Thursday, May 21, 2009

Islanders, Nets linked together by common history, together again in Brooklyn?

Evan Weiner
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Islanders, Nets linked together by common history, together again in Brooklyn?

May 21, 8:17 PM

So how much has changed in the three years and eight months to the day since this column was written by this reporter in the New York Sun about a proposed arena being built in Brooklyn for Bruce Ratner's New Jersey Nets and how Nassau County politicians shouldn't feel so snug that Charles Wang would keep his Islanders in the county?

Apparently not much. Just change a few dates and the September 21, 2006 column could be easily rewritten today and it is. Remember just about all of the column is nearly four years old and it serves to illustrate just how slowly government works on big project proposals.

The New York Islanders franchise has always been more a topic for Nassau County politics, cable TV, and real estate than it has been a sports team competing in a major professional league. Almost 34 (now 38) years after the NHL gave Roy Boe an expansion franchise in Uniondale, not much has changed. Islanders owner Charles Wang is currently wrangling with Nassau County politicians to develop land around the Nassau Coliseum and has a large cable TV security blanket.

But Nassau County politicians really shouldn't feel so smug about the long term prospects of having an NHL team -- not with Nets owner Bruce Ratner's new Brooklyn arena in the picture. As the centerpiece of the urban development being proposed for the Atlantic Yards, Ratner’s arena will house the Nets and other, as yet planned, sports events. That could mean hockey.

Wang is hoping that Nassau County will give him the go ahead later this year to proceed with his plans to modernize the Nassau Coliseum. If that falls through, Brooklyn could finally lasso its first professional hockey team and transform the borough into America’s newest pro sports hub.

Because of the huge cable TV deal that Cablevision and Madison Square Garden owner Charles Dolan bestowed on the franchise nearly 25 (29) years ago, it’s highly unlikely that Wang would move from the metropolitan area as he'd be unable to get the same deal in any other market That leaves Brooklyn as a very real option.

Ratner has the green light to build his Brooklyn arena and development project after the MTA approved his offer last week (September 2005) for the 8.3 acre parcel of land in downtown Brooklyn. Ratner has one half of what an arena needs, an NBA team.

Out on Long Island, Wang has a hockey team that could be on the move if Nassau County can't move ahead on its March agreement with him to develop some 77 acres of land surrounding the Islanders’ home building. Wang is ready to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into renovating the Coliseum and building a commercial and entertainment zone around the old arena. But problems have arisen.

The Association For a Better Long Island has asked Suozzi to extend the deadline for others to come up with a proposal for the site beyond the October 1 deadline. Nassau Republicans, along with former Hempstead Supervisor and Senator Alphonse D'Amato, want a deadline extension so others can make a proposal for the land (Wang won the bid).

Ironically, it was Nassau Republicans back in the mid-1990s who first came up with the idea of marrying the Islanders ownership to a redevelopment plan. New York City real estate developer Howard Milstein and Steven Gluckstern bought the Islanders in 1998 with the thought of building a new arena as part of a plan to develop acres of parking lot and other land.

Milstein purchased the franchise from John O. Pickett, the man credited with saving the Islanders from financial ruin and building a championship squad in the late 1970s. Pickett had gotten a big assist from Dolan, who had contributed a huge local cable TV deal. Dolan gave the Islanders a long-term guaranteed contract with big money in an effort to not only keep the franchise on Long Island but also to make sure various Nassau and Suffolk municipalities would renew his cable TV franchise. Dolan could offer two exclusive local Long Island programs -- the Islanders and News 12-- to show he was responsive to local communities.

In effect, Milstein made two purchases from Pickett: He bought the hockey team and then bought the cable TV contract. Pickett had drastically under-funded the Islanders, preferring instead to keep the cable TV money for himself rather than reinvest in his team.

To understand how politicized the franchise really is, you have to look at the Islanders history.

In the late 1960s, Nassau County was building an arena that would house Roy Boe's New York Nets of the American Basketball Association. The NHL, which had expanded by eight teams between 1967 and 1970, all of sudden decided to add two more teams in 1971. The league gave Boe a team which would play in the Nassau Coliseum.

As the Islanders were building a fan base and quickly becoming one of the NHL's better teams, Boe was losing money on both the Nets and Islanders. By 1976, Boe and the ABA desperately wanted to merge with the National Basketball Association. When the leagues did reach an accord, Boe took a financial beating when he had to pay off the Knicks for “invading” the Garden's NBA territory. In 1977, Boe could not pay his bills and sold his best player, Julius Erving, to the Philadelphia 76ers for badly needed cash. Now, Boe was in the NBA but his team was awful without basketball’s most electrifying player. The cash drain also affected the Islanders.

Boe eventually sold the Nets to investors who took the franchise to New Jersey, but the Islanders remained in dire financial shape. Pickett stepped in and, with Dolan's TV contract, the team was able to keep and pay its players. But when Pickett stopped using the cable contract to fund his team and pocketed the money in the late 1980s, the Islanders hit rock bottom.

By the early 1990s, someone in Nassau County came up with an idea: Link the Islanders ownership to land development. In 1997, Milstein and Gluckstern took the bait. Milstein and Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta reached an understanding to build a new arena and develop the area in 1998, but that deal was gone by January 1999 because the two parties could not agree on who should do the arena construction. Wang stepped in shortly thereafter.

Is there anyone in Nassau County who can come up with another plan that would include Wang as a tenant of the Coliseum? (The answer was no) And if so, would Wang even accept with the prospect of a brand new Brooklyn arena staring him in the face? Realistically, Wang could put the Islanders up for sale and Ratner, who could be looking for additional business for his Brooklyn building, seems like a logical buyer.

Of course, Ratner and Wang were competitors in the bidding for the Nets. Ratner won. Is there enough bad blood to prevent these two from doing business? Would Dolan try and block Wang from selling his franchise to Ratner, if it got that far, because the Islanders would be infringing on Dolan's Rangers territory?

As the October 1 (2005) Nassau County deadline for developers to come up with a plan to create an “urban village” around the Nassau Coliseum approaches, the franchise remains more valuable because of its long term metropolitan area cable TV contract and potential real estate worth than as a hockey team, whether the team is in Nassau County or in Brooklyn.

In the time between the September 21, 2005 column and today, Ratner has survived numerous court challenges and has scaled down the project because of the souring economic conditions. The Town of Hempstead has not made a decision on the Lighthouse Project and the Town Supervisor Kate Murray seems to have abdicated her position (it would be nice if there was a legitimate media source pinning Murray and any politician for that matter down for answers, that doesn't seem to be the case with political flaks making sure the politician stays on message instead of answering questions, but that is another column for another day except to say that politicians work for the people not the other way around although it sure seems that way) as supervisor and is letting the issue slide into oblivion.

Ratner has never pushed for an NHL team but the Brooklyn building will be hockey friendly according to people in the know. Those people also claim Ratner wants an NHL in the building or did years ago. Wang has attracted interest from Queens as well, so he may have some very viable options inside New York City instead of in the burbs. Ratner claims he will break ground on the building this fall and he has always had New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg''s support. Wang may be seeking Bloomberg's backing as well if Kate Murray decides to keep dodging meetings and not answering questions. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

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