to the new Coliseum instead of a new venue in Elmont, because another new arena would create more competition for dates between two arenas in Nassau County and a fifth building in the New York/New Jersey area.
There’s only so many sporting events, concerts, family shows and other events to go around.
“With the circus going away, that gets rid of a dozen to two-dozen dates and shows, so I think it’s very questionable whether you could support two arenas,” said Katz, who is also a professor of sports business at Columbia University.
Assuming the Islanders do indeed return to their Long Island roots, and all indications are it’s a very real possibility, they could end up choosing between a nostalgic return to their former home or, possibly, a move to a new arena that would be built on what is now a large parking lot at Belmont Park, across Hempstead Turnpike.
The decision could come down to a choice between a renovated barn and a magnificent new palace. Fans might find it just as convenient to get to Uniondale as it is to get to Elmont.
“Personally, I think a sub-optimal venue at Nassau Coliseum is better than an optimal venue at Belmont Park because Belmont Park still doesn’t come with great public transportation, either,” Katz said.
The Islanders’ return to Nassau County would certainly excite the team’s fan base, regardless if they call the Coliseum or a new arena home. For 43 years, Islanders fans were programmed to drive to home games, but over the last two seasons they’ve had to get used to taking the Long Island Rail Road to Brooklyn. Many fans are making the trip, but others are not going as often, or at all. It’s also apparent that the team has not been able to add as many fans from the five boroughs as it anticipated because the area remains Rangers territory.
“It’s kind of clear that it’s just not working as well as the ownership felt that it could work,” said Katz, who once worked at Madison Square Garden. “The conversion of Rangers fans to Islanders fans has not happened, nor would you expect it to happen. The Islanders’ fans are on Long Island.”
It sure sounds like the time is right to put the “Island” back in “Islanders.”
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @realraykatz