Viability of Barclays Center for the Islanders: Location Problems are more than 'Lies'

I blew this out from a comment on Friday night's article, NHL's Bettman: Is Barclays 'Viable'?, which was motivated in part by NI's strange comment that "white islander fans don't want to play in a neighborhood they deem 'different," and his dismissal as "Bettman lies" the very real logistical location-related hurdles that are obvious to Long Islanders.

1. RE: NI's opinion that Isles fans don’t want the team to play in a "different" neighborhood. Only two ways to interpret that:

a) that you think suburban Isles fans are prejudiced (or plain racist, I can’t tell if that was some thinly-veiled reference) in some way towards an area you perceive as being less—I don’t know—white or middle-class or whatever; or

b) you think the Isles fanbase doesn’t want the team to shift from a purely suburban focus to one also focusing on NYC or urban areas.

To the first point: you ignore the extraordinary diversity in background, socio-economic level, race, and ethnicity in towns and school district large and small in the area (like most parts of the NYC metropolis), AND the fact that Barclays is situated within a short (~20 min) stroll from the most white, yuppie, residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the very same that have absorbed and continue to absorb substantial numbers of young LIers that move to NYC (Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Prospect Heights, Williamsburg, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, etc.). Just plain hogwash to assume that the Isles fans are frightened about the area or inhabitants around Barclays. In no--NO--discussions online of the viability of Barclays as a future home for the Islanders have I seen anyone disparage the neighborhood around Barclays or its nearby inhabitants, or give those concerns as reasons against a move to Brooklyn. There are very real concerns, which I address below.

As to the latter: absolutely, fans do fear the lack of pure focus on LI suburbia, which the area has enjoyed for 40 years. I love what Barclays means for the Nets, but that’s an entirely different situation: an arena that reflects the ‘wet, gritty’ feel of Brooklyn, with a darkened concourse design and a focus on having fans feel like celebrities is...NOT a welcoming venue for most LI hockey fans. Hockey teams by and large bill themselves as being family-oriented and blue collar, Isles included. Also, as was brought out in the economic studies pursuant to the failed public-financed arena referendum last August, the Isles provide over $200 mill in primary and secondary economic activity to Nassau and Suffolk; a move to Brooklyn would likely reduce that amount drastically. Further, the Isles brought hockey to Long Island and have grown the game from nothing to the now-steady drumbeat of prospects to NCAA hockey powerhouses and also the NHL. In a story that would be unimaginable even 10 years ago, a LI-based team won the under-16 national championships literally two weeks ago, beating national hockey feeder schools along the way. What will the level of support be for LI hockey with a move to Brooklyn? Will the Isles feel the need to seed Brooklyn and NYC for fans, thus reducing their LI focus?

2. Barclays would not be the Isles’ arena. Not only is Barclays designed and styled for the Nets (with their colors, which sure won’t be blue/orange/white), but if the Isles moved in it would continue to be owned (I’d assume) by Prokhy and Ratner, without an option for Wang to buy some percentage of ownership. What that means is that Wang, if he continues to own the team—and he has repeatedly said that he has no intention of selling whatsoever AND historically it has been near-impossible to find a buyer when the Isles are on the market—stands not to earn money on concessions, parking, and ticket sales for other Barclays events, all of which he now gets at the Coliseum. Parking would be a total loss, and there’s no guarantee that Wang will earn enough with non-hockey ticket sales or concessions. Maybe the Isles would have some all-access season ticket plan, but there would be (obviously) serious logistical hurdles to that. The view that a move to Barclays, to be another tenant (and not even primary tenant), may not be economically viable for Wang is a large concern in the fanbase.

3. Barclays’ 14,500 hockey seating capacity: Yes, the Isles have been woeful in recent years and--granted--for most of the last 20. But the Isles do have a large, passionate fanbase that does turn out when the team has been in playoff contention. You cannot go by the attendance of the last few years, as the team has been in a wholescale rebuild and bottomfeeders for at least the last four years. But the last time the Isles were in playoff contention, in 2006-2007, the Isles averaged well over 14,500 fans for at least the last month of the season, including games on weekdays (and perhaps longer—I just looked back the attendance records for the last 5 weeks). I was at most of those games, and the building was nuts, even moreso during their playoff series. Right now, the Isles have one of the deepest pools of young talent in the league (and to dispute that would show your absolute ignorance of the team and league) and with the core locked up under contract, it is entirely possible that the team will return to playoff contention by 2015. If Wang moves to Barclays, with no plans to retrofit and improve the seating capacity, the fanbase could be squeezed and he would likely lose out on one of the largest (if not the largest) potential sources of revenue. Further, with the horseshoe hockey setup, Wang loses out on some high-profit low seats.

4. Barclays is not easy to get to. Yes, for my coup de grâce, I will show that Bettman’s comments are real concerns, not "lies." With 55 subway lines and the "new" LIRR terminal (nevermind the terminal’s remodeling obscures that the LIRR has operated on the site since the 1870s), Barclays cannot possibly mean inconvenient travel to an event, right? But it is so, if you look at the map of LI and the LIRR schedules. Trains run once or twice an hour, and making a game on time on the LIRR is far, far more of a time commitment than merely driving to the Coliseum for the lion’s share of fans and season ticket holders in Nassau/Suffolk.

Let’s breakdown what is required to take the LIRR to the Atlantic Terminal for a 7:00 weekday game using current schedules. I’ll use the travel situation of three LI towns, one in southwestern Nassau (Long Beach), northeastern Nassau (Syosset), and western Suffolk (Bay Shore).

For Long Beach, the latest you can leave to make the opening faceoff is 5:14, which gets in at 6:06. If you want to arrive a tad earlier, to see the pre-game shoot-around, the next earliest train would be the 4:29 that gets in at 5:19. After the 5:14, the next train’s the 6:38 that arrives at 7:33. That’s a journey 3X longer than the 20-minute drive up Meadowbrook; those that work until 5 or 5:30 would likely miss not only the opening faceoff but the entire first period, and for families attending most middle or high schoolers would have after-school programs that would also likely have them miss the opening faceoff and the first period.

For Syosset, the 5:22 gets in at 6:23, which is fine, but take the 4:16 arriving at 5:10 for the shoot-around, or miss the 5:22 and catch the 6:40 that arrives at 7:33. Slightly better time options than Long Beach, but still a journey around 3X as long as the 20 minute drive to the Coliseum and the concerns for full-time workers and families still apply as you’d miss the first period if you don’t catch the 5:22.

For Bay Shore, indicative of the plight of the many fans in western Suffolk, the 5:07 will get you in at 6:23. The next earliest is the 3:56 arriving at 5:10, and the next later is the 5:53 that arrives at 7:10. All three of these trains are bad, as the 5:07 is horrendous for workers and families, as the journey—like from most Suffolk towns—requires two LIRR transfers. The time length of the journey isn’t that bad, just more than 2X the drive, but the times are inconvenient.

Surely another one of Bettman’s concerns is returning on the LIRR. Having Barclays sit on the Atlantic Terminal is not super convenient when trains currently stop running around midnight. You can easily make a train back with the average NHL game at 2.5 – 3 hours long, but you can be screwed if the game goes into OT or you catch a drink after the game at any of the many bars/clubs inside or outside the venue. Miss the last train, and it’s a 50+ minute subway ride to Jamaica, where you can then catch another train east and hope to get back by 3 am… Returning from Atlantic is perhaps the biggest scheduling difference from attending Devils or Rangers games via Penn Station, where trains run every half-hour to 90 minutes throughout the night on most LI lines, whereas trains stop running at Atlantic from roughly midnight to 6:30 am.

The last train from Atlantic to Bay Shore is the 10:30 (!), that arrives at 11:35. Miss that, and you’re screwed.

Syosset has more options: the 10:08 arriving at 11:16; the 10: 28 arriving at 11:38, and the last option is the 10:58 arriving at 12:02.

Long Beach as a 10:28 arriving at 11:46, and its final is the 11:55 that gets in at 12:52.

When combining the to and fro journeys, taking the LIRR can effectively double the time of the event, taking on up to 3 hours of travel time onto the 2.5-3 hour event, not counting whatever time it takes for folks to drive to the LIRR station (and many towns don’t have a LIRR station!). I've also read on blogs that the transportation concerns would be similar for Isles fans in eastern Queens, who largely aren't served by the NYC subway and who aren't on the LIRR lines and currently drive to games.

5. With the LIRR scheduling broken down, it’s not hard to see why Isles fans are not all going gaga for a move to Barclays. I disagree with J-Sal on this; the fans on LHH or IPB that generally support Barclays are far less than 50%; they’re usually the youngish fans in their 20s/30s that already live or work in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Maybe a third, tops. Older folks, and those with families, and especially Suffolk fans, are not so hot on a Barclays move. When there are debates on the main Isles blogs as to where folks would like to see the Isles in 2015-2016, a new arena in Nassau is always first, followed by one in Suffolk (Pilgrim State or Central Islip), one in Queens (Willets Point or at the Aqueduct)….and then Barclays. Barclays is better than a relocation to Quebec or Hamilton KC, of course, but to most season ticket holders and Nassau/Suffolk residents it’s not better than other potential plans. There’s no guarantee that such a situation would be amenable longterm to Charles Wang. Granted, a standing arena right now sounds better than no current plans for a new one in Nassau, Suffolk, or Queens, but most Isles pundits do not think it is too late for a proposal to get done and built in those counties before October 2015. The preseason game is nice, and I already have my ticket for that, but the majority of Isles fans (and me, too) believe that the Brooklyn game is all about leverage against Nassau at this time. A growing percentage think that an Isles move to Barclays would only happen as a last resort, with a short-term deal with an early opt-out that would allow Nassau to realize what they’re missing and for Nassau/Suffolk/Queens to really get serious about development proposals. Isles officials, bloggers, and Nassau government all have stated that is not too late for an arena deal at the Nassau Hub acreage even now, and a Willets Point stadium would provide subway, LIRR, and highway access for LIers comparable or better than Barclays.

In summation: those that think that a permanent or long-term Isles move to Barclays is

a) perfect for the Isles and Isles fans;

b) profitable for the Isles;

c) preferred by a majority of Isles fans;

d) not without steep logistical and transportation challenges; and

e) is a foregone conclusion at this point,

is ignoring the facts.

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