Bringing Hockey To Brooklyn (Part 3)

(This article appears in three parts. Click here for Part 1, and click here for Part 2.)

Soon after the Islanders deal, Barclays Center CEO Brett Yormark began to wrestle with one of his innumerable new tasks: colors.

For their entire history, the Islanders had worn orange and blue, taking after the colors of Nassau County, itself taking after the Dutch House of Nassau-Orange. Whether or not the average Isles fan cared about the Dutch history of Long Island, he undoubtedly associated Islander greatness – even if it was 40 years ago – with orange and blue. He would call it an essential part of the team’s identity.

Photo credit: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images.

Yet Yormark, Padilla, and their team had just rebranded the Nets in the opposite way. They’d let part of the past go – the New Jersey Nets’ red and blue – so something new could be built in its place.

That wasn’t supposed to be on the table for the Isles. When Wang had sold, the official line was “no changes”: no Brooklyn Islanders, no black-and-white Islanders, not even a logo tweak. But in early 2013, Yormark launched a research campaign to understand what his options really were.

“I think we’re going to have to meet each other somewhere in the middle,” Yormark said, according to Sports Business Daily. “The colors black and white are the new badge of honor in Brooklyn. The question is, Can we weave that into their color scheme, and create a connection to the fans here in Brooklyn?”

The middle, they eventually decided, was a third jersey. The Islanders would keep their old colors and brand. But to ride the coattails of the Nets’ rebrand, they will sometimes play in this:

Photo credit: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images.

It exemplifies the kind of trade-off that Yormark & Co. have had to make in adopting the Islanders. Since the team won’t find sustenance in Brooklyn alone, it can’t afford to insult the longtime fans living out east. But because these longtime fans showed they couldn’t sustain a franchise, new and potentially uncomfortable ways to make money must be devised. Breaking off a piece of the Nets’ swag – whose merchandise sales ranked in the NBA’s top 10 for its first two seasons – certainly rates.

But it’s also a reminder of the culture gap that the new Islanders must bridge, a gap that goes far beyond colors and begins to touch the dynamics of city vs. suburb, white vs. of color, and the elusive question of what is “middle class” in America today.

Consider transportation. Nassau Coliseum’s parking lot occupies some 70 acres – enough to hold almost 7,000 cars and still have room for tailgates. This being the suburbs, everyone has a car. There is nothing impractical about driving dozens of miles to the game.

Brooklyn? “Parking at Barclays Center is very limited,” its website says. “We strongly recommend using public transportation.” The Long Island Rail Road is about an hour ride from Nassau County. Riders are allowed to drink on board, but roasting brats on a hibachi will not be tolerated. That’s why some fans (though apparently not enough) have lamented the loss of Islander tailgates. Others have groused about the hunt for city parking and having to walk long blocks to the game.

So the Islanders face real questions about whether their old fans will make the trek to Brooklyn. The night I visited Nassau, one guy wore a custom-made shirt that said, “I’M NOT GOING TO BROOKLYN.” On the back, he’d shortened it to “NO BROOKLYN.”

“I’m sure there are a lot of Islander fans who are cringing at the idea of leaving their suburban homes for Brooklyn,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, “but once they figure out how easy it is to get to the Barclays Center by Long Island Rail Road, they will make the trip if they’re real fans.”

But the more one muses on these issues, the stranger the questions get. I began to think about the uninspired hot dog and nachos I had at Nassau. Then I thought about Barclays Center, whose one-block radius has gastropubs, whiskey bars, patisseries, and specialty mayo shops. What if you had to sell food here, not only to the locals but also to people who just came from 20 miles east?

I asked Gutkowski, the former MSG head.

“Nassau Coliseum was an old building. It was brought up on Budweiser and hot dogs. It was catering to the middle class of Long Island. It didn’t have a lot of amenities to it,” he said.

“Brooklyn has the facility, the amenities are important. But if you want to bring in a lot of working-class folks from Long Island, you’re gonna need to serve Bud Light as well as microbrews.”

I asked Padilla, the Islanders’ marketing guru, if any changes were in store.

“Barclays Center offers a very different experience than Nassau,” she said. “When we think about the culinary experience, our Brooklyn taste program is very diverse. It’s very diverse to satisfy many different food choices. So from a food perspective, we haven’t had to make those changes.”


All of these choices represent hockey’s burden in miniature: ever-desperate to keep the fans it has, ever-hopeful of drawing more, never quite escaping the niche that American society has left it.

This makes America unique among the great hockey nations of the world. Consider Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Czech Republic: their populations are overwhelmingly white anyway, and hockey is played much more broadly across class lines. It’s in America, the world’s greatest reservoir of athletic talent, that hockey skews particularly white and particularly upper-middle-class. (Recall that hockey’s viewership is almost as white as NASCAR and richer than golf).

For the New York Islanders then, why Brooklyn? Maybe Wang needed a way out of his investment, while keeping his word, and Brooklyn was it. Maybe the Barclays Center wanted traffic and its team is confident it can sell anything. And yet another possibility, never out of any Islander fan’s mind, is that the franchise is cursed in some multi-decadal way, that failure will find its way to Brooklyn. Knowing their history, you can’t really blame ‘em.

There is one other possibility, and it works with all of the rest: Brooklyn, gentrifying like mad, will rejuvenate the franchise.

Gutkowski, the former MSG president, pointed out that Brooklyn is drawing ever-wealthier families, from Manhattan and Long Island. Then there are migrants from the world outside New York, like me. We’ve all come for the rich city lifestyle that’s a slightly lower tempo than Manhattan. We’ve got more money — or know someone who does — than many of the people who have lived here, ignored, since the crack epidemic.

For reasons that go way beyond sports, Brooklyn is changing. In 2013, a study commissioned by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce rounded up the untapped retail potential of the neighborhoods within a mile of Barclays Center. The estimate was that $1 billion in retail, food, and drink was practically begging to be spent by the new Brooklyn.

It’s about what you’d expect from a pro-business group keen to butter up its friends in the real-estate industry. But more interesting were the trends it forecast for this gentrifying part of the city.

Race and Ethnicity data
Brooklyn race and ethnicity forecast for 2017 prepared by JGSC Group.

By 2017, the population in these neighborhoods would become more white and Asian, while the black share of the population would fall. And median income would rise by more than 17 percent: from $56,800 in 2012 to over $68,000 in 2017.

Forecasts like these may not be particularly reliable, but they can reveal something about expectations. If this is even directionally correct, the Islanders may discover themselves at the center of a borough that’s getting whiter and more well-off at the same time.

In other words, they might not need to branch out as much as hockey’s history suggests. Gentrification, in its 21st-century form, might simply bring the fans to them.

thumb_Saqib-RahimSAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU

Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. Saqib is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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