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It’s all coming together for the New York Islanders.
Boosted by another deep run in the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs as the Nassau Coliseum nears its closing, season ticket sales at the new UBS Arena at Belmont Park have gone through the roof. By mid-week, the club expects to reach its cap of 15,000 full season ticket equivalents in the 17,000-seat building that’s scheduled to open next season in Elmont, N.Y., next to the famous horse racetrack.
The Islanders began their best-of-seven semifinal series by hanging on for a 2-1 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning at Tampa Bay on Sunday. The Isles return to the vintage 1972-era Coliseum, eight miles east of the new building for Game 3 Thursday night. Last year, the Islanders lost in six games to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals from within the Toronto bubble and without fans. This generation of long-suffering Islanders faithful could only watch from afar.
Not so this year.
The renovated old barn has been bonkers, as the Islanders closed out the first two series at home with 12,000 in attendance for the most recent games. Capacity will expand to a full 13,000 people for any remaining playoff tilts.
“It’s a combination of coming out of the pandemic and the excitement of the team,” said Mike Cosentino, the club’s senior vice president of ticketing, premium and business intelligence, in an exclusive interview. “And then the UBS Arena…. It’s a really fun time right now to see this happen.”
If the Islanders win the series, they’ll meet the winners of the Vegas-Montreal clash in a return to the Cup Finals for the first time since 1984, when a dynastic run of five consecutive Finals, including four-straight championships, came to an end.
They have already dispatched the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins, two teams that finished ahead of them in the East standings during a shortened 56-game regular season. Since all games were played regionally, this is the first time that teams are playing outside of their divisions all season.
The NHL, in fact, received dispensation from the Canadian government for Vegas and Montreal to travel between the two countries, a first in pro sports since the pandemic hit.
For the Islanders, winning it all in the “old barn” in its 49th and final year, would be a romantic way for this era to end.
“I think everyone’s clamoring to have something that can unify them in this community,” Cosentino said. “Sporting events are no better way.”
In 2018-19, the NHL’s last full season, the Islanders had 3,500 season ticket holders for their games in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where they relocated in 2015 and where the NBA’s Nets are currently in a competitive second-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The built-for-basketball arena had awkward and obstructed sightlines for hockey, and Long Island fans never made the adjustment of hitting the Long Island Railroad to see games in downtown Brooklyn, even though the Islanders were a playoff team and actually won a first-round series over the Penguins there.
“The convivence [of the location] was a challenge,” Cosentino said. “The vantage points within Barclays was a challenge as well. There were a considerable amount of obstructed seats. The scoreboard was offset. It became apparent listening to our fans that it wasn’t an authentic hockey experience, especially compared to what they were used to, what we’re seeing now. The Coliseum is intimate.”
During the 2019-20 season, the team split home games between the venues in Union City and Brooklyn before the March pause for the pandemic; the Islanders 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.
There were no fans allowed in the Coliseum for the first few months of the just-concluded regular season, but 1,200 were welcomed when fans were first allowed back in.
Next season in the new privately funded UBS Arena that will cost $1.5 billion, including development on the 43 acres of land around it, there should be no empty seats. A few choice season seats in the lower bowl for what is now being universally called season ticket members are still available. Six of the 56 suites and 20% of the premium seats are still part of the open inventory and are expected to be sold shortly.
“You better act now,” said Adam Campbell, the executive vice president of premium seat sales for UBS Arena.
There will be 250 seats each in two upper-bowl sections reserved for community organizations and groups. The remaining 1,500 are expected to be held for individual game sales.
At the end of January, the Islanders reported that 60% of club seats and 50% of the premium suite inventory were sold out with season seats going at a brisk pace. But interest has only increased with vaccination rates and the club’s success.
“With every game,” Cosentino said.
The Islanders have tied sales for playoff games to ticket holders who have fully paid for season seats in the new building.
“We just don’t have the inventory,” he added. “The people who’ve been around the longest get to select first. It’s like a family.”
Now that those future sales have well-exceeded the 13,000 seats available in the Coliseum, season ticket members are honored on the basis of seniority, beginning with a group of 40 who remain from the club’s inaugural 12-win, 1972-73 season.
“About a year ago now we had people jump in with deposits because they wanted to be part of UBS Arena,” Cosentino said. “We could tell that we had tapped into an excitement that was pretty awesome. We’re seeing it all come to fruition. We thought we were on a pace to sell out by mid-summer. Now that the team has added to that momentum it’s really something special.”
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