During the era of the coronavirus, only three National Hockey League teams are currently allowing a few thousand fans to attend each game. For the New York Islanders, there isn’t a soul in the stands at the Nassau Coliseum, and there won’t be any during the club’s final season in the grand old building.
Still, Islanders fans are bullish about what’s to come in their new digs, UBS Arena at Belmont Park, and season-ticket sales have been brisk in an arena that’s slated to open this fall, in time for the 2021-22 season.
Already, 60% of club seats and 50% of the premium suite inventory are sold out. Upper bowl seats are expected to be completely gone by the end of the month, the club reported, long before construction is done. The roof was finished late last year and internal work is ongoing.
“It’s helped that we’ve had a laser focus about opening the arena for the 2021-22 season and selling for that season,” said Mike Cosentino, the club’s senior vice president of ticketing, premium and business intelligence, in an exclusive phone interview Tuesday. “Certainly, there’s building excitement. There’s a wave of excitement. And the team performance is a welcome distraction to our fans.”
The nearly 19,000-seat arena is covered right now by a wintry blanket of snow. It’s projected to cost $955 million in private funds and is the linchpin of mixed-use development that will include retail components on 43 acres, owned by the state of New York, adjacent to the famous horse racing track. Set between JFK and LaGuardia airports and just 15 minutes by freeway from Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, it will be the metropolitan area’s only arena built specifically for hockey. Because of location, location, location, fans in Westchester County and Connecticut are now interested in seeing the Islanders.
The arena will hold 17,000 for hockey—even more for concerts—and about 150 total events.
“We can’t talk enough about the intimacy of the new arena,” Cosentino said. “We want to maintain that intimacy that we had at the Coliseum. Between the low ceiling, combined with the capacity, it’s going to be a loud and raucous atmosphere.”
The Coliseum opened in 1972 just prior to the Islanders’ NHL debut. Save for a short stint playing in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the Islanders have called the Coliseum home, winning four consecutive Stanley Cups there from 1980-83. In its reconstituted configuration, the Coliseum seated 13,917 for Islander games.
During the 2019-20 season, the team split home games between the venues in Hempstead and Brooklyn before the March pause for the pandemic, and drew a last-in-the-NHL total of 448,369 fans for 35 dates. The average attendance of 12,810 per game was 29th in the league, ahead of only the Ottawa Senators. This year, it’s so quiet at the Coliseum sans fans one can hear a puck drop.
It won’t remain that way for long.
The Islanders are not citing a figure for season ticket sales in the new arena, but it was a few thousand in Brooklyn and Nassau County last season and is expected to grow exponentially. During the summer, the club said it had collected deposits, and 10,000 season seats were sold or reserved, with about 20% of that inventory still remaining.
The sales staff is now circling back to make sure all of those fans are satisfied. So far, so good.
“We’ve gotten up to 60% of our premium, and even today we’ve sold a couple more of our suites,” said Tom Pistore, the president of business operations for UBS Arena. “What we’re seeing is the usual suspects from Manhattan that can be identified as financial, legal or hedge funds. But we’re also drawing from the $20 million to $40 million companies that are not the usual base, in transportation and landscaping. And those are all from Long Island, Nassau and Suffolk Counties.”
“We know the Islanders have had a wonderful and loyal small core of fans. But the [old] arena didn’t have a premium product we could offer,” he said.
Cosentino reported last year that 76% of the seats in the new arena are priced at $100 or less. It didn’t hurt that the Islanders made a spirited and unexpected run in last season’s Stanley Cup playoffs, where they lost the Eastern Conference finals in six games to the eventual Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, competing in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles.
The Lightning won the Cup in six games over the Dallas Stars. Playing in Tampa’s Amalie Arena, the Lightning were one of the teams hoping to play in front of about 4,000 fans this season for 28 home games. But the kibosh was put on that through Feb. 9 as COVID cases and deaths in the area began to rise.
Meanwhile, the Stars, Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes have opened the doors to fans, with the Coyotes capping attendance at 2,600 so far for games at Gila River Arena in Glendale. On Tuesday night, they drew 1,808 in the 17,125-seat building for a 1-0 loss to Anaheim.
The San Jose Sharks, who are blocked out of SAP Center because of COVID protocols in Santa Clara County, opened with eight games on the road, and are now slated to play their first “home” games next Monday and Wednesday nights at Gila River. A team spokesman said the club still hasn’t determined whether they’ll allow any fans in.
Neither the Islanders, nor the NHL, are certain what the state of the 2021-22 season is right now even as more people become vaccinated across the U.S. Cosentino said the club is preparing for a first season at full capacity in the new arena, but thus far nothing is guaranteed.
“I think this is perhaps the most important thing,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said back in December. “What we’re focused on is trying to get through the 2020-21 season so that we can be back in position for ’21-22 to normalcy. We are hopeful and optimistic based on everything we’re hearing that we can look at normalcy by the time we get to ’21-22, whatever happens this season.”
Register for “Fan Experience in a Post-COVID World,” our exclusive live event with Arctos Sports Partners on Thursday, Jan. 28 at 1 p.m. ET.