Courtesy of The New York Times
Brooklyn, which has been without a professional sports team for half a century, is suddenly home to two after the announcement on Wednesday that the New York Islanders would leave suburban Nassau County for the new Barclays Centerin 2015.
The announced move of the hockey franchise, which won four Stanley Cups a generation ago but in recent decades has become synonymous with losing, was heralded by city leaders as an unexpectedly rapid vindication of the controversial development project that opened last month with the promise of transforming the heart of the borough.
The 25-year deal still requires approval by the National Hockey League and would essentially double the number of professional sports games at the $1 billion arena each year. The arena is already home to the Brooklyn Nets, which relocated from New Jersey and is scheduled to host its first regular-season game next week.
Along with an already rich slate of concerts and other events, including recent sold-out appearances by Jay-Z and Barbra Streisand, this suddenly flush calendar has accentuated fears of those in the surrounding brownstone neighborhoods that the community could be overwhelmed.
Though other developers of sports sites have watched the “if you build it they will come” approach end in disappointment, the Barclays Center suddenly finds itself one of nine arenas nationwide that showcases teams from both the National Basketball Association and the N.H.L. One of the other arenas, of course, is Madison Square Garden, home to the rival Knicks and Rangers, which means New York City will soon have six major professional teams across four boroughs.
“Not long ago, I think it’s fair to say the idea of a big league sports team coming to Brooklyn was considered little more than a pipe dream,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news conference, flanked by Charles B. Wang, the Islanders owner; Bruce C. Ratner, the developer of the Barclays Center; and Gary Bettman, the N.H.L. commissioner, among others.
The team vowed not to change its name, keeping “New York” in place of the trendy “Brooklyn” label. But the symbolism of its move from the suburbs to the heart of the city’s largest borough was underscored by the apparent need to update the team logo, which features the outline of nearly all of Long Island, but cuts off Brooklyn and Queens.
Mr. Ratner, who still owns a majority stake in the arena, started meeting with Mr. Wang six or seven years ago, usually in the team owner’s favorite Chinese restaurant, the Orient, in Bethpage. The talks picked up in earnest several months ago, but Mr. Wang, who attended Brooklyn Technical High School, did not make up his mind until he saw the arena.
Mr. Ratner predicted that the heavy dose of sports, especially in winter, would not crowd out entertainment events like the recent concerts. “Like Carnegie Hall,” he said, “it will be a place where there’s great stuff always.”
Details of the deal were not made public, but people involved in the talks said there were no financial incentives involved, nor any involvement from the city government. A preliminary analysis by the city’s Economic Development Corporation did estimate, however, that the Islanders deal could generate $175 million in economic activity each season. For years now, Mr. Wang has been eager to upgrade or replace the team’s aging home, which opened in 1972, and is now one of the older arenas in professional hockey. Last August, Nassau County voters, who pay among the highest local taxes in the nation, soundly defeated a contentious proposal to spend $400 million to overhaul the arena. The team publicly toyed with moving to another city with a modern arena, including Quebec City, Kansas City and Seattle.
The Islanders’ current lease requires them to play at Nassau Coliseum through the 2014-15 season, and Mr. Wang said at a news conference that the team would honor that agreement.
For a glorious stretch, the Islanders rose quickly from cellar-dweller to powerhouse, and dwarfed their bitter rivals, the Rangers, whose Stanley Cup drought — which eventually ended in 1994 — was hockey’s answer to the World Series-challenged Red Sox or Cubs. Led by Hall of Famers like Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin, they won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983 and reached the 1984 Cup final, a run that encompassed 19 consecutive series victories, still a league record.
Then came a long, steady decline. Attendance plummeted. Even the front office became an embarrassment: one owner, John Spano, was convicted of fraud, because it turned out he did not have enough money to buy the team.
On Wednesday, some Nassau officials seemed caught off guard by the Islanders’ departure, setting off a round of sniping between political opponents.
“This is a sad day for Nassau County and unfortunately another crippling hit to our local economy,” Kevan Abrahams, the county’s Democratic leader, said in a statement. “To lose the Islanders, Nassau’s only professional sports franchise, is an epic failure of leadership at all levels.”
But Edward P. Mangano, the Republican county executive, blamed his rivals for blocking his efforts to overhaul the Nassau Coliseum and the 77-acre Nassau County Hub that surrounds it. “No one has done more to retain the New York Islanders than my administration,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s sad and unfortunate that political opponents chose to oppose my plan and instead continued to support the Culture of NO on Long Island.”
It is unclear what effect the arrival of the Islanders might have on the Rangers, with their fiercely loyal fan base, or the New Jersey Devils, who play in Newark. Both teams had supported the idea of a new Islanders arena on Long Island.
The Rangers are owned by Madison Square Garden, which broadcasts the Islanders’ games. And the Rangers are in the midst of a three-year renovation of the Garden and have been steadily raising ticket prices. So any extra income would probably offset any loss of fans who might, for whatever reason, switch allegiances (just as some Knicks fans have threatened to support the Nets after the team declined to re-sign Jeremy Lin).
The Barclays Center is not ideally suited for hockey — a hockey rink is bigger than a basketball court — and the size of the arena’s interior was reduced to pare costs. As a result, the arena has room for 14,500 seats for hockey, far smaller than most other hockey stadiums and 3,500 seats fewer than are available for Nets games. The Islanders’ current home, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, has a capacity of about 16,250, but the team’s average home attendance last season was 13,191.
Still, the team’s move to Brooklyn leaves many unanswered questions, especially for a contingent of steadfast opponents of the development project — which includes a plan for 15 residential towers over the next 25 years and possibly an office building or hotel — who view it as a publicly subsidized land grab that featured a string of broken promises and threatens to overwhelm the adjacent neighborhoods.
“My longtime concerns with the Barclays Arena and Atlantic Yards project continue to remain — living wage jobs, affordable housing and quality of life,” said Councilwoman Letitia James of central Brooklyn. “I look forward to reviewing this deal with my colleagues.”
Current Islanders season-ticket holders will have first rights to buy tickets in Brooklyn. Within minutes of the announcement, Barclays was selling them.
While some fans regarded the move as a betrayal, others took some consolation in the fact that the team would remain on the island after which it was named, accessible by the Long Island Rail Road.
One rabid Islanders fan, Harris Peskin, 21, a student at Cardozo Law School who lives in Greenpoint, came out to the arena with an Islanders hockey shirt when he learned the announcement was made. He described the day as bittersweet, because his earliest memories, he said, were of going to the coliseum and “smelling popcorn and talking to my father about the dynasty.”
Mayor Bloomberg, who is not known for being much of a sports fan, did try to bolster enthusiasm. The mayor suggested that, perhaps, all the Islanders needed to change their fortunes was a change of venue.
“Brooklyn, I’m sure, will help them get their mojo back,” he said. “And no, ‘Mojo’ is not the name of a hip new Brooklyn neighborhood.”