One of the great lures of Nassau County on Long Island is its proximity to Manhattan. But the looming presence of The Big Apple could be the biggest and most insurmountable hurdle the New York Islanders encounter in their attempts to build a new arena that will keep the National Hockey League team in the area that inspired its nickname.
Nassau County voters soundly turned down a referendum Monday, August 1 that would have resulted in residents funding the $400 million plan to build a new arena, minor league ballpark and developmental hub to replace the aging Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. But the “nay” vote may have had less to do with the public’s distaste for higher taxes — the $400 million would have been generated by raising property taxes from 3.5 to four percent — and more with residents overlooking the team and the entertainment options in their own backyard.
Nassau Coliseum is located in Uniondale, which doesn’t have a stop on the Long Island Railroad. But most of the towns surrounding Uniondale are on the LIRR, as are most towns in western Suffolk County, which makes it easy and inexpensive for Long Islanders to board the train and head into Madison Square Garden — the home of the NBA’s Knicks and the NHL’s Rangers as well as dozens of entertainment events annually. And depending on the event at the Coliseum, it can cost more to park there than to buy the train ticket into Penn Station.
The Islanders are not the only metro-area professional franchise finding it difficult to thrive in the shadow of the big city. The New Jersey Devils and New Jersey Nets suffer from similar irrelevance — but unlike the Islanders, they have new arenas that assure their continued existence.
“The problem is they’re on the outskirts of a major city and no one wants to go to the Meadowlands to see a basketball game,” Jason Berger of AllSeats.com said, referencing the Nets’ soon-to-be former home. “It might be a little bit better in Brooklyn [where the Nets will move for the 2012-13 season], but still, who wants to go to Brooklyn to see a game? No offense to anyone in Brooklyn, but if you have a choice of being able to go to Madison Square Garden or the Barclays Center, eight times out of 10 you’re not going to [Brooklyn].
“Same thing with the Coliseum. There are businesses on Long Island and there are people who go to the games, but the team doesn’t have the same type of popularity that New York City teams do.”
While the Islanders became a must-see attraction during their dynastic run of four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980 to 1983, the Devils were never able to make a dent in the Rangers’ popularity even as New Jersey won three Cups between 1995 and 2003. In fact, the Devils came close to moving to Nashville after their first Cup win.
“We were joking about it at the office,” Berger told TicketNews. “[The Devils] won the Stanley Cup one year yet we sold more tickets to another team in the same city that did nothing that year. I just think it has a lot to do with location, location, location.”
Islanders owner Charles Wang is still hoping to develop a new arena and developmental plan — one that he will at least partially fund — but he won’t be able to change the fundamental problem facing the Islanders as they try to entice both residents and out-of-towners to the Coliseum: While Manhattan features enough sights and sounds to fill an encyclopedia, Nassau Coliseum is bordered by highways and strip malls.
“[Between] the number of people looking to go to a live event and the number of people who live in the city and all the tourists [in the city], it’s just easier selling tickets [to Madison Square Garden],” Berger said. “The challenge is trying to get someone out to Nassau County to go to a lot of games. [The Islanders have] been creative in trying to market their tickets, but ultimately, it really comes down to the fact that people don’t get excited about going to Nassau County. And it’s unfortunate.”