Are The Islanders Leaving Brooklyn? Only If They Can't Shake Down Mikhail Prokhorov

New York Islanders co-owners John Ledecky and Scott Malkin reportedly are in talks to move to Queens. Is they serious about relocating, or just angling for a better deal at the Barclays Center?

by Neil deMause
Jul 25 2016, 2:59pm

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Islanders announced they were moving to Brooklyn four years ago, plenty of eyebrows went up across the sports world. Not only was this a team so associated with Long Island that it was already named after the place—the team logo, many people noted, even omitted Brooklyn from its geographic depiction of the island—but they were to move into an arena purposely designed to be too small for hockey in order to save on rapidly ballooning construction costs. Sure, Brooklyn had become an internationally known brand and all, but could this really work out very well?

One year into the Isles' Brooklyn experiment, we're starting to find out. Last week, Jon Ledecky, one of the two buyers whose purchase of the franchise from Charles Wang was announced in 2014 but only finalized this year, was asked if he planned to go ahead with playing six games a year in a renovated Nassau Coliseum, as Wang had agreed to do. His reply: "Barclays [Center] is our home"—a statement that sounded more committal before he started talking about how the Isles' new Brooklyn home lacked the atmosphere of their old one, and saying it needed unspecified upgrades for hockey. "Does that mean you blow up Barclays Center and leave?" said Ledecky. "No. You try to improve the home you have."

Shortly thereafter, the other shoe dropped: according to multiple news outlets citing sources "familiar with the situation," Ledecky and co-owner Scott Malkin are in talks with New York Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon about building a new arena next to their stadium in Queens. And if that doesn't work out, the sources claimed, the Isles owners might consider going back to Long Island, at a site near Belmont Park racetrack just across the city line.

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But wait, you ask: When Wang moved the Islanders to Brooklyn, didn't he include a promise to keep the team in the land of the artisanal for 25 years? Yes, but. When Wang and then-Brooklyn Nets owner Bruce Ratner agreed to subject Islanders fans to an arena where several thousand seats would have no view of one end of the ice, they included an out clause: Following the 2019 season, if Wang or his Brooklyn landlord didn't feel like the deal was working out, either side could rip it up and walk away, no harm, no time in the penalty box.

If the Islanders actually leave Brooklyn after four years, this will be, to be sure, one of the shortest honeymoons in sports history. Not counting expansion teams like the Seattle Pilots or New Orleans Jazz that barely got the shrinkwrap off before they'd been repurposed for a new city, the shortest pit stops I can find are the Milwaukee Hawks (moved to St. Louis in 1955 four years after relocating from Tri-Cities) and San Diego Clippers (six-year stopover between Buffalo and Los Angeles). In the NHL, the record shortest stay between two other homes is the Colorado Rockies, who lasted six seasons after departing Kansas City before ending up in New Jersey with a nickname honoring a mythical winged goat.

But if you're enough of a hockey fan—or just an interested onlooker who can't stop rubbernecking a good train wreck—to have read this far, what you want to know is: Are Ledecky and Malkin serious? That's a more complicated question, and needs to be broken down into several sub-questions:

Could an arena be built in Queens? The owners of the expansion New York City F.C. MLS club, after all, recently tried to get a soccer stadium built near the Mets ballpark, then ultimately threw up their hands and agreed to play in Yankee Stadium, a venue with its own issues about not being designed for the right sport. An Islanders arena, though, has somewhat better siting options than the parkland that the soccer team was targeting.

An arena could be built in Willets Point, an assemblage of ramshackle auto repair shops that is in the process of being seized by the city and prepped for redevelopment. Or it could go in what's being called "Willets West," which is basically the parking lot where Shea Stadium stood until 2009. Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon previously targeted Willets West for a giant shopping mall, but that's been held up in court because the site is technically still city parkland—there are no laws made by man or God as convoluted as those governing New York City parkland—so put an arena there, sure, maybe?

Would you be mine, could you be mine, won't you be my neighbor? Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Would it make any sense to build a whole new arena in Queens just to get out of a less than ideal situation in Brooklyn? The Barclays Center cost close to $1 billion to construct, even at "value engineered" size, and while building on empty lots in Queens would be much simpler, you're still going to be talking high nine figures, money that's going to have to be repaid somehow. If the city would go along with the Mets and Isles owners using the land for free—something that's no sure thing, given that parkland ruling and the fact that the city has its own plans for Willets Point proper—and give the teams a break on paying property taxes (more likely, given past city policy toward sports venues)—that would surely help make the idea at least marginally feasible.

Still, there are very few arenas that are able to pay off their own construction costs, let alone turn a profit for their builders. The Barclays Center doesn't do it, despite being one of the busiest arenas in the nation. A Queens arena would be far less centrally located than either Barclays and Madison Square Garden—though more easily accessible by car from Long Island—and also trying to glom onto a share of a glutted arena market that has already claimed one victim. That's an uphill battle.

Could the Islanders owners be trying to accomplish something else here other than getting a new arena?

Ah, now you're talking. When you buy a pro hockey franchise and discover that the previous owner committed you to a new home just because he was having a hissy fit that Nassau County voters didn't want to raise their property taxes and cannibalize local sales taxes to buy him a new arena there, but there's this out clause in the deal—well, you know what they say about your only tool being a hammer. Ledecky and Malkin clearly want to arm-twist current Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov into finding some way to make his Barclays Center work for hockey, and their best leverage is to threaten to move, whether it's to Queens, Long Island, or Seattle.

(No, not really Seattle. Nor Kansas City, nor Quebec, nor any other town whose fans may be getting excited at the prospect of a new footloose franchise. The Islanders' ability to raise money from cable deals and other marketing opportunities in the New York area is so great that they'd almost certainly never leave the region, even if they had to play in the Central Park Zoo polar bear enclosure.)

So will Prokohov bite? Clearly, it will depend on what Ledecky and Malkin want. If it's just bigger dehumifiers to keep the ice surface from turning to slush, that's unlikely to be a deal breaker. If it's a bigger cut of team revenues—right now, the Islanders get paid a fee of between $50 million and $100 million a year by Prokhorov, who then pockets any additional money from tickets, concessions, etc.—that could probably be hashed out, too.

TFW your hockey tenants are asking for more. Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

If what the Islanders owners want is an arena that's actually built for hockey, though, there are no easy answers. To comfortably fit an NHL rink into Barclays, you'd have to knock down one whole end of the arena and rebuild it out onto the sidewalk. While there's possibly room to do so by using the public plaza that the arena fronts onto, this would be a massively expensive undertaking, at least a couple hundred million dollars plus the lost revenue from shutting down the arena for months to do the retrofitting. The only other options include ripping out and rebuilding some seats at the other end of the arena so the rink could at least be centered (though then upper-deck seats at both ends would have semi-obstructed views) or raising the entire floor of the arena by wiping out the first few rows of seats, neither of which sound too promising.

So why on earth would Prokhorov take this threat seriously? The loss of the Islanders wouldn't likely sting too much—the Brooklyn arena was filling its dates just fine before the Islanders arrived, after all. But just the possibility of another arena opening in the tri-state area—one that would effectively set up a four-way race between Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center, Newark's Prudential Center, and the new building, all scrambling to avoid being the venue left without a chair when the arena-glut music stops—should at least send a little chill down the Russian billionaire's spine.

In the end, it's still pretty likely that Ledecky and Prokhorov will eventually make nice, and all this talk of Queens and Belmont will be forgotten as a bit of gamesmanship. But stranger things have happened—hell, the Islanders moving to Brooklyn to stick it to Nassau voters sounded stranger at one time, and then it came true. The hope is that at the very least, the Islanders and Nets owners will stick to shaking each other down for money. Nobody's talked yet about demanding taxpayer subsidies for any new arena projects, but when two sides start haggling, it's not long before they start targeting the guy behind the tree.

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