What Does Rumored Barclays Opt-Out Mean for Islanders?

A recent article in the New York Post has sent shockwaves through much of the Islanders fanbase, after claiming that “a source” with knowledge of the situation has suggested that Anschutz Entertainment Group see the current agreement for the Islanders to play at Barclays Center as “too risky”. AEG is in the early stages of talks to purchase a majority stake in the Barclays Center, and according to “the source” AEG can opt out of the contract between Barclays Center and the New York Islanders in 2020.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when a product is good, it will draw attention, and vice versa. The Islanders are now a good product, in fact to this point they’ve been one of the best products in the NHL, and with Long Island’s population of over seven million it hasn’t been hard to put 15,000+ fans in Nassau Coliseum. However, historically when the team has been bad, attendance drops significantly and to a horrifying point.

In fact, here are the spots in which the Islanders finished in attendance averages for every season 2004-05 lockout in order: 30th, 28th, 30th, 30th, 29th, 30th, 29th, 30th, 26th.

Obviously, attendance numbers are nowhere near exact and are often skewed by the teams, but it’s troubling to see how many years the Islanders have finished dead. ESPN also lists the Islanders towards the bottom of the league in attendance this year (27th), and despite a few sellouts puts their average percentage of seats filled at 85.6%

That said, when the team sells out the Coliseum and is winning, it’s an incredible barn to catch a game in.

 

(American) Thanksgiving Eve, a night when most college students are home and there isn’t generally much to do, gave us possibly the loudest and most enthusiastic regular season crowd that the Coliseum has seen in years, and with good reason. This team is damn good, and while Islanders fans are mostly riding high on the winning streaks and the first opportunity to see an actual contender in over 20 years, it’s a harsh reminder of the business end of sports when these reports come out.

Most would suggest that if the team had been good for the last ten years, then the fans would come. Like I mentioned earlier, not exactly rocket science. What’s unfortunate, and honestly painful, is that for years the team operated much like a small-market product would: field a low-budget team at a low-budget venue that creates an overall negative experience for the casual fan. It’s understandable that people stayed away, because despite having the money and capability to field a contender Charles Wang opted to run his business on the idea that it was safer to spend less and accept minimal gains (or none at all) than to spend more and try to maximize the product.

Arthur Staple posed the most terrifying question of all: where would they go?

We all remember the “Kansas City” chants from visiting fans (Rangers fans) when the team was a consistent bottom feeder, before Tavares was given to Long Island by the hockey Gods to bring prosperity to a once proud franchise that had fallen on hard times. The Québécois who would show up to games in Nordiques sweaters. The empty seats that seemed to seal Nassau Coliseum’s fate. And then when the move to Brooklyn was announced, Islanders fans exhaled a half-hearted sigh of relief. The team would still be in New York, it would retain its identity, but would just be a bit further west (23 miles, to be exact if you take the Belt). It wasn’t ideal, but it’d have to do.

And now this. Though these are just rumors, and no one knows who this source is outside of the Post, it’s concerning. It’s uncertainty. Among Islanders fans I’ve spoken to about it, there’s a real feeling that we may have sat through years of a rebuild only to see the polished product torn from our hands like it’s Black Friday.

To get a grip on reality for a minute, despite AEG’s apparent wariness to house the Islanders we all know how Gary Bettman feels about relocating teams.

I’m sure that Bettman, who acts as if relocation is to be avoided unless an arena is burning to the ground and the city is helping fan the flames, will figure out a way to keep his hometown team in New York. Unfortunately, if the Barclays Center decides to oust the Islanders it seems that the Ratners have no intentions for their renovated Nassau Coliseum to be an NHL building. Reports on how many seats the new Coliseum will have range from 9,000 to 13,000, but at the moment it seems set in stone that it will not be a large enough facility for the Islanders.

So where do they go? Yes, it’ll become a complete non-issue if they start selling out Barclays Center, but what if they don’t? Obviously a new home will attract new fans, but what if it’s not enough to replace the Suffolk residents who can’t make the trip to Brooklyn and then some?

At least one man seems to have a plan, and he does have money…