“One of the things that got lost, is that the Islanders just experienced one of the greatest turnarounds in history from a business standpoint,” said Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of the Oak View Group (OVG), which partnered with the Islanders on the new $1.3 billion facility built adjacent to Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
“If you look at what they accomplished this year, it may be one of the top two or three best turnarounds in National Hockey League history.”
The team failed to make the playoffs but went from the bottom of the league in attendance to selling 99% of their tickets, and to the top third in premium product and merchandise sales, Leiweke added in a recent interview.
“Their sponsorship is probably triple or quadruple a year ago,” Leiweke said, though club officials and the NHL did not disclose specific dollar amounts. “It’s just been amazing.”
Every major sports team experiences a revenue boost from a new facility, but the Islanders’ jump is noteworthy because it comes at the end of a decades-long search to build a new arena in Nassau County. This one was privately funded and accomplished with the cooperation of New York State, which approved the use of the land next to the famous horse racing track. The Islanders had been playing games in the 12,000-seat Nassau Coliseum after moving out of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
The Islanders drew 16,492 for 41 dates this season in a spectacular building that seats 17,255 for hockey. While that ranks 16th in the 32-team NHL, most of the teams above them have a higher capacity in their buildings for hockey games. The more pertinent figure is that the Islanders sold out 99% of their tickets—including their entire season-ticket allotment of 11,000. Only six teams played to 100% capacity.
The big six didn’t include the local New York Rangers at 93.5% in Madison Square Garden, or the New Jersey Devils at 77.2% at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
The Islanders had their highest average home attendance in history, have a long waiting list for season tickets, and are on pace to do it again in 2022-23 as they prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary season of expanding into the NHL.
In the last full season prior to COVID of 2018-19, the Islanders had the worst attendance in the NHL playing at 75.9% capacity mostly in the Barclays Center where many seats were obstructed for hockey. They had 2,000 season ticket holders in 2017-18, a club official said. Three seasons ago, the Islanders were at the bottom when the NHL’s total hockey-related revenue was $5.09 billion.
Commissioner Gary Bettman recently said that despite battling COVID and new variants this past season, he expects hockey-related revenue to still be about $5 billion. The Islanders are now a big contributor to that overall figure.
“Our fan base is at the core of our success,” said Mike Cosentino, a senior vice president of sales for the Islanders and OVG. “It’s been a very special season and turnaround. This isn’t short-term. Judging by our season ticket renewals since the season ended, it speaks to the long-term commitment of our fans.”
There have so far been 82 events in the building since it officially opened this past Nov. 20 with the belated Islanders home opener—a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames—only half of them hockey games. Earlier this year as coronavirus mask mandates and other health restrictions have been lifted, musical acts such as Harry Styles, Dua Lipa, Sebastian Maniscalco and most recently The Eagles have also sold out at a much higher capacity of about 19,000. And there’s a sequence of top-billed performances upcoming.
Leiweke, whose OVG also opened refurbished Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle last year for the expansion NHL Kraken, said the pandemic had its impact, particularly on Long Island.
“I’m anxious to see what arenas are like without COVID. That would be a pleasant experience,” he said. “We just are experiencing a return to normalcy. We’re just starting to see our concerts come back and our calendar for the rest of this year and next year and we’re looking to see perhaps the greatest period of live music in the history of the industry.”
After two seasons of just missing the Stanley Cup Finals and a three-year postseason run, the Islanders failed to make the playoffs this season despite finishing with a better than .500 record and 84 points. They played their last game in the old Nassau Coliseum near the end of the 2021 postseason.
At the outset of this past season, they were beset by a UBS Arena construction delay and had to open the season with 13 games on the road, losing six. As soon as that ended, at least eight players on their roster tested positive for COVID. A pair of games were postponed, but others had to be played with a depleted roster.
“It’s tough to do the first 13 games on the road and then be hit by COVID,” Leiweke said. “They were playing essentially with an American Hockey League club. That was tough. Unfortunately, the games had to go on. I think that took the life out of that team.
“I’m anxious to see what happens next season for the Islanders without COVID.”