It’s never a good circumstance when politics and sports collide. There’s a reason why people will talk about sports with family, friends, and strangers—yet politics are strictly forbidden in the forums of good taste. It’s never made sense to me because in my experience, sports fans can be as passionate and unreasonable as the most devout religious zealot or fanatical politico. Sure, holy wars cost lives and just happen to be both religious and political; and from what I understand, intense hockey rivalries only lead to players breaking their neck when an opponent drives their face into a stanchion. Regardless, it’s acceptable in our culture to speak freely about sports while it’s best to tread lightly around politics.
Yet when the New York Islanders, their fans, and their owner put forth a referendum for the voters to pass a bond to replace Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, it was necessary for the sports world and the political world to come together. Obviously there were plenty of legal ins-and-outs that only the most hardcore fan and/or attorneys could truly understand—but we’ll give a brief overview of the situation:
- The former owners of Islanders signed an iron-clad lease way back in 1985 that binds the team to the Coliseum through 2015. The lease is so restrictive that the Islanders had issues trying to sell the team in 2000 due to the inflexibility. Owner Charles Wang bought part of the team in 2000 and bought out his partners in 2004 to own the team outright understanding that the team could not move until 2015.
- Wang tried to build the ambitious Lighthouse Project a couple of years ago that would have been a Sports and Entertainment destination for Long Island. He planned on funding it himself, but the Town of Hempstead blocked the deal because of concerns about increased traffic and a change in the local way of life. Yet now, opponents argue that if Wang and the Islanders want a new arena, they should fund it themselves. Isn’t that what they tried to do last time?
- This time around, Nassau County residents were voting on a referendum to pass a $400 million bond to replace the arena as well as develop the surrounding area. Anything beyond the bond money would be covered by Wang. Note: the arena and the land around it are not owned by Charles Wang, nor the Islanders. They are owned by the county. As Wang put it, “I don’t own the place. I’m a tenant. It’s like asking you if you own an apartment, you should pay for refurbishing the apartment, re-doing everything… oh, and by the way, I’ll still own it. That’s a little bit nuts.”
Obviously Wang has a vested interest in the deal, but his analogy is much closer to the truth than the skeptics would like to believe. He doesn’t own the building. He can’t move the team. He tried to build a state-of-the-art complex with his own money and was turned down. Finally, the owner and team tried to play ball with local government officials and the voters overwhelmingly turned it down. I’m never going to call a billionaire a martyr—but he certainly isn’t a villain in any way, shape or form. Hearing anything to the contrary makes me wonder how ill-informed people were voting.
Even before the polls closed, people watching the situation knew it didn’t look good for the referendum, the Islanders, or their fans. Despite an “abysmally low” turnout in the afternoon (something fans of the referendum were hoping for), the measure was doomed almost as quickly as it started. True story: Whenever there’s bingo in a polling place and old people are against a measure, activists are going to be fighting an uphill battle.
In reality, the measure never stood a chance regardless of anti-tax elders voting en masse and younger potential “Yes” voters getting stuck on the Long Island Railroad. The final tally counted only 43% of residents casting votes in favor of the bond referendum while 57% were against. People can make as many excuses as they want—but there’s no way any set of circumstances were going to change the outcome. The overwhelming majority of the people who voted in Nassau County didn’t want the referendum to pass. Period.
It’s easy for a guy like me to sit back and wonder what happened from 3,000 miles away. It’s not my dime that would help build the new arena and it wouldn’t be my local neighborhood that would see increased traffic. Apparently, some of the voters would rather have tumbleweeds as neighbors instead of an NHL hockey team.
Here’s the problem: after the vote, we were treated to plenty of armchair voters either cheering the victory for conservative fiscal spending or trolls who dropped variations of the line, “well, if they don’t care enough about their team… move them to a city that would care.” As the results were coming out and it became apparent that the referendum was not going to pass, I even saw someone call them the “New York Goodbyslanders.” It was a great line, but talk about kicking a fanbase when they are down.
The unfortunate truth is there’s some harsh reality to the critics’ ill-timed comments. Some will say the voters have been voting over the last few years since the Islanders have had some of the worst attendance numbers in the league. In fact, the Islanders were dead last in attendance last season. They were worse than the Phoenix Coyotes who have been in limbo for two years. Worse than the Atlanta Thrashers who lost their team at the end of the year. Worse than the Columbus Blue Jackets that lost $25 million last season.
Truthfully, the special election was to be held on a Monday in the middle of the summer in hopes to create the perfect storm to get the measure to pass. The Islanders faithful should have been the most motivated demographic—if they, their friends, and relatives all voted for the measure combined with a low-turnout, the measure should have a realistic expectation of passing. Yet despite these built-in advantages, they still lost. They lost big.
The question that has to be asked is simple: do the people of Nassau County care if the Islanders leave Long Island? After all, no one shows up to the games, so the fans were obviously demonstrating their ambivalence with their wallets, right? For years, the argument was that the attendance was down purely because the Isles were a bad team that played in a bad arena. The team spent to the cap floor—without serious spending, the team was hopeless on the ice. Who would want to go see a team like that?
From a hockey perspective, the team is currently undergoing a rebuilding (players, not arena) project that should start paying dividends in a few years with better play on the ice. The young kids with potential that are going through the growing pains today will be the core for more successful team down the road. If the youngsters fulfill their potential, the team will be winning games and competing for a playoff spot in the near future. With success, comes fans.
Unfortunately, the referendum showed that it’s more than a poor team, old building, and cheap spending that have kept the fans away from the arena. Maybe they just don’t care? After all, 57% is a healthy majority when the team’s future is at stake. Obviously, the voters were not necessarily voting against the Islanders—but voting against a tax increase.
This brings us to the crux of the argument:
Should fans and taxpayers shell out money to fund arenas? It’s a question that just about every sports fan in North America will have an opinion on. Hell, people who couldn’t care less about sports may have a stronger opinion that those who watch the games. This is what happens when we wade in the murky waters of sports and politics.
Under normal circumstances, no, the teams should fund their own building and taxpayers’ dollars should go to more pressing local needs. To be clear, it’s only my opinion—I understand that the only two things that are certain are death and taxes. Taxes are a necessary part of life. All I can hope is that my hard earned money is put to good use and will benefit my neighbors and me in the form of projects, renovations, and to help those who are less fortunate. Those are my values: in no way would I put them onto anyone else; just like I wouldn’t want anyone else to force their values on me.
This situation—it’s different. People will tell an owner that wants a new arena to “build it himself.” Well, he tried that. There’s a fundamental difference between “wanting to spend money” and “needing to spend money.” Anyone who has been in Nassau Coliseum over the last decade or has even seen a game on television can tell you that it’s one of the worse buildings in the league. It’s one of the oldest arenas in use and without proper renovations, father time has a strangle-hold on Trottier and Bossy’s old stomping grounds. Gary Bettman is on record saying that the arena is not fit for the Islanders and is not up to NHL standards. A recent poll of the four major sports voted Nassau Coliseum as the worst venue in North American professional sports.
It’s not like the billionaire is asking the taxpayers to renovate a brand new yacht because it doesn’t have enough bling. He’s asking the taxpayers to replace the county’s building because the Coliseum is no longer acceptable for its tenants.
It’s easy to root against the billionaire Charles Wang. When the most hated man in hockey says he’ll do what it takes to keep the team in Long Island, it’s even easier for outsiders to choose a side. It’s not popular to root for an owner or the commissioner—especially when it’s on the subject of money. But in this case, they’re on the right side. Unfortunately, the Johnny-Come-Latelies don’t understand the situation and just see this as the typical money grab from a man who already has enough money to buy Miami.
When people talk about urban center revitalization and limited economic impact of arenas, they are talking about cities that are already built and established. Comparing the Town of Hempstead to downtown Pittsburgh is disingenuous at best; misleading at worst. This isn’t just an anchor tenant for the arena—they were an anchor tenant for Long Island. Take a look at pictures of Nassau Coliseum and it’s not like the arena is in the middle of a bustling metropolis. Long Island is suburbia. If the Islanders were to reach the Stanley Cup Final against the Anaheim Ducks, it would be billed as the “Battle of the Tract Homes.”
This misinformation spread to the national/international level in the aftermath of the vote. Bruce Arthur of the National Post is quite possibly the best columnist today. By no means is this an attack on him personally, just an example of the national tone in the wake of the referendum.
“The referendum in Nassau County Monday over the future of the New York Islanders was the latest example of the blueprint, in which perennially incompetent owner Charles Wang intimated that without US$400-million for a new arena, extracted from the local taxpayers over the next 30 years — which some say will cost US$58 per household per year for all three decades, and some say will cost nearly double that — the Islanders will be forced to pack up their gear and move in 2015.”
This is a perfect example of the misinformation that murdered the measure. There were estimates that it would cost $58 per household—as a worst-case scenario. Instead of hinting that the tax cost would be double to residents, the truth is the actual cost would likely be much less per household. Lighthouse Hockey broke it down that after Charles Wang contributed his portion to the renovation project, it would likely cost each household only $16 per year. We’re talking about the same price as a trip to Starbucks every three months.
Regrettably, Nassau County executive Ed Mangano fumbled the entire campaign from the beginning to the bitter end. Mangano is the perfect target for those who looking for answers and demand a scapegoat. It’s on the politician when there’s so much misinformation spreading throughout the public and the correct information is not being adequately conveyed. Only now, it’s the fans that are left to pay the debt of his ineptitude.
At least politicians in Long Island are consistent. This time it was a Republican who failed. Last time it was Democrats who failed with the Lighthouse Project. This time Democrats ran static, last time it was Republicans who played the role of obstructionists. The only thing that has been consistent is the bullshit bipartisanship—and no, that’s not a compliment.
The frustrating part for me is that it’s just another example in the long list of incidents that disengages me from in the political process. From a personal standpoint, this should be right in my wheelhouse. When I was in school, both of my Bachelor’s degrees are related to politics. My best friend from high school ended up being a political science major. My best friend in college was a political science major. My best friend after college married a political science major. Needless to say, talking about how we can affect the world around us was always a conversation only a pint away. Mix in some hockey and this is the type of conversation that we’d kill for when we were younger. But now, my idea of political activism these days is watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart while actively eating my bowl of Cocoa Krispies.
After this most recent situation in Long Island and the nasty aftermath, I doubt I’ll be handing out voter registration cards anytime soon.