Before he bankrolled their most hated rivals, most Islanders fans probably didn't know who Charles Dolan was, despite the fact that their team could be watched on his regional broadcasting network, SportsChannel (or Sports 3 if you go back to the very beginning). Today, Cablevision is both an invaluable asset for the Islanders as well as a constant thorn in the side of fans who feel their team is the low man on an increasingly crowded totem pole.
The Islanders share the MSG family of networks with the Rangers and Knicks, who are owned by Cablevision, as well as the Devils, Red Bulls and any other professional or amateur team the Dolan family feels like showcasing that night. Sometimes finding the game you want to watch takes longer than an Islanders power play.
But Dolan, who in 1972 branched out from his Manhattan-based cable company to found a little channel called Home Box Office, could have played a much bigger role in the history of the Islanders.
John Pickett didn't just buy the Islanders in 1978. He rescued them from the mountainous debts of original owner Roy Boe and made sure that the perennial contenders were still on Long Island when they won their first Stanley Cup. But Pickett, originally a limited partner in the team, was a businessman, not a savior. He preferred to distance himself from the spotlight of being a team owner (much to the consternation of Islanders fans years later), and was looking to sell a large chunk of the team just two years into the dynasty era.
Using the money he received from Time, Inc when they purchased his share of HBO, Dolan created his own Long Island Cable Communications Development Company and began providing commercial-free television to the area's growing (and affluent) suburban neighborhoods. He gained customers by using some canny deals and very reasonable prices but soon decided to take it to another level by offering exclusive access to additional Yankees, Mets, Islanders and Nets games that would not have been broadcast over the air. Very soon, the Islanders and SportsChannel were like two peas in a pod.
After several lucrative seasons together, Dolan agreed to buy 36 percent of the team in 1981. But four limited partners felt that Pickett wasn't giving them their full shares in the deal. The partners filed a $91 million lawsuit against Pickett to block the sale and the whole enterprise was eventually squashed a few days later. General manager Bill Torrey thought the time wasn't right to both sell the team and battle the partners in court, all while trying to defend the Cup.
Although his ownership bid wasn't successful, Dolan still believed in the drawing power of the Islanders. In 1984, he and the Islanders began a new broadcasting contract, one that lives on today. In it, the provider agreed to pay the team 17.5 percent of SportsChannel's gross annual revenue - often totaling tens of millions of dollars - for the rights to their games. The contract has been the Islanders' saving grace and most consistent source of revenue for nearly three decades. At times, that document has been worth more than the team itself.
(Note: the already-healthy contract was extended under John Spano's short-lived "regime" and now runs until 2031 with flat payments ranging between $15 million a year in 2000 to $36 million by its end).
But simply showing the Islanders on television would not be enough to satisfy Dolan for very long.
Ten years later, Pickett was was adamant that he wasn't selling the Islanders. Then he changed his mind.
In Feburary of 1991, one month after proclaiming his dedication to the struggling franchise he ran on a shoestring budget, Pickett decided to put the Islanders on the market. Early potential suitors included an investor interested in bringing an NHL team to Milwaukee as well as Compuware boss Peter Karmanos and his representative, former Red Wings goalie Jim Rutherford, who were looking to buy an American pro hockey team. One idea was that Pickett would sell the Islanders and buy into an expansion team near his new home in Florida.
But once again, old friend Chuck Dolan stepped up to the cash register.
Dolan signed an agreement to buy the Islanders on August 18th, 1992. In one day, a wave of change swept through the franchise. Pickett and Torrey were out and Dolan and new general manager Don Maloney were in. The group of investors known as the "Gang of Four," which had bought 10 percent of the Islanders the year before, would stay on to manage the team. The numbers had not been finalized, but in essence Dolan would control 99 percent of the Islanders in exchange for assuming the team's debt and paying Pickett the annual rights money from the Cablevision contract.
For Dolan, the business plan he tried to achieve for years had finally come to fruition.
Dolan had hoped to acquire the Islanders for a decade. "John and I talked about it often," he said. "The revenue stream from SportsChannel is a principal means of support for the team, and we have a cable system on Long Island that is the largest in the country. We have a lot of reasons for this team to do well and we feel we're the right ownership."
He may have had the reasons and the confidence, but what Dolan didn't have were the Islanders.
A year passed, one in which the Islanders surprisingly stormed all the way to the Prince of Wales conference finals, eliminating two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh along the way. While the team on the ice seemed to be moving the in the right direction, the sale of the Islanders to Charles Dolan was going nowhere.
Despite the grand plans of August 1992, Dolan hadn't actually bought the Islanders. The agreement was only the basic framework of a deal between he and Pickett that had not been completely consummated. And by the summer of 1993, the deal was officially dead. The contract between them had expired and both Dolan and Pickett walked away without getting what they wanted.
It took six years before Pickett finally found a buyer in Dallas "businessman" John Spano.
Dolan would eventually get his hockey team, just not the Islanders. In August of 1994, Cablevision and partner ITT purchased control of the Rangers, Knicks and Madison Square Garden from Viacom for almost $1.1 billion (in cash), and merged every New York-based non-NFL team into one massive television traffic jam to rival anything seen on on the Long Island Expressway. Three years later, Cablevision would buy out ITT's half and own The World's Most Famous Arena and its tenants outright.
Since their last dalliance with Dolan, the Islanders have had three ownership regimes - a con man, a gang of land barons and an enigma. Needless to say, having a backer with the stability (not to mention the moolah) of Cablevision would have dramatically changed the team's fortunes and coverage over the last decade plus.
Want one example? If Cablevision did own the Islanders, you can bet your ass they wouldn't have bumped the first period of a game to a different channel so they could show a basketball game between a pair of mediocre Conference-USA teams.
And now an interlude from our musical guest: blues maestros J.D. & the Straight Shot.
The "story" of George Steinbrenner's flirtation with the Islanders isn't much of a story at all. It's more like the kind of interesting trivia nugget that pops up when an entity has changed hands as often as the Islanders have.
Following the fall of John Spano's house of forged documents, control of the Islanders reverted to Pickett, who was now more motivated to sell than ever. Fortunately, Pickett and his son Brett had a bevy of suitors to choose from, with multiple interested parties expressing interest in the suddenly desirable team.
...Pickett points to several value-enhancing factors, saying:
*''A year ago, expansion was not quite a finished thing, and we estimated each team would go for $75 million a team. But it's $80 million for four teams, and that means $12 million for each team in extra revenues.
*''Last August, we had 16 years left on our SportsChannel deal, but now it's been extended to 35 years.
*''The state has committed $30 million to build a new Coliseum.''
(Author's Note about that $30 million: this Daily News story from 2004 - courtesy of New York Islander Fan Central - says the grant had yet to be claimed. It could very well still be collecting dust today.)
In August of 1997, one surprise suitor stepped forward to grab the headlines.
A report by Dan Wasserman in the Newark Star-Ledger announced that Yankees owner Steinbrenner had inquired about purchasing the Islanders from Pickett. The initial contact had happened two weeks prior to the story, but at the time of publication, Steinbrenner's people hadn't followed up with the Islanders for several days. The contact was confirmed the next day by longtime Steinbrenner rep Howard Rubenstein, who added the wrinkle of "unnamed parties" actually coming to The Boss and encouraging him to get into the hockey business.
Other outlets picked up the juicy scuttlebutt in short order. Pickett's asking price of $200 million for the team and the contract with Cablevision was, according to several papers, not to Steinbrenner's liking. Newsday's Jim Smith had NHL sources laughing off the report as another of Steinbrenner's famous cries for attention. In his story, Wasserman had Steinbrenner viewing the Islanders as an additional advertising outlet for the Yankees, a plucky, modestly-run small market franchise that could use really the boost in their public profile...
Obviously, Steinbrenner didn't end up buying the Islanders. Reports following-up his lack of following-up on purchasing the team are nowhere to be found. Perhaps most depressingly, the fizzling out of the would-be purchase denied all of us a chance at seeing Seinfeld's Steinbrenner caricature installing George Costanza as Islanders general manager.
Pickett eventually sold to Phoenix Coyotes owner Steven Gluckstern, his partner Howard Milstein and a group called New York Sports Ventures. And what a venture that was.
In an ending as ironic as it was inevitable, Dolan and Steinbrenner would end up butting their large heads over control of the New York sports television landscape.
WALLETS OF THE TITANS
Cablevision's broadcasting deal with the Yankees was set to expire after the 2000 baseball season. Dolan, sensing a bidding war for the team's rights, made an offer to buy the Pinstripes for $500 million. He soon anted up more cash and even went so far as to offer control of the Knicks and Rangers to Steinbrenner, but Big Stein wouldn't bite.
Any bidding wars for the Yankees never materialized thanks to a new player on the sports programming scene named... George Steinbrenner.
The Yankees merged with the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets in 1999 to form a new holding company called YankeeNets, giving them greater leverage against Cablevision in the battle for airtime. They would later add the Devils to the fold by buying them from original owner John McMullen. Although they negotiated with Cablevision and other outlets, the teams eventually became convinced of the financial and exposure benefits of having their own channel. YankeeNets, along with investor Goldman-Sachs, gave the go-ahead to create the YES Network which still airs Yankees and Nets games today despite some behind-the-scenes leadership changes.
Considering his desire to drastically restructure the Yankees' television deal in the new millennium, it's plausible that Steinbrenner saw buying the Islanders as a strategic move to gain the leverage he eventually received in the merger with the Nets. Or it could have been a cheap headline grab. Or it was a momentary impulse buy for a guy who just happened to have enough money to simply pick-up an NHL team the way someone else picks up a candy bar on the way out of the supermarket.
No one knows for sure if either George Steinbrenner or Charles Dolan would have been good or bad owners for the Islanders. But the knowledge that each had chances to buy the team and came away empty no doubt fills some fans with certain amounts of fascination, frustration and, maybe, even a little bit of relief.
NEXT TIME ON LAW & OWNERS: SPECIAL ISLANDERS UNIT: "Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Yacht."
Part five of a series. Read the rest of the series here.
CORRECTION: The extension to the Cablevision deal was signed under John Spano, not Gluckstern/Milstein as previously reported.
Reporting cited in this article: