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At-Risk Sports Teams: New York Islanders


Dreary coliseum feeds team to the lions.

To any New Yorker -- that is, to anyone living in Manhattan, also known as the center of the universe -- Long Island is often derided as the world's longest cul-de-sac.

But in the world of hockey, Long Island was once a mecca. Between 1979 and 1982, the New York Islanders became a dynasty, winning the Stanley Cup 4 times in a row, stomping Manhattan's beloved Rangers, who hadn't reigned supreme since the 1939-40 season. Before the Rangers finally broke their curse in the 1993-94 season, this inconvenient truth prompted derisive shouts of "1940! 1940!" from the yahoos in the 516 area code.

But there's a perverse sort of justice unfolding: Not only haven't the Islanders won a National Hockey League (NHL) championship in 26 years, they skate at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum -- a building that would make any strip mall off the Long Island Expressway look like the Taj Mahal. Worse, the arena severely constricts revenue flow, which hinders the Islanders' ability to retain top players, sign key free agents, and build a team that could be a Stanley Cup contender.

According to press reports, the Islanders have lost about $208.8 million since Charles Wang purchased the team 9 years ago, including about $33.5 million in the 2008-2009 season alone.

How low can the Islanders go if they can't make money on Long Island? Maybe Kansas City -- or worse, Las Vegas, where slap shots and kick saves would compete with showgirls -- and the G-strings would win.

Wang says he wants to keep the Islanders on Long Island. He may have to, given the fact that a federal bankruptcy judge recently forbade the Phoenix Coyotes to be sold to Hamilton, Ontario -- a town where rabid hockey fans would have filled the arena game after game.

Wang doesn't want to become Long Island's Walter O'Malley -- the man who moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. But he can't lose money forever, and the dowdy Nassau Coliseum, which opened in 1972, is a major roadblock to his attempts to build a winning team -- and maybe break even.

There are plans to revitalize the coliseum's 150-acre site by building a 5.5-million-square-foot development that would include retail, restaurants, luxury housing, and a 5-star hotel -- a first for Long Island. The much-ballyhooed Lighthouse Project would create about 75,000 construction jobs during the 8 to 10 years needed to build it, and generate about 19,000 permanent jobs when completed. That's a lot of tax revenue for schools and local government services.

The price tag: about $3.7 billion. Great idea, but in the current credit-crunched economy, don't hold your breath.
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