Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Politics of the New York Islanders

The Politics of the New York Islanders

By Evan Weiner

January 3, 2010

Now that Nassau County, New York has a Republican in the County Executive chair, it is time to find out whether or not the old Nassau County Republican machine will re-embrace the New York Islanders National Hockey League franchise or if the new boss, Ed Mangano will say no to Islanders owner Charles Wang’s proposal to rebuild the Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum and develop the 70 or so acres surrounding the building.

Wang has spent years trying to convince the Hempstead Town Supervisor, the Republican, Kate Murray that his plan is best for the area. So far, not much has happened other than a bunch of meetings and some vague promises.

That is a far, far cry from the old Republican machine that greeted the Islanders and the American Basketball Association’s New York Nets with open arms in 1972 to the new building that opened in Uniondale.

The New York Islanders franchise has never been much about hockey. Sure the team won four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983 but the team has been more about real estate and local Long Island cable TV programming than an on ice product and looking at the history of the Nassau Coliseum project will spell that out immediately.

The building sits on land that was once an Army/Air Force base. Nassau ended up with a lot of the land and decided to put up an arena. The decision was made back in the day when neither the National Basketball Association nor the National Hockey League was a major business. In 1961, the NBA was still trying to establish a national base in the United States and was failing in Chicago while the NHL had six teams with four of them based in the United States.

The arena was built and the county was able to get the American Basketball Association’s New York Nets as a tenant but county officials decided they really needed a hockey team in the venue as well. In 1971, the newly formed World Hockey Association looked at putting a team in the facility but Nassau County and County Executive Ralph Caso wanted nothing to do with the league that was being put together by some of the same people that were behind the financially struggling American Basketball Association so they turned to noted attorney William Shea, the man who helped push baseball’s National League to expand to New York in 1960 to get them an NHL team.

The National Hockey League quickly expanded to Nassau County in 1971 to ward off the WHA and thus the politics of Nassau County and hockey converged.

The new arena quickly became a home for political patronage for Nassau GOP.

Nassau County Republicans awarded a no-bid concessions contract at the new arena to a prominent GOP contributor in 1972. The arena was a money-losing venture from the very start. The prominent GOP contributor was found in 1973 to have underpaid the county in concession revenues.

The GOP put their operatives in the Coliseum, gave them jobs and found themselves defending huge deficits at the new building.

The Coliseum was a dumping ground for political patrons.

Meanwhile the Nets and Islanders owner Roy Boe was under funded and the basketball team was losing money. Ultimately Boe would agree to join the NBA with three other ABA teams in 1976 at a price of $3.2 million for the right to be an NBA team and then there was a $4.8 million charge for “invading” the New York Knicks territory. Boe could not afford the bills and sold his main draw Julius Erving to Philadelphia. Boe’s Nets would never recover from the merger and sale and Boe sold the team to New Jersey interests who moved the team to Piscataway, New Jersey in 1977. The Islanders nearly suffered the same fate in the late 1970s and were saved when a minority owner John O. Pickett stepped in.

Pickett’s team was aided by a huge cash infusion from the relatively new cable TV company, Charles Dolan’s Cablevision, and the team’s finances stabilized.

The Islanders franchise was a combination, GOP business and cable entity and Dolan was able to use the big money contract as a loss leader for his SportsChannel enterprise by pointing out to the various towns, villages and municipalities that enfranchised Cablevision in Nassau and Suffolk County that we had local programming nobody else did---the Islanders.

Dolan also hired political operatives---mostly Republicans—to help expand Cablevision on Long Island.

At the same time, the Coliseum was losing money. The Hempstead Town Supervisor, Alfonse D’Amato brokered a deal that gave Hyatt Management a five-year contract to run the Coliseum. The deal started in 1979 and D’Amato promised that the county would show a profit on the venue with Hyatt. D’Amato was wrong and the building lost money in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982. D’Amato was gone by 1981 as he was elected to the Senate. His successor Thomas Gulotta wanted Hyatt gone but Nassau County Executive Francis Purcell extended the Hyatt deal, the company was now called Spectator Management Group, through 2015.

By the mid-1990s, the Islanders franchise became part of a real estate package that peaked the interest of a New York City developer, Howard Millstein. Pickett sold the Islanders to Millstein and Steven Gluckstern in 1997 and the New York City developer planned to build a new arena on the property along with other structures. Millstein and County Executive Gulotta worked out a deal which fell apart at the last minute. Unofficially the word was the two sides could not agree on who was going to build the venue, Millstein wanted his people, Gulotta wanted his people.

Millstein tried to get out of the lease that gave the hockey team no share of parking and concession revenue. Millstein and Gluckstern sold the Islanders and the Dolan cable TV deal to Wang in 2000.

In 2007 Wang proposed the “Lighthouse Project” which would have rebuilt the Coliseum and developed the land surrounding the building. The project has been in political limbo since then and no one is talking right now.

Dolan owns much of the media in Nassau and Suffolk County with his News12 cable station and the area’s main newspaper, Newsday. For some reason the Coliseum redevelopment plan is not a top news story for Dolan and for some other reason, political reporters no longer press politicians for answers and hold politicians accountable. Kate Murray, the Hempstead Supervisor, gets off easy from the lack of coverage, which has more to do with news philosophy today which is pundit-based instead of Edward R. Murrow type questioning.

But Murray and Mangano should not count on Wang waiting forever for a decision of yes and no on the arena. Wang has a major option that didn’t exist.

An arena grows in Brooklyn.

After a half decade of waiting, New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner finally has the go ahead to build an arena in Brooklyn.

Ratner, a political operative in New York City, is a lot smarter than Phoenix, Arizona politicians that were talked into building an arena that was built with perfect basketball sightlines that is virtually useless for any other sports event.

The financial difficulties of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes can be directly traced back to the Phoenix decision of the late 1980s.

The story that went around was that Ratner’s Brooklyn building was not going to be able to fit a hockey rink and would be useless for hockey and probably ice shows.

However, a person who worked on Ratner’s original arena plans said there was always a hockey element to Ratner’s plan.

Ratner probably will not outright own the Nets or even the building in 2012 when the place might be finished. Ratner has a deal to sell his team and part of the arena to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of a Moscow based basketball and hockey team, CSKA Moscow.

Mangano’s predecessor, Democrat Thomas Suozzi has made it a bit easier for Wang to leave if business does not pick up at the old building. The Islanders/Coliseum lease has been revised and is in effect until 2015. Wang is now getting operational control of the facility and will be in control of booking and will receive parking and concession monies. Wang can break the lease between now and 2015 but only if he pays off Spectator Management Group and receives approval from the Nassau County Legislature.

Mangano is now on the clock as are the Islanders old allies, the Nassau County GOP. Will Mangano follow his GOP roots going back to Ralph Caso, Fran Purcell, Alfonse D’Amato, Thomas Gulotta and play ball with Wang and the Islanders or will Wang, who has Brooklyn as leverage and the NHL will not stop Ratner or Prokhorov from pursuing Wang, just play out the clock waiting for Mangano and Murray to finally make a decision on the Lighthouse Project.

The politics of the New York Islanders continue with some new players playing the same old political games.

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