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UBS Arena Sprints to Open for Islanders and Music Stars on Long Island

Days before opening UBS Arena, operations SVP Michael Sciortino still had a few things to handle. For instance, the trash cans—or “waste receptacles,” as he called them. Particularly the ones in the parking lots. How many should there be? Where should they be placed? And how should they be secured? This, it turns out, is how the multiyear, $1.1 billion venue construction project in Elmont, N.Y., ends—with trash talk.

New York Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky will be in those parking lots Saturday for the team’s home opener against the Calgary Flames, anxious to ensure that fans’ first experience with the site goes smoothly. After their 13-game road trip to start the season, the Islanders (5-6-2, currently last in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division) are ready to settle down at home. For Ledecky and fellow team owner Scott Malkin, the grand opening realizes a goal they set when they took control of the team in 2016: Give Islanders fans the state-of-the-art arena they’ve never had.

Local excitement for a venue custom-built for hockey is evident in the ticket prices for Saturday’s home opener against the Calgary Flames (an average of $599 on the secondary market, according to TicketIQ). But hockey diehards won’t have UBS Arena to themselves for long.

On Nov. 28, Harry Styles comes to The U (nickname TBD) for a show that is averaging $1,295 per ticket on the secondary market, as of Thursday. The building’s operators expect Styles to be just the first of many A-list acts to pack the house; after all, UBS Arena was conceived, designed and built with music in mind.

The Islanders co-own UBS Arena with Oak View Group, a recently established sports and live entertainment company founded by longtime sports exec Tim Leiweke and renowned music manager Irving Azoff. (Former Mets COO Jeff Wilpon is also part of the building’s ownership group.)

OVG’s first building to consider musical acts as important as the hometown major league sports team was Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, which opened in October and has already booked concert dates for the likes of Billie Eilish between Seattle Kraken games– after spending $100 million on music-specific features. In Long Island, OVG is doubling down on its belief not only that events will bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, but that UBS Arena—built with private funds—can become a multipurpose destination, even as it starts with just 41 scheduled hockey dates a year. 

“That certainly will be a business model people study and figure out if we’re just batshit crazy, or if this was actually a good idea,” Leiweke said. “The book’s out on that one.”

Before Ledecky and Malkin came along, previous Islanders owner Charles Wang was repeatedly rebuffed in his efforts to renovate or replace Nassau Coliseum through the 2000s, as it became the NHL’s second-oldest and second-smallest venue. Even after moving the team to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2012, Wang kept at it.

Which was why, months after the first puck dropped at Barclays Center, he accepted an invite to Belmont Park. Wang must have liked what he saw. Before Ledecky and Malkin took over as majority owners, he told them about the place’s potential. He continued to lobby for the site behind the scenes, and when he died in 2019, Ledecky said the arena would be part of the former owner’s legacy on Long Island.

Ledecky made his name consolidating fragmented industries like office supplies in the 1990s– before becoming a SPAC evangelist. (In addition to “Islanders co-owner” he’s also known as uncle to 7-time Olympic gold medalist and world champion swimmer Katie Ledecky.) Malkin was Ledecky’s Harvard roommate who went on to establish himself as a high-end retail magnate. When they bought the Islanders, they had plenty of business chops, but they also had enough business sense to know they wouldn’t be able to deliver the Islanders a top-notch building without some help. Enter Leiweke.

Soon after taking over the franchise, Malkin and Ledecky invited the famed exec to a meeting in Montreal. “We were told to meet Tim because he is a legend, and only good things could come from our knowing him,” Ledecky said via e-mail. 

Leiweke had decades of entertainment experience, dating back to his days with the Major Indoor Soccer League’s St. Louis Steamers in the 1980s, and he’d spent 17 years building Anschutz Entertainment Group into a sports and music behemoth. By 2012, AEG owned or operated around 100 venues globally, while also controlling AEG Live, the second largest concert promotion outfit. At AEG, Leiweke helped develop the Staples Center and L.A. Live, the downtown entertainment complex adjacent to it. When Leiweke left the company, former MSG Sports president Scott O’Neil called him “the best dealmaker in the sports and entertainment business.”

Irving Azoff’s building abilities are on display just 10 miles southwest of the Staples Center (soon-to-be known as Arena). The music mogul, who entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year after decades managing some of the industry’s biggest names, had partnered with MSG to revive the LA Forum in 2014. Fifteen years after Staples snatched the Lakers and Kings from the Inglewood venue, MSG Co. put $100 million into restoring it as a music-first arena. And it worked. With more room on its calendar, the Forum booked twice as many concerts as Staples in its first year back. 

In part, the Forum succeeded because the Staples Center didn’t prioritize music in its design. The Lakers’ home arena would warp the geography of America’s second-biggest city after opening in 1999, but it also quickly drew criticism from artists, who found the cavernous arena acoustically lacking. In some places, the arena had opted for glass partitions over traditional guardrails for aesthetic reasons, but that led to more reverb in the venue. Roughly $250,000 of fixes were made to improve the sound soon after it opened, but only so much could be done.

In 2015, OVG launched with Leiweke as CEO and Azoff as a board member. “What’s changed in the NBA and NHL significantly in the last 20 years is we’re not running teams any more,” Leiweke said at the time, having ended a two-year stint in Toronto as CEO of MLSE, the owners of the Maple Leafs and Raptors. “We’re running facilities, we’re running entertainment districts, and sometimes the bricks and mortar are just as valuable as the franchise.”

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Without an NBA tenant to worry about, UBS Arena designers were able to focus on how hockey fans—and music lovers—would experience events. Cora Veltman

Which is all to explain how Leiweke ended up sitting down with Ledecky and Malkin in Montreal, telling them what it would take to run a successful venue. “They were like kids in a candy store,” Leiweke recalled. “They were excited about this, but there was also kind of an, ‘Oh yeah, we hadn’t thought about that. Oh, yeah, we hadn’t thought about this.’”

Leiweke was immediately intrigued by the opportunity to build from the ground up so close to New York City without having to work around a morass of existing infrastructure. The “fresh clay,” as he put it, would allow him to make UBS Arena “the last great arena built in New York of our generation.” But with boundless opportunity space comes limitless points of potential contention. Put another way, “We have a lot of disagreements,” Leiweke said with a chuckle. 

For instance, Malkin was particular about the building’s facade. “That was a long conversation,” Leiweke said, which ended with the developers spending heavily on a brick look that would fit in with the existing race track. Ledecky worried about long lines in the concourse. He frequently polled Islanders fans and took to boasting about how UBS will “have the most bathrooms of any NHL arena.” If that wasn’t enough, there will also be an app to check bathroom wait times.

“The vision and execution of the construction of UBS Arena should be a model for all of what is possible when great partners work together,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

Throughout the process, Lewieke said, music remained a focus. Without the need to build permanent NBA locker rooms, UBS Arena has more room for artists. Designers dedicated a large amount of their “fresh clay” to eight loading docks that will help performers come and go more quickly—possibly squeezing an extra tour date into their New York swing.

Discerning fans might notice music-focused touches around the arena as well. Remember Staples’ pesky glass barriers? Jack Wrightson, chairman at design firm WJHW, said they’re minimized in key areas at UBS Arena. 

Even the seats have been designed with acoustics in mind, from the upholstery to the type of padding underneath. Sound considerations were “near the top” of designers’ priorities, Wrightson said, though not if they would significantly interfere with the hockey spectator experience.

“Every venue that we design now for any sport has to layer in that aspect of entertainment into it,” said HKS director of sports Lance Evans, who helped design Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium. “It had to go hand-in-hand with the magnitude of investment for these venues—the need not just from an owner’s perspective, but from a community’s perspective, that our venues wanted to be activated 365 days a year.”

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Work was still being done across UBS Arena in the days leading up to its debut. Cora Veltman

Here’s how Leiweke put it when opening Climate Pledge Arena: “You can’t spend a billion dollars and build one of the world’s greatest arenas privately and then make it work off of your anchor tenants, because they’re gonna want most of their money…. All these other events are critical.”

Traveling musicians already had a selection of NYC-area indoor venues available to them, from the historic Madison Square Garden to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, from Prudential Center in New Jersey to Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. And competition has heated up recently, Artist Group International COO Jarred Arfa said, because outdoor stadiums are more proactive than ever booking major acts. That means UBS Arena must also compete with the likes of Citi Field and MetLife Stadium. UBS Arena has already had a taste of that, when its first announced concert featuring The Weeknd had to be canceled after he elected to move his tour to stadiums.

A number of factors go into where a musician chooses to perform, Arfa said. Backstage amenities might draw a group back to a venue, and having someone like Azoff, who, as the LA Times noted, “has occupied nearly every high-level position the music industry has to offer,” can help draw acts from his roster and others’ (Styles is represented by Azoff’s son, Jeff, for instance). But oftentimes, scheduling is ultimately a financial decision.

Arfa said the Barclays Center was particularly aggressive with its incentives to play there after it opened in 2013, rivaling MSG in concert tickets sold for several years. Being new is usually enough to juice some interest too, though Arfa expects UBS Arena’s first-year bump won’t be as significant due to COVID-19. After being away for a year-plus, returning to any venue will likely feel like a new experience to most event goers.

Playing catchup following COVID-19 delays, the mission for Sciortino and his operations team has been, Close it out. “Laboring on things, kicking them to next week, taking them offline,” Sciortino said, “for months now we just haven’t had that time.”

“It’s still in pretty rough shape,” was Shaquille O’Neal’s blunt assessment when he stopped by last week, “but I know it will be ready by next Friday, and those [workers] deserve all the credit.”

In the construction’s final days, Sciortino still had some tasks outstanding. A couple of rogue pigeons had trespassed into the construction site and had to be dealt with. (“There’s a humane way,” Sciortino explained.) An order for doorstops had to be quintupled. (“You can never have enough.”) With a week left, Leiweke’s own “punch list” still ran thousands of items long.

Every Friday Sciortino’s staff gathered to share the things they closed that week—people hired, decisions made. Last Friday, they held their last close-out meeting. This Friday, they’ll meet for a post-event debrief following a private fundraising benefit. Then comes Saturday, when they’ll finally head to their gameday stations. Ledecky, meanwhile, will scout the parking lot, welcoming Islanders fans to their new home. 

When the arena finally opens, Leiweke won’t dwell on the achievement. The 64-year-old did recently take a beat to soak in the magnitude of the moment at the newly opened Climate Pledge Arena, while watching Coldplay rock on the Seattle stage. “But it was just a moment,” he said. Then he was back to figuring out what could be improved, and how quickly.

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