SBJ/Aug. 18-24, 2014/Opinion

Nassau County’s decision on arena could serve as example

Late last year, Action Long Island, a regional business and economic development organization, hosted a breakfast for small businesses. The meeting featured a panel consisting of the winning team in the bid to become the developers of a new sports, entertainment and retail hub in Nassau County, a bid that did not include a professional sports franchise as the anchor tenant. 

Bruce Ratner, along with David and Ed Blumenfeld and Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, presented their updated vision for a parcel of land that is mainly known as the home for a certain hockey team but in reality has been of interest for decades. The conversation in the room before the formal presentation was interspersed with some serious questions about the viability of any plan that did not include the only major professional sports franchise in the area. “Wasn’t having a team the logical/only way to go? Seemingly every other major locale had gone that route.”

It sure seemed that, eventually, that hockey team, the NHL’s New York Islanders, was going to get an updated arena to keep them on Long Island. The battle for the new arena played out very much like many others over the past 15 years. Even with more locales hesitant to put their already tight municipal finances at risk by using public resources for private use, sports team owners and other investors had been coming up with different ways to get facilities built, usually with the end goal of keeping or attracting a pro sports franchise and, as a result, retaining status as a “professional” or “top-tier” city. 

But something different happened in Nassau County. The locale let the team leave. And it will likely turn out better for having done so.

The plans for Nassau County include a $229 million renovation of the arena and surrounding area. Despite reducing the size of the arena by almost 25 percent, the developers project that the first year of operations, likely 2017, will include more than 300 events. This would more than double the number of events currently hosted at the arena and make it one of the busiest and possibly one of the most profitable in the country. 

A $229 million project will result in a smaller arena and redeveloped surrounding area.
Photo by: SHOP ARCHITECTS

Incidentally, one of the busiest arenas in the world, the O2 Arena in London, is without a team to call its own, and it does not seem to be hurting at all.

But what do you do when a team threatens to leave your locale (often) for a shiny, newer building with all of the premium offerings that make a team owner’s wallet just a bit fatter? Most locales capitulate. Who wants to be known as the mayor or executive in charge who let the team leave? Nassau County and its component parts were facing just that, but they didn’t blink.

“While we love our New York Islanders, residents voted against a public referendum to build a new arena that would have kept them here in Nassau County,” Mangano said. “The Ratner team will transform the coliseum — at no cost to taxpayers — into a new first-class arena that hosts six Islanders games, preseason Brooklyn Nets games, New York Yankees coaching clinics, family-fun entertainment and blockbuster concerts.”

What Nassau County did may serve as a strategy for dozens of markets around the country and even around the world. They decided that they did not need a pro team to be considered top-tier; they needed a facility of that quality. The facility itself, and not any pro team, would be the main attraction. 

This may be the logical next step in the path to prominence for the once-taken-for-granted facility. Over the years, we have seen naming-rights deals give these buildings names we can call them by. Add in all of the special seating and luxury boxes in these facilities, and you are looking at a huge source of revenue for the owner. The facilities are hosts for not just sports and concerts, but also for the growing number of performing artists, kid/family shows, trade shows/conventions, and the occasional graduation, among other events. 

“The New York City region is already extremely competitive with MSG, Barclays, PruCenter, Red Bull and MetLife all operating at very high booking and marketing levels,” said industry consultant Jim Delaney, president of Boston-based Activate Sports & Entertainment. “From both a branding and booking standpoint, it’s not an unwise decision to let an underperforming pro tenant depart and differentiate now as a smaller arena, especially if it’s one that will be part of a world-class sports, entertainment and retail complex with a population of several million in close proximity.”

By adjusting its focus away from the Islanders and toward the arena, Nassau County found what was truly important for its residents and their quality of life.

Sarbjit “Sab” Singh is assistant professor of sport management at Farmingdale State College. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoinggood.

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