The distance between Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and Barclays Center in Brooklyn is roughly 30 miles, or a drive time of under an hour, if traffic cooperates. Indeed, when the Islanders begin playing in their new arena this season, they'll be in the same TV market they've always been in, and as you'll hear endlessly this season, they'll still technically be on Long Island, since the New York City borough of Brooklyn is on the island's western end.
Those are a long 30 miles, though. Moving from Uniondale to Brooklyn means moving from the suburbs to the city, and since forming in 1972, representing the Long Island 'burbs became a large part of the Islanders identity, as it provided contrast to their bitter rivals, the Manhattan-based Rangers. And not only are they relocating to New York City proper, they're moving into a building that tries to exude a Brooklyn-cool vibe; when the Nets moved in three years ago, they got a full makeover that Jay Z had a hand in designing.
All of which means that the Barclays Center officials charged with overseeing the team's transition and marketing the club in its new home have to walk a fine line: keeping the existing fan base happy and acknowledging the franchise's Long Island roots, while also playing up its new environment and attempting to grow the fan base. The result, so far, has been the mild Brooklynization of the Islanders -- but even that's been controversial to some fans already wary of the team's new chapter.
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When the Nets moved to Brooklyn, they got a fresh start: New uniforms, a new logo and a new name that included the name of the borough and not the city. They were marketed as something cool -- something that represented not just Brooklyn, but the new, trendy Brooklyn. They didn't totally erase the team's history -- Drazen Petrovic's banner still hangs above the court -- but for all intents and purposes, they couldn't run away from their time in New Jersey fast enough. They were prepared to build an almost entirely new fan base in Brooklyn.
With the Islanders, though, that approach wouldn't work. Existing Islanders fans are far too large a group to ignore, and perhaps more importantly, building an entirely new fan base of hockey fans in Brooklyn would be difficult, if not impossible. It's hard enough to breed new fans of the sport, even without a team with roots as deep as the Rangers' just across the river.
"We wanted to keep every [Nets] fan we could from New Jersey, but the fan base in Jersey wasn't as passionate as the fan base on Long Island," says Fred Mangione, the chief operation officer of Barclays Center. "They have a much deeper history, the Cups they've won, the tradition of winning that they've had over the years, and you never want to mess with tradition."
That meant keeping the keeping the Islanders' blue-and-orange color scheme, as well as their 70s-era logo with the outline of Long Island on it -- an outline that actually leaves out the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens on the island's western end. Unlike the Nets, the Islanders wouldn't be branded as Brooklyn; they'd keep New York in their name, and they'd keep their jerseys, too. The Islanders' public address announcer accompanied the team to Brooklyn, as did their organist, whose instrument was moved from the old arena to the new one. Space was reserved for the Blue and Orange Army, a fan section that had become a staple of home games, and the team's banners will be re-hung in the new building.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman even offered some advice to the Barclays team, reminding them that the in-arena atmosphere at an NHL game is different than the sensory overload one can experience at an NBA game.
But with Barclays Center officially taking over the marketing of the club when last season ended, it was inevitable that they'd try to Brooklynize the Islanders at least a little.
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Consider the goal horn. Every arena has one, and obsessive hockey fans can tell the subtle difference between, say, the Flyers' horn (which has a hint of a buzzer sound to it), and that of the Blackhawks (which has a deeper, more fog-horn quality). They become sort of sonic traditions -- a staple of the game-night experience that sears itself into the brains of die-hards who hear it countless times each year. Which is to say, as minor as it may seem, when a team changes its goal horn, hockey fans notice.
And so during a pre-season game at Barclays last month, the Islanders unveiled a new goal horn that sounded a subway horn -- and fans most definitely noticed. A subsequent Tweet sent out by the arena revealed that they'd worked on the new version with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, an agency that New Yorkers love to hate.
You can read all the brutal responses to that Tweet here, but should you be busy, here's a representative one: "it's bad enough we're forced to ride the MTA. PLEASE don't ruin our joyous goal moments by reminding of us this."
The backlash on Twitter and elsewhere was so loud that the team announced later that same week that they'd go back to the horn used at Nassau Coliseum.
"I think we've been very [sensitive] to the traditions of Islanders hockey," said Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark during a radio interview on The Michael Kay Show in which he announced the team would revert to the old horn. "At the same time, though, we must broaden the fan base. We must reach out to Brooklynites and areas beyond Brooklyn in order to grow this fan base, in order to make this very viable." At one point, Yormark pleaded with Islanders fans that they need to be more flexible: "I just want them to understand there has to be a balance of the new and old in order to grow this fan base, but also maintain the hardcore fan base that currently exists."
It was a victory for those vocal Islanders fans, though Yormark didn't see it that way. "I'm not acquiescing to the Islanders fans," he said, as if not wanting to set a precedent. "What I am doing is doing the right thing. And the right thing is to welcome the Islanders fans to Brooklyn." He also criticized the way Islanders fans attacked him and the team on social media: "Personally, I don't respect the way they approached it, the Islanders fans. How they attacked our Twitter handle. The vocabulary they used to reference me and the organization… I don't appreciate it."
Many Islanders fans right now are especially tuned into any changes from the way things were, and the outrage here had to do with more than the weak-sounding horn. They see Barclays as an outside entity looking for ways to change something that's long been a part of their lives, and they feared changing the horn was just the start. Yes, the logo and primary uniforms will stay the same. "But that hasn't stopped anyone from assuming they'll ruin everything eventually," says Dan Saraceni, an Islanders fan and editor at the Islanders blog Lighthouse Hockey, about the skeptical sect of die-hards. It's a vocal group: This Twitter feed, which is devoted to picking out the worst of the worst comments from the team's official Facebook page, is filled with anti-Brooklyn sentiment, and articles like this or this give a sense of the backlash from some fans and press.
In September, the Islanders introduced a new black-and-white alternate jersey in attempt to bring the Islanders closer to the Barclays Center's aesthetic, at least for the 12 home games they'll wear them this year. The logo -- one that debuted during the Stadium Series -- includes the traditional "NY" from the team's logo, but notably does not feature the outline of Long Island. The symbolism is fairly obvious.
"The colors of black and white infuse the spirit of Brooklyn into the borough's new home team, while the four stripes seen throughout the uniform pay homage to the Islanders famed Stanley Cup dynasty," said Yormark upon the unveiling of the jersey, even though there's nothing inherently "Brooklyn" about the colors black and white. Those are the Nets colors, and for 12 games a year, the Islanders will be borrowing them.
Mangione says there are no plans to have that color scheme replace the one the Islanders have used throughout their history, save for a brief, misguided logo change in the mid-90s. But for Isles fans worried what that might mean, every change is something to be dissected.
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Relocating to Brooklyn, or anywhere else for that matter, wasn't the Islanders' first choice. But years of proposals that would have renovated the aging Nassau Coliseum ultimately led to nothing, and it became clear the team would need a new home. And so Barclays Center was something of a compromise: It kept them in the same market, as opposed to seeing them depart for, say, Quebec City, though it did mean leaving Nassau County. As part of its deal with Barclays, the Islanders are guaranteed a reported $50 million annually, as long as they reach certain revenue goals.
The Islanders' final spring at Nassau Coliseum inspired a million obits, many of which went like this: The arena had its faults -- the lack of modern amenities, the cramped concourse, etc. -- but the sightlines were great from any seat and, boy, could the small building get loud, like it did when the Isles won four consecutive Cups from 1980 through 1983.
Now, the Islanders will play in a building that's something of the inverse: Barclays has every amenity you can imagine -- great food, a large hi-def scoreboard -- but the cheap seats are farther away and the west end of the arena offers inexcusably bad sightlines, because the arena was built with basketball in mind. As a result, the rink isn't placed directly in the center of the floor, which explains why the scoreboard hangs over one of the blue lines, as well as those obstructed views. (When asked if he regrets the decision to not properly accommodate a hockey rink, Mangione says the decision was above his pay grade. In any case, "You don't look back," he says.) Squeezing in the rink also means removing more seats than usual, and with space for 15,795 fans for hockey games, Barclays will have the second-smallest capacity in the NHL.
It'll already be hard enough for the Islanders to be considered equal co-tenants at Barclays, an arena built for the Nets, who were totally reimagined as a franchise to coincide with its opening. But it'll be even harder considering the arena itself is a constant reminder that the building was designed for basketball, not hockey. And while Barclays built out NHL locker rooms in advance of the Islanders' arrival, the arena-design issues -- the ones that force the rink to be off-center -- are permanent. But Mangione says he's not worried about the Islanders will be perceived as second-class citizens in their own building. "It's one of the top facilities of the NBA," he says, "and now we want to make it one of the top facilities in the NHL, which it will be."
As for the fans, there isn't necessarily a consensus. "Fans like myself who were excited from the beginning are ready for a new chapter no matter what," says Saraceni. "Other people seem ready to hate the arena regardless of how, or even if, they'll actually experience it. It won't be Nassau Coliseum, but that doesn't mean that the entire billion-dollar building is worthless."
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Only a quarter of season-ticket holders from the final season at Nassau Coliseum renewed for the first season at Barclays. Mangione says they're happy with that figure, but there's no getting around that it's low.
"It's not that far, but it's a lot of change," says Mangione of the team's new location. "A lot of people who go to games on Long Island lived ten minutes away, got in their car. So it is a little bit of a different distance to come, taking a train versus driving."
The issue of arriving by car isn't an insignificant one: Long Island has more a driving culture than many parts of New York City, and Nassau Coliseum was notoriously difficult to reach via public transportation. But Barclays is designed to be arrived at by public transit: In addition to being served by multiple subway lines, it's located across the street from a terminal of the Long Island Rail Road. Barclays worked with officials there to increase service on game nights, but still, getting Islanders fans from Long Island to take the train will require changing their habits.
"Long Islanders usually think of the railroad for going to work and Broadway shows only," says Saraceni. "If they want to see the Islanders live, they're going to have to add one other reason to the list. They can always ask the millions of Nassau and Suffolk-based Rangers fans for train advice."
When Barclays Center opened, much was made about how fans shouldn't even think about driving to the arena. But even though new spaces haven't been added since then, Mangione surprised me by mentioning how Isles fans could drive to the game, perhaps in an attempt to reassure those coming from Nassau or Suffolk counties who don't want to bother with the LIRR. "That Long Islander that's used to driving, there's over 3,000 spaces on the perimeter of the arena that the fan base also didn't realize, and when they received their literature and their season tickets and they saw all the layouts, they realized that they have the option to do that as well, if they want to do that."
The low renewal rate doesn't mean Barclays isn't selling tickets. As of last week, they'd sold some 8,000 season tickets, or about 90 percent of the seats they'd allotted for full-season packages. A third of their season ticket holders for 2015-16 are from Brooklyn or Manhattan, with 30 percent coming from Long Island. Says Mangione, "We expect nothing but selling to capacity every night."
It should help that the Islanders -- coming off a first-round playoff loss to the Capitals last season that went the distance -- have a promising roster led by all-world center John Tavares, even if the team is still waiting for their big breakthrough in the Eastern Conference. The team's been using the slogan "Tradition Has a New Home" -- an acknowledgment of the team's history -- but a winning team would be the best marketing tool of all, not just for existing Isles fans but for potential new ones as well.
All of this raises the question: Who exactly are the Islanders targeting as their ideal new fan? I pose that question to Mangione: Rangers fans willing to convert? Brooklyn residents who don't currently follow hockey?
"I think it's all of the above," he says, though Saraceni disagrees on at least one point.
"Rangers fans will not be converted," says Saraceni. "If Rangers fans are one thing as a group, it's fanatically loyal to an almost blind degree."
Mangione adds that many season seats are being purchased by former Long Island residents who now live in the five boroughs, and have a more convenient opportunity to see the Isles play. The team is also planning education initiatives to teach the game to those in the local community. "But I can tell you," Mangione says, "there's a lot more hockey fans even within the borough of Brooklyn than we even knew, who are passionate just about the game of hockey."
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The Nassau Coliseum is set to undergo a $130 million renovation, with the owner of the Barclays Center in charge of the project. The renovation will remove some seats but generally modernize the arena, and once the work is completed -- the current target is the fourth quarter of next year -- the Islanders plan to eventually play six home games each year in their former building.
At least one politician believes something bigger could be in store for the arena: "I certainly do believe that we will see the return of the Islanders at some point," Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano told radio station WFAN last month. "I think that this arena is going to be very attractive to professional sports." Unfortunately for Mangano, the return of the Islanders is just wishful thinking.
When the announcement was made in 2012 that the Islanders would be moving to Brooklyn, team owner Charles Wang described the team's 25-year lease as "ironclad." And when asked if there's anything in the lease that would allow the Islanders to leave early, Mangione says "The New York Islanders have a 25 year lease with the Barclays Center and I'll leave it at that. They're not going anywhere."
Now that the off-season moving and marketing is done, the Islanders' new era can truly begin on Friday night, when the team hosts the Blackhawks in its regular-season opener. Mangione says he believes the arena has respected the Islanders' history during the relocation process. "We feel their traditions, their brand, and everything that they can bring, plus the access, the amenities, and all the great things of our building -- those two together are going to create a great experience for everyone who comes see this team."