The Islanders are halfway through their first season in their new Barclays Center digs in Brooklyn after calling Long Island their home for 42 years. The transition has not been without challenges—from having the players make game day commutes by train to the arena from their homes on Long Island (a demanding situation the Isles rectified by moving their morning skates to their practice facility on the Island), to low attendance (28th in the NHL). SI.com spoke with Brett Yormark, the CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, about what the team is doing to attract new fans, keep the old ones happy, and yes, all those seats with obstructed views of the ice.
Jeremy Fuchs: What have been the challenges of moving a team with deep roots on Long Island to a new community in Brooklyn that does not have much experience with the sport?
Brett Yormark: With the Nets scenario, it was ending a 35-year relationship with New Jersey, and really having a blank canvas with Brooklyn. We rebranded and transformed the Nets into something very different. The Islanders situation was very different. You have a hard-core fan base that exists on the Island, one that has been very engaged over the years. We want to give them every reason to follow the team to Brooklyn. At the same time, we had to grow the fan base, and ignite this market—Queens, Manhattan but specifically Brooklyn—getting them familiar with hockey, because it’s not in the DNA of the borough. It’s more of a basketball market.
There was that challenge of how do you not alienate the core fan but at the same time grow the base? Early on, we marketed in the different areas differently. On Long Island, it was “Tradition Has a New Home.” And we really played up the fact that we’re changing the location but not the tradition. What you know about Islanders hockey is the same thing you’re going to experience in Brooklyn. We have the same organ, and the same organ player, the same PA announcer. We have the banners, some of the same rituals. There was a comfort level with respect to the transition.
In Brooklyn, we had to sell people on the merits of hockey. We partnered with City Parks. We were putting on clinics with Islanders players throughout the borough, introducing the sport of hockey. Because our feeling is, once they can engage with the sport and sample it, we’ll get them to like it, we’ll get them hooked. The goal truly is about sampling, to get people into the building to experience what is truly one of the best live sports. We’ve done a lot of that. We’ve done a lot of marketing around Brooklyn.
We introduced a new jersey, a Brooklyn pride jersey. It speaks to the colors that have been adopted by the borough, the black and white. It became very successful. You see people wearing it all over the borough. We wear that jersey for about 12 games at home. The goal was to maintain the tradition that Islander hockey fans were accustomed to. At the same time, give those who live in Brooklyn a sense of ownership about the team.
It’s been an adjustment. I can’t sit here and say it’s been perfect, because it hasn’t been. It’s going to take time. It’s going to evolve into something truly spectacular. Attendance since the first nine games is up 23%. Revenue since the first game is up 10% and we’re seeing it grow.
JF: Brooklyn is also a diverse borough, a big borough one that can feel completely different from neighborhood to neighborhood. Do you change your strategies depending on the market?
BY: Initially, it was Long Island and Brooklyn. Now we’ve branched beyond Brooklyn. We think Queens is an untapped market, so is Manhattan. Now our campaign speaks to, rather just certain communities, it’s more of a holistic campaign that speaks to any casual hockey fan that resides in the borough and beyond to come out and sample the Islanders live. We’re not getting as deep as going into local communities with different messaging. We think there’s an opportunity to go a bit wider.
JF: How hard or easy has it been competing directly with the Rangers?
BY: It’s not about taking on Rangers fans. You’ve got a lot of transplanted Long Islanders who live in Manhattan. Now we’re giving them reason to hop on the 2 or 3 train and come to Brooklyn to see a team they grew up on. There’s also that casual hockey fan in New York who has been transplanted from other hockey markets. And they haven’t raised their hand to say, “I’m an Islanders fan, I’m a Rangers fan, I’m a Devils fan.” We think there’s an opportunity to make them into Islanders fan. The Rangers are sold out. Appealing to those fans who are locked out of Rangers games that are fans of the sport, to come to Brooklyn and experience a great night out, is also part of that message. There’s just so many people in this market place. They need to understand there is an option and a great team in Brooklyn.
JF: [Brooklyn Borough President] Eric Adams said that you have to make a Friday night at the rink a hip attraction for urban youth. How do you do that?
BY: You gotta make the Barclays center a destination. And it takes time. We’ve only been at this thing for four or five months. The more talk value we can create about what it’s like to experience hockey live, the more people are going to gravitate to it. The onus is on us. We have to make sure it’s a first class experience, which we’re working on. The game experience we’re investing in. Just make it exciting and different and engaging.
It’s going to be a gradual process, but I’m convinced based on what I’m seeing, when you get someone out there the first time, they really really enjoy it. A good sampling of that is the employees themselves: 80% come from Brooklyn. None of them knew hockey on opening night. It was a foreign sport. They love it. That’s our goal right now. The more people we can get to experience it, the more successful we’re going to be. If we’re so lucky to get into the playoffs, who knows what will happen? Maybe we’ll play the Rangers. Which would be great for us, great for the market. Islander-Ranger games, we’ve had two against them this season, both were oversold, we won both. Incredible environments. That’s when you can start selling the sport. We're making a lot of progress.
JF: How do people who come to a game or two become lifelong Islanders fans?
BY: Winning certainly helps. Amplifying the experience to give them a reason to keep coming back is also a big part of it. The team is good and only getting better. They have a top five player in John Tavares. Continue to win and get into the playoffs, those are the steps we need to take to engage Brooklyn. Right now, 25% of our attendance is coming from Brooklyn. Long Island accounts for 33%. I look at Brooklyn right now as a casual fan base that we need to continue to ignite. We’re doing that by humanizing the players, getting them out into the community. And then obviously coming out and experiencing it live. The first step is getting them into the building. The next step is having them wear the merch with pride. I think we’re doing all the right things, but we have to be patient. We’ve only been doing this since October.
JF: Have you marketed players Russian players like Nikolay Kulemin to the heavily Russian community of Brighton Beach?
BY: We haven’t marketed the specific players to the Russian community, but what we have done is marketed to the Russian community, the sport of hockey.
JF: One of the challenges of marketing this team, I thought, was best exemplified in a video by the Nightly Show, where one of the correspondents took Cal Clutterbuck to East New York and basically asked folks if they knew who he was. And they didn’t. And there are a lot of minority communities in the borough that haven’t been exposed to hockey at all. How hard has it been to bring them into the sport, and have you experienced pushback?
BY: No. When we went in with City Parks, we had such a diverse group of young kids that wanted to learn the sport of hockey. That was a very important part of our message. Anyone can be a hockey fan. Brooklyn is so diverse. But educating and acclimating kids to the sport is very important. Some of the names on the Islanders aren’t household names. But I think you find that in non-hardcore hockey markets.
Hockey players aren’t as recognizable if you aren’t a fan of the sport You don’t see them doing commercials like NBA players. There are very few household names in hockey. For us, it’s just about humanizing the players, getting them into the community. We’re working with GM Garth Snow in making the players accessible. And it’s not just in the community. It’s during game nights. We’re starting to use players who are scratched to meet with fans, walk the concourse, and engage throughout the evening. Making some type of connectivity from player to fan.
JF: I have to ask about the obstructed view seats. There’s been a lot of criticism. How much have you heard from fans and is there any movement to change it?
BY: Our seating capacity is over 15,700. Within that capacity there’s a lot of great seats. Do we have some obstructed seats? Yes we do. Are fans aware of those obstructed seats before they purchase them? Yes they are. There’s really nothing we’re going to do from a capital improvement standpoint. You can watch the game on your mobile device. The game is on the scoreboard. There are many ways to view the game if you’re in one of those obstructed seats. We aren’t going to be able to change the seats in the building. That is what it is. But there are certainly other ways we can enhance the experience.