At least six months removed from the expected start of the 2021-22 National Hockey League season, the New York Islanders have basically exhausted ticket inventory for their inaugural campaign in the new UBS Arena at Belmont Park, anticipated to open in November.
Season tickets are about 90% sold, and as of Tuesday 80% of UBS Arena’s club seats and premium suites have also been purchased, including the entire inventory of the 1905 Club, one of the arena’s marquee premium spaces.
There are about 1,000 season tickets left, and after those are gone fans will be placed on a waiting list for seats in a building that holds 17,113 for hockey.
“Amazingly, [no one] would have said five years ago that the Islanders would sell out their 11,000 season tickets, they’ll have a waiting list,” said Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of Oak View Group, which operates the arena. “That we’ll be completely sold out of our 4,000 premium suites and boxes. And then what individual seats and ticket sales are left will sell out in a matter of days. Who would have thought five years ago that was even possible here?”
Five years ago, the Islanders fled the Nassau Coliseum for an ill-fated move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where a third of the seating bowl was obstructed for hockey. Those days are long behind them.
Leiweke is in New York on Wednesday to make his first tour of the UBS Arena in six months; last week, he toured Seattle’s refurbished and rebuilt Climate Pledge Arena for the NHL expansion team, the Kraken, which begins play next season. Oak View is overseeing multiple simultaneous arena construction projects, including a 10,000-seat building in Coachella Valley, adjacent to California’s Palm Desert.
What Leiweke will see in Elmont, N.Y., is an arena rushing toward its finish.
Asked about his confidence level that UBS Arena will open at full capacity, Leiweke said, “high,” echoing two experts, who said earlier this month that the arena opening brimming with hockey fans is a “very realistic possibility.”
But he added a qualifier.
“Now, I always get in line to tell people, the only [thing] that controls the virus is the virus, and God,” he said. “You can’t predict it because none of us really know. Anyone who says he knows exactly where this is going is not right. I am not a doctor. I am definitely not Nostradamus. I wouldn’t be sitting here building 10 arenas if I was Nostradamus. I’d be out playing golf or something.”
The current schedule has been played at a strictly limited capacity in about a third of the NHL’s 31 arenas, including the Nassau Coliseum, where the Islanders returned from Brooklyn and will end their long run at the conclusion of this postseason. Thus far, they’ve sold about 1,400 tickets for each of the games at the Coliseum, which opened in 1972, but that count could increase to as many as 3,400 for the playoffs.
Leiweke doesn’t know, either, when the 2021-22 season will start, although he’s been in touch with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on a bi-weekly basis to report construction progress for the New York and Seattle arenas.
The original concept was to return to an October-June schedule, including a full 82-game regular slate after two seasons shortened by the coronavirus, but even that’s tenuous at this juncture. The Islanders’ 56-game season is now supposed to end May 10. But the Vancouver Canucks, who lost 24 days dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, have been extended to May 19. The Colorado Avalanche are also currently on a three-game hiatus dealing with the disease, and their games will certainly be pushed back.
How all this affects the postseason schedule is still to be determined. Where the Canadian teams will play after the first round could be a major issue, given surging COVID cases right now in parts of that country and the yet-to-be-determined reopening of the border.
All Leiweke knows is that the Islanders’ new building will be ready by November, despite a two-month halt in construction last year caused by COVID, delaying the upwards of $1.3 billion project that will ultimately include a 315,00-square foot retail district adjacent to the famous Belmont racetrack. The arena itself will cost $1.1 billion, all financed using private money.
“I talk to [Bettman] once every two weeks. He tells me when the buildings need to be open, and I tell him, ‘Yes, commissioner,’” Leiweke said. “I think UBS Arena will be November, and if we do it right, [general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] doesn’t mind a road trip [to open the season]. And so, we’re working on it.”
In any event, the new arena will be replete with a brick edifice and a number of finishes. The exterior is not all that’s unique; it’s the only building constructed specifically for hockey and concerts in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
It will bring the Islanders franchise to another level. They are currently valued at $520 million, but that’s sure to escalate as the new building opens.
“They go from the oldest arena in the NHL to the newest one, along with the Kraken,” Leiweke said. “If you think about the last arena built in the NHL—T-Mobile in Vegas three years ago, [which] cost $375 million—this one here cost three times as much money as Las Vegas. I hope it’s not because we were bad businessmen or bad builders. You’ll see the money and where we spent it. The technology, the premium club spaces, the acoustics—the building is built for the long term. The façade, the finishes are spectacular.”
Leiweke believes the long-term results will be there, too.
“The Islanders have been one of the most successful franchises in New York during the last three or four years,” he said. “That, at the end of the day, combined with the arena should give us a 30-year runway toward success.”