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Islanders hope to emulate Capitals in urban move

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As the Islanders announce a move to Brooklyn in 2015, Ted Starkey looks back at when the Washington Capitals pulled a similar trick.

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Patrick McDermott

The New York Islanders made news Wednesday, announcing the franchise would move from the suburban Nassau Coliseum they had called home for decades to New York City's borough of Brooklyn and the newly-built Barclays Center for the 2015-16 season.

If this tale sounds familiar to longtime Capitals fans, it should. Their franchise's transformation when it moved from a suburban to urban venue back in 1997 had a strong impact on the fan base, one which the Islanders might hope to duplicate in the next few years.

Nassau Coliseum was part of a small wave of suburban sports arenas built in the early 1970s, constructed at about the same time as the Capital Centre in Landover and Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland. Large tracts of land convenient to major roads were cheap for owners to buy and build their own large arenas on, but were limited in what they could offer fans for game-day experience.

The Capital Centre was modern when it opened, featuring the first video screen of any major arena and sky boxes high atop the building, it didn't take long for the allure to fade. Its dark interior, with black paint on the walls that was meant to enhance and brighten the stage, actually ended up making the building appear dark and dreary. Like Nassau Coliseum, the Cap Centre also wasn't really convenient to public transportation, as the Metro was miles away from the arena and required fans without a car to take a cab ride over from the closest stop.

And, like Nassau, getting to the arena meant fighting a lot of traffic. Cars going in and out of Central Avenue or Landover Road created a logjam on the Beltway on game nights, and fans who wanted to go to a weeknight game from a great distance had to plan well ahead for traffic concerns, given the typical rush hour on the Beltway. Congestion on the bridges - particularly the Woodrow Wilson - made it much tougher from fans from Northern Virginia to attend games.

And, like on Long Island, once you actually arrived at the arena after sitting in traffic just to wind down the side roads into the parking lots, the experience was very limited.

Fans largely drove to the arena and straight home, without much else nearby to enhance the experience other than tailgating. Without many bars or restaurants to walk to, fans had to stop in nearby Landover to grab a bite to eat beforehand if time allowed. Similarly, while Nassau Coliseum has the Marriott Long Island across the parking lot with a Champions Sports Bar inside, the experience pales in comparison to most other NHL venues that offer more choices for fans wanting to make more of a night out of the experience.

When the Capitals moved to the then-MCI Center in 1997, they also saw a major shift in the team's fan base. While the team had built a fan base concentrated with season ticket holders from suburban Maryland before the move, the change of venue meant a dramatic demographic shift.

"One of the issues the team faced [in 1997] was the move from USAir Arena to MCI Center," Ted Leonsis told me last year while writing Red Rising. "That was a dislocation. The training facility was in Maryland, the fan base came from Baltimore and Annapolis and out that way, and when the building opened in Washington, now it was far to come from Annapolis and Baltimore, and there also was an unknown/fear factor."

Hard as it is to believe now, the Chinatown area wasn't a great experience when the MCI Center first opened in 1997. There were only a handful of restaurants nearby, and a fan base that had been trained to drive to games now was encouraged to take Metro due to the relative lack of parking around the arena. The building directly across the street from the F Street entrance - now the Shakespeare Theatre - was an old abandoned Woodward and Lothrop building, and the area that now houses the Gallery Place plaza was just a gravel parking lot.

"[Washington had the] highest crime rate in the country, the neighborhood wasn't very good, there was a lot of skepticism, and we lost a lot of season-ticket holders," Leonsis recalled. "We had to rebuild to Bethesda and northern Virginia and the District."

While there was a transformation for the Capitals - they actually moved during the 1997-98 season, starting in Landover for the first two months of the schedule before beginning play in Chinatown in Decemeber - it meant a shift in who would want to go to games.

The blue-collar tinge that had been part of the Caps base was reduced in the move, while a more corporate and well-heeled fan base began to develop. While the Capitals once were marketing tickets mostly to fans in Prince George's and Anne Arundel Counties - those nearest the Cap Centre - the team began to market more to Metro-friendly areas such as Montgomery County, D.C. and Northern Virginia for its ticket sales.

Eventually, the transformation firmly took hold, while the Capitals lost some fans who didn't want to make trips to Verizon Center, they picked up others who preferred the Metro-accessible location. Instead of the larger concentration of localized fans, the central location helped open up the team to some of the city's wealthier western suburbs of Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. And, when the team saw success in the late 2000s, they once again picked up some of those fans from Annapolis and Baltimore who were Cap Centre staples but originally didn't want to make the trek into Washington. By 2010, the Caps' fan base was stronger and more numerous than the franchise had ever seen in Landover.

The move also helped build the team's corporate base, as eventually the Chinatown neighborhood developed around the arena and made it a much more attractive entertainment option for business. Instead of having to hop in a car for an hour trip to Landover, it became a lot more attractive for corporate ticket-holders to take their clients to dinner and a game in Chinatown.

For the Islanders, you can probably expect a similar transformation, While the bulk of the club's fans right now are in Nassau and Suffolk Counties in New York, the Barclays Center location makes driving towards Brooklyn a very unattractive option for its current fans used to that experience. The Coliseum's location off Meadowbrook Parkway made car the optimal mode of transportation to Nassau. Barclays' location near the Atlantic Avenue subway and Long Island Rail Road hub changes that.

The Capitals' transformation really solidified in 2006 when Kettler Capitals Iceplex opened in Ballston, as the team's old training facility at Piney Orchard in Odenton was seen - like the Capital Centre before it - as out of the way and not overly convenient with traffic.

"They recognized who their fans were and gave them what they wanted," former Washington Times sports business writer Tim Lemke recalled. "They opened up Kettler, which I think was a big thing because it put a training camp where they knew the fans were. You hear a lot of folks in Baltimore saying, ‘We're here too,' but if you look at their ticket base that was going to games, they were in the District of Columbia and northern Virginia."

Fortunately for the Islanders, the developments in their fan base likely will be more gradual, with three more seasons scheduled at Nassau Coliseum and an eventual move towards a less car-friendly but more subway-accessible environment. The Islanders are taking season ticket deposits for those who want to start going to games in 2015, and treating this more as a franchise relocation than just a move.

If the Capitals' example is followed, you certainly would expect the franchise's footprint in Nassau and Suffolk to decline, but also rise in New York City itself, which should be a boon for the franchise. While the Islanders were created as a suburban alternative to the Rangers, they now will market more to the fans in the city as well as to a proud borough that likely will embrace both its newly relocated NBA and NHL franchises.

Corporate-wise, Barclays also will be a much more attractive option for businesses, as it is much more convenient to take a cab to Brooklyn than arrange transportation to Uniondale. And, one advantage the Isles will have over the Capitals is there will be a window for the neighborhood to develop more before the team arrives in 2015, making it a more attractive destination by then.

The better news for Islanders fans will also be that the team finally will be able to tap into some long-missed revenue streams. But it will also provide a challenge to the Islanders to essentially rebuild its fan base while trying to maintain some of those who buy tickets on Long Island. In the long run, though, while the Capital Centre was demolished in 2002 to build a shopping complex - the old arena floor in Landover is now the floor of a Japanese steak house - it proved beneficial for the franchise. And, it should be the same for the Islanders.