Islanders’ Opportunity at Belmont Park

July 9, 2019 was a big day for the New York Islanders. The announcement that developers had come to an agreement for a new full-service LIRR train station gives a new arena at Belmont Park a feeling of inevitability.

Owner New York Islanders, Jon Ledecky Gary Bettman
Co-owner and alternative governer of the New York Islanders, Jon Ledecky and Commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

Belmont Park represents an unprecedented opportunity for the Islanders and their fans to create a new narrative around the team. Since the late ’90’s the team has made repeated attempts to get a new arena, and failed each time.

The Coliseum’s Revival 2012-15

When Charles Wang announced in 2012 that he had signed an “ironclad” 25-year lease for the team to play at the Barclays Center, there was a mixed but mostly positive reaction from fans. Brooklyn was closer than Quebec or Kansas City.

Over the next few years, as the Coliseum was slated to meet its maker and more disturbing details about Barclays Center came to light, a very special synergy developed between the building, the fans, and the team.

I wasn’t alive for the Islanders dynasty years, but my parents were early adopters of the Islanders. For years they would go to games, including a date to the first-ever home game. My Dad’s voice takes on a whisper of nostalgia talking about what it was like to attend games during that era. I was fortunate enough to go to all of the home games during the Islanders playoff run in 1993. As a child, the noise and the energy from those games still remains with me, and it is an experience that I constantly compare new experiences against.

Nassau Coliseum
Hockey fans make their way toward the entrances of the renovated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

In 2014-15, the Islanders, the fans, and the building began to rediscover a culture that had been missing from the organization for far too long. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” chants became a thing. The team was winning. The fruits of a long rebuild were beginning to bear fruit as players like Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and he-who-shall-not-be-named led an exciting core of young talent. The Coliseum jumped the shark from being old and decrepit to vintage, a throwback, and more affectionately, The Barn.

The Failure of Brooklyn

Barclays Center

Barclays Center (THW Archives)

The Islanders failed Brooklyn experience could be its own Harvard Business Review case study. The arena was never built with hockey in mind. The sightlines are terrible, the scoreboard is off-center, a sizeable portion of the seats are obstructed and are unsold for most games. But perhaps just as important as the structural flaws, Brooklyn Sports Entertainment never embraced Long Island. Brett Yormark and Co. incorrectly assumed the Islanders were like the Brooklyn Nets. A team in need of a rebrand. The effort turned off Long Island-based fans, and never meaningfully attracted new fans living in New York City or Brooklyn.

The Coliseum’s Second Act

Three years of mediocre attendance in Brooklyn had a vocal contingent of fans clamoring for a return to the Coliseum. The Coliseum had developed an almost mythic reputation among the team’s die-hard fans. The Old Barn was everything Brooklyn wasn’t. The intimate sightlines versus the made for basketball/obstructed seats at the Barclay Center. The tailgating culture versus the LIRR experience. But the most important element was Long Island versus New York City. The Islanders were a Long Island team, they should be playing on Long Island, not in Brooklyn.

The 2018-19 season was special for Islanders fans. Everything came up Milhouse for the team. The Coliseum was near sold-out for the twenty home games played, the team swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, playing Game 1 and 2 at the Coliseum and the fan base was re-energized with games feeling like events when played in Nassau.

The Opportunity at Belmont

The arena at Belmont Park represents an inflection point for the team. It’s not enough to simply build a “state of the art” arena. The Islanders need to build an arena that celebrates the unique culture that has developed amongst the fans.

Making sure that there is enough parking for tailgaters, working with architects to make the arena as loud as possible, great site lines (made for hockey!), and even smaller things like arranging the banners the same way as the Coliseum did for so many years, and making sure that wherever the Blue and Orange Army sit its appropriately named section 329.

For a team that has almost exclusively lived in the past, it’s so important to embrace the current generation of Islander fans while also giving a nod to the role that the Coliseum has played in developing the current fan culture. It’s taken over twenty years to get to the point we are at today, and the team can’t afford to miss with the new arena as the future of the franchise depends on it.