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New arena may bite Isles fans’ wallets

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Barclays Center

The Islanders’ future home was designed for basketball and concerts, not hockey. (David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Gary Bettman is not worried. The seating capacity for hockey games at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center could be the smallest in the NHL. The commissioner said, as far as he’s concerned, “It’s not an issue.”

But it may not entirely be a non-issue, either.

Bettman was among the speakers on Wednesday at the press gathering to announce that the New York Islanders have signed a 25-year lease to play their home games at the new arena starting in 2015-16. He cited the Winnipeg Jets, whose home at the MTS Centre officially seats 15,004 fans, as “doing well” (when they were actually playing hockey, that is, which the league is not at the moment). The Barclays Center will seat around 14,500 for hockey and Bettman said that number could increase to about 15,000. He added that, compared to the Isles’ current home at the 16,234-seat Nassau Coliseum, “The thousand seats don’t make a material difference.”

Well, first, an extra thousand seats do make a difference. If the Islanders sold 1,200 more seats last season at their average ticket price, that would have represented an additional $2 million in revenue for Charles Wang’s team. It’s not a windfall, which is to say it wouldn’t get the Isles out of the red, but it is $2 million.

Of course, there was no great demand for Islanders tickets, and it’s been that way for too many painful campaigns. The Coliseum is considered to be a good part of the reason why, and so is the team’s habitual mediocre-to-poor performance on the ice. This once great franchise has not won a playoff series since 1993 and has only qualified for the postseason four times since then.

But here’s a bigger reason why Islander fans might find the small size of the Barclays Center problematic. Chances are that ticket prices for games in Brooklyn could end up being among the most expensive in the NHL.

With a reduced capacity, the team may be forced to charge a steep price in order to keep up with NHL economics, even after a reduction in the players’ share of Hockey Related Revenue to 50-50 and even if the owners succeed in enacting other measures to keep salaries down through restrictions on individual contracting.

The Islanders’ average ticket price last season was $49.06, which ranked 20th in the league (according to Team Marketing Report figures supplied by Hooked on Hockey). The Nassau Coliseum’s capacity is actually the second smallest in the NHL, but the demand is also very low. Again, some of that is the bad building and some of that is the team’s bad play. And we can add a third element to the reason why the price was so low: Long Island’s regional economic picture is not what it once was, and tickets are priced accordingly.

Let’s compare that to the Winnipeg model that Mr. Bettman invoked. The Jets’ average ticket price last season was $98.27. That was second highest in the NHL, behind the Maple Leafs $123.77. There is great demand (the Jets sold every seat every game) and the ‘Peg is doing well economically. But the scarcity of seats is also a factor: Scarcity increases prices and the Jets’ owners, True North, ask their customers to pay a premium. That’s also how they can generate enough revenue in their smaller building to be profitable — which the Isles most certainly are not — and have the resources to be competitive with other clubs.

Every club wants the ability to keep its better players when they become eligible for free agency and to shop for other UFAs; it’s essential to building a winning team. When two-thirds of your competition has more than 18,000 seats available for their games and 10 clubs exceed 19,000, you must charge more, if only to have a decent war chest for the player market.

Of course, that’s not the only factor in why the Islanders may have to charge more for tickets. They are going to be tenants in the Barclays Center. We don’t know what the lease arrangements are, but the economics of owning your own building and keeping the money that comes in through ticket sales, parking, concessions and other amenities — which Charles Wang wanted in a new Nassau County arena, but could not get — are far more favorable to a hockey team than paying someone else for the use of their barn and getting only some, if any, of those other revenue streams. Whatever Islanders fans will pay for the experience of watching their team play in Brooklyn, Wang will have to fork over some of it to his landlord. He does that now at the Coliseum — paying the owner, Nassau County, and arena management firm SMG — and it was hardly working for him.

In three years, he’ll have a state of the art building located in a more vibrant area (although Brooklyn’s economic picture is not entirely shiny; but it’s more favorable than Long Island), so he’ll probably have increased demand. And he’ll have even fewer tickets to sell than he now has at the Coliseum.

It’s hard to know what the Isles price structure will be. It might not be as high as what Jets fans pay, but it might be more in line with what Rangers fans pay, and that averaged $66.20 last season, eighth highest in the league, and it went up this season to over $70, a jump of 9.5 percent. By 2015-16, who knows what those prices will look like?

Perhaps for many Islanders fans, who are just happy that their team is staying in the area, it won’t matter. But certainly, a segment of them should prepare for sticker shock (on top of the increased cost of traveling from Long Island to Brooklyn for that major part of their fan base). Some could be instantly priced out of attending as many games as they’d like, or even entirely, when their team decamps to Brooklyn. And that’s why, even though Gary Bettman doesn’t think so, the smaller capacity at Barclays Center is an issue.

I have to say that I was wrong about the fate of this franchise. I was convinced it would stay in Nassau County and I wrote as much a few times (here and here for example). A good part of my belief was because Bettman was so strongly against a move, even to Brooklyn, and said repeatedly that the solution to the Isles’ problems had to be found on Long Island. He said the fans on Long Island weren’t likely to travel to Brooklyn if this team moved there. Others, like the intrepid B.D. Gallof — the Islanders Independent blogger, Hockey Independent founder, and contributor to WFAN.com — were convinced that this move was going to happen and stayed on it.

I also believed that the Rangers would oppose the Islanders moving a mere six miles away from Madison Square Garden. When the Isles were created, they paid the Rangers a fee for encroaching on their league-sanctioned territory which, until 1972, included Long Island. I always understood that to mean that the Islanders’ home territory was designated as only Nassau and Suffolk Counties. But either I misunderstood or it somehow changed and came to include Brooklyn and Queens, the boroughs of New York City that are adjacent to Nassau County and which are geographically, but not politically, Long Island. Since a team does have the right to move inside their own territory, that interpretation gave the Islanders an avenue west. The New York Times reported in 2010 the Rangers-Islanders agreement was amended in 1986; I worked at the NHL at that time but was unaware of that.

In any case, even if the Rangers had the power to block the move, they might have had second thoughts. The Cablevision conglomerate that owns them and Madison Square Garden also has a long-term deal for the Islanders TV rights. With hope lost that the Isles would remain on Long Island, and faced with the possibility that they might end up in Kansas City or Quebec or Seattle — meaning a loss of a valuable property for Madison Square Garden Network — the Rangers’ ownership could have decided not to resist. Or maybe they lacked any authority to stop them.

It’s all moot now. The Isles will be in Brooklyn, playing in a modern, but oddly configured arena. I’m happy for their fans — at least that segment that will be able to afford tickets.

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  • Published On Oct 24, 2012
  • 13 comments
    spr222
    spr222

    I just want to make something clear. A 2 bedroom apartment in Fort Greene or Park Slope, both just a 5 minute walk to the Barclays Center, costs $800,000 and up. There will be plenty of families going to Islanders games in Brooklyn, they will just be families with some money. This talk of sight lines, seat sizes, plumbing is all nonsense..location is everything and Brooklyn is blowing up. The Islanders will do very well in Brooklyn. They will sell out early and often and I bet all of the money they make will put a better team in the ice.

    Sizzle
    Sizzle

    As an Islander fan living in Suffolk county, I both approve of this deal from a team standpoint yet don't like it as a fan. The Islanders could prosper from it unless they have signed an even worse lease than they have in NCVMC. But currently it takes me 30 minutes to drive to a game. Now I would have to spend 1 1/2 hours each way on a train and the total cost would be more. And the arriving train wouldn't get to Atlantic terminal until a few minutes after 7 PM.Plus the costs would be more for two off peak tickets, and I haven't even mentioned the time to get to the train station. Do I want to devote 4 hours travellling for a 2 1/2 hour game? 

        I would be interested in knowing just how big the seats are as I am 6'2". NCVMC isn't very comfortable for me although I have seen worse-Rogers Centre when I was in Toronto in June. After 5 innings I had to leave my right field seats.But some stadiums have good leg room..the Long Island Ducks minor league team.

        Nassau county could come out of this in good shape as there are about 800 undeveloped acres in a wealthy county adjacent to NCVMC. But since the politicians have been rguing about what to do with former Air Force base Mitchel Field for 50 years now, I don't expect they will.

     

    Jeremy6
    Jeremy6

    I will be heading to Brooklyn to root my Islanders on. I live in Eastern Long Island and commute to work daily in Manhattan via the LIRR and the Coliseum's major flaw was a lack of public transportation getting to the arena. The other problem was the sweetheart deal that ex County Executive Gullotta and Sen. Al D'Amato gave SMG to manage the arena. The Islanders received no revenue from parking, concessions and many other revenue makers associated with the arena. I am a season ticket holder and have stuck by them through the good, the bad and the ugly. By the time this team hits Brooklyn they will be knocking on the door to their past glory led by JT.

    Pencils
    Pencils

    People haven't been going to Islander games because the team has sucked for so many years we gave up. Personally, I think signing Yashin was the end--he never delivered, and he sucked up all the money mgt could have used to fund a good team. I've never had a problem with the Coliseum, yeah, it's old, but I will never forget how it sounded when Shawn Bates got that penalty shot in the 2002 playoffs...the roof was raised. No other arena sounded like that. (BTW, we had great seats for that game.) No one I know here on LI will go to Brooklyn for a game. They won't be the Islanders anymore. Yes, Brooklyn is technically part of the Island, but no one thinks of it that way. And it's ridiculous to RAISE ticket prices these days on purpose because it's a tiny stadium. Hockey needs families to get that next generation to become fans, and who can afford it: the trip to Brooklyn, parking, the tix, food, whatever. This is a really stupid move. It's sad because I loved hockey so much for so long, like many of my neighbors. We don't ask for the Stanley Cup every year, just not sucking so bad it's depressing to follow your team. No new area is going to fix what's wrong with the Islanders, it's just going to make it worse, unless new money and new ideas are invested in the actual TEAM--the players, the coaching, etc--when they're allowed to play again.

    geeon1
    geeon1

    I was recently at the Rush concert at the new Brookln Barclays Center, Fantastic place but I see your points here Mr. Hackel. They will be hard pressed to reach that 14500 seating much less 15000. I will be able to give you a better "feel" for it after the Home opener for the Nets, I will now be more interested in the dimensions and logistics of adding a rink.

    Right now the islanders will not have to worry about tickets, what did they average last season, 10K? I think a tad below that. To gain fandom they will need to do exactly what the Nets did, splurge big time make headlines on the back page. Sort of trading for say Sydney Crosby type deal. No Crosby is not going to get traded Pens fans just an example please don't crucify me on it.

    For any saying the Nassau Mausoleum ws in any way a good building has not been there in 25 years or so. The sight lines were never great, plumbing was breaking down, asbestos issues, electrical issues. The owners of the Coliseum allowed it do die, the only thing would be tearing it down which (rightfully so) Nassau turned down. taxes out there were already far too high.

    nord
    nord

    Stu, scarcity of tickets is a supply factor and doesn't increase demand, if anything it lowers it.  Fewer tickets means higher prices and fewer people demanding them to reach equilibrium.  In the Jets case, the demand is gently sloped.  Not completely inelastic, but the higher prices do not result in much lowering of demand for tickets.  Not debating your point, just that you got there the wrong way.

    matthewstrubel
    matthewstrubel

    Forgive me, but saying an old building is at fault for people not showing up to games is silly. 

     

    That said, I'm an average-sized male and the tiny size of the seats at the new arena in Newark made it an uncomfortable experience I never wanted to go through again.

    Keith7
    Keith7

    just because a building is old does not make it bad. The sightlines were always great at the Coliseum.

    StephenMichaelW
    StephenMichaelW

     @geeon1 Good Luck getting the backpage headlines...The Rangers can be in first place all season long, and they'll only get coverage in the playoffs.  

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @nord Nord, well, I'm often accused of doing things the wrong way, sometimes with good reason. Thanks.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @matthewstrubel  Thanks for your comment and I suppose you make the point you're arguing against. I think if you read my post again, you'll see that I didn't attribute the problems with attendance solely to the arena, but it certainly is a contributing factor, which fans of the team (and former fans) will acknowledge.

     

    Unfortunately, the modern pro sports arena is more of an amusement park/three ring circus/shopping mall and fans have become used to that sort of experience. At least when the team they come to see loses, they have seen other things that entertain them, or at least distract them. The Coliseum suffers by comparison and has fewer of those attributes so if the team struggles, the fans enjoy the experience even less.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @Keith7 I totally agree with you on the sightlines; they are excellent almost everywhere in the buliding. But there's more to an arena than that and when you're down in the dressing room area or any of the places where those other than fans have to spend lots of time, you really see how ramshackle it is, especially compared to other NHL buildings. In fact, there are stories surfacing that the building has asbestos problems and that's a serious problem, indicating its age. Additionally, considering what these modern buildings have in them with regard to amenities for fans, which translates into bigger revenue streams for the owners, the Coliseum is very inadequate by comparison. Being old is not bad in and of itself (hey, I'm old) but old has to be able to change with the times and this place cannot.

     

    Thanks for your comment.

    matthewstrubel
    matthewstrubel

     @Stu Hackel  I guess I'm pretty easy to please.  A comfortable seat (which the old Brendan Bynre/Continental/Izod/whatever Arena had in spades), a beer and a pretzel (which I've come to accept will be a $50 dinner), and I'm quite happy. Plus, I'm one of those types who loves the history of places. With pretty much every arena being new and seemingly identical to the rest, I have no desire to visit them. 

     

    This is all besides the point, I can't afford it anyway.