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Report: New Coliseum needs an AHL team, may not be Bridgeport

On Paper, Sound Tigers.

Where am I?
Where am I?
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When last we left the saga of the "new" Nassau Coliseum, developer Bruce Ratner was being sued by his former partner in construction and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was being openly dismissive of the project actually coming to completion. In other words, everything was proceeding exactly as expected.

Adding to the wrinkles today was a report in Newsday about Ratner needing to meet several conditions before construction could begin at his estimated start date of this August, immediately following the termination of the Islanders lease with Nassau County. One of the most interesting conditions involves a potential new tenant for the building.

As part of his deal with the county, Ratner agreed to bring an AHL team to the new Coliseum. Ratner himself said at the Islanders-to-Barclays Center introductory press conference that the Bridgeport Sound Tigers - the Islanders American League affiliate, also controlled by Islanders owner Charles Wang - would eventually move from Connecticut to Long Island. Two problems with that: 1. the Sound Tigers' lease with Webster Bank Arena doesn't end until 2021; and 2. no one had asked the Sound Tigers what they thought of the move.

Fast forward a couple of years: Ratner wants to gets shovels in the ground in Uniondale but he still has no AHL team.

From Newsday:

Ratner is supposed to bring a minor-league team affiliated with the American Hockey League as the anchor tenant of the renovated Coliseum -- and he is to sign a lease with the team before construction begins. That lease is to run for at least 15 years.

It's possible, experts have said, that another team could move into the Bridgeport arena if the Sound Tigers come to the Coliseum. Yet the choices are few. The New York Rangers' minor-league team, the Hartford (Connecticut) Wolf Pack, has a lease with that city's XL Center that expires next year, but there are extensions to the lease available, according to published reports. Madison Square Garden spokeswoman Kim Kerns declined to comment.

The world of minor league teams is constantly in flux, with franchises pulling up stakes every year for new town for a million reasons. But as Sound Tigers beat writer Michael Fornabaio wrote at the end of February, it's not as simple as "we'll go here, you go there." There are legal ramifications and ties to history and community that might not be that easy to let go of.

Despite the amount of dominoes that need to fall, Ratner's people aren't sweating the situation and will just wait for a team to shake loose from its arena and float to Nassau County like a lost kite.

Asked about the AHL lease earlier this month, Ratner said he expected a deal within 12 months. But Forest City senior vice president Jim Lester said recently that company officials will sign an AHL lease before construction begins.

And [Josh] Meyer [who represents the county in its Coliseum-related dealings] said he expected a deal to get done.

"It can be any AHL team," Meyer said, noting that it doesn't have to be a team affiliated with the Islanders. "There is time. And there are AHL teams available to be moved."

Not having a team isn't a deal breaker, but having all those cushy new seats sitting idly by without butts in them is a bad look, especially for a new - or refurbished - arena trying to re-establish itself in a crowded market.

"I just can't see anyone pouring a bunch of money into this facility until there is a little bit more certainty about what you're going to use that facility for," said Victor Matheson, a sports economist with the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

In addition, those experts said, it's difficult for an arena without a team -- even a minor-league team -- to succeed financially. "A building that's dark doesn't generate revenue," said Scott Rosner, a sports business professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, who noted that a minor-league hockey team would keep the lights on for 40 nights each year. "It's not impossible -- but it's hard to conceptualize a 12,000- to 13,000-seat arena would be viable without a primary tenant."

The report also touched on the Islanders proposed return engagements at the Coliseum after they move to Brooklyn. Despite how long they've been talked about, there's no guarantee these games actually happen. And if they don't, it's Ratner that picks up the tab.

But the deal to play the games is not final and requires approval of the NHL. It is unclear whether the plan also would require individual team approval, including that of the Rangers, who hold territorial agreements with the Islanders.

In addition, the lease says that if the Islanders are unable or unwilling to play the six games at the Coliseum -- barring unforeseen events such as a leaguewide lockout or serious damage to the arena -- Ratner would owe the county an additional $1 million each year in rent. That figure would increase by 10 percent after five years.

Who Can It Be Now?

I'm doubtful of how much enthusiasm a minor league hockey team will generate in Nassau County, especially arriving so soon after their major league team has left, even if the replacement is that team's longtime affiliate. If the Sound Tigers can't break their lease or find a team to take their place in Bridgeport, then it's not out of the question that a team not affiliated with the Islanders could set up shop at the Coliseum.

And that includes the almost unthinkable: The Rangers putting their minor league team in a post-devastation wasteland formerly known as "Islanders Country."