clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Law & Owners Special Islanders Unit: Roy Boe

In the professional sports system, there are two types of owners: those who do underhanded, immoral and illegal things to win at all costs and those who get caught. Throughout their history, the New York Islanders have had more than their share of the latter. These are their stories. DUN-DUN!

"So? What's it going to be?" - Jack McCoy, assistant district attorney, county of New York
"So? What's it going to be?" - Jack McCoy, assistant district attorney, county of New York

The New York Islanders were born out of spite. This is a known fact. Looking to keep the upstart World Hockey Association out of Long Island, the NHL was urged by Nassau County to plop one of its two 1972 expansion teams into the newly finished Nassau Coliseum.

This may not have been 100% fair to the struggling rival league, but who ever said life was fair?

Of course, there was the matter of the already established New York NHL team having instant competition just a short drive away, potentially poaching fans. To keep the Rangers happy, an agreement was made that the founders of the Islanders would pay a $4 million indemnification fee for encroaching on their neighbor's territory.

This simple transaction would establish a sad tradition among all future Islanders owners: being strapped for cash. The team started its life in debt and money troubles continue to haunt it to this day.

Roy Boe was instrumental in building both pro hockey and pro basketball on Long Island. During the process, he lost a ton of dough, welshed on bills, got sued, made at least one historically terrible choice and eventually had to let both teams go so that they could live.


Boe made his initial fortune in the fashion industry. Boe Jests, the company he started based on a single dress designed by his wife, was eventually sold for several million dollars in 1966. A couple of years later, Boe would buy his first sports team, a farm club of the NFL's New York Giants. His next purchase was the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association from original owner Arthur Brown. Amazingly, even in the late 60's, local politics were affecting the still-hypothetical Nassau Coliseum.

In the best business tradition, Boe was making a hedge bet on the future. A proposed new Nassau Coliseum was in the planning stage, and while the project was caught up in political crossfire, Boe says, "I called around on the Island and became convinced that the place would actually be built. Also, I could become a tenant if I stayed around until it was ready for the start of the '71-72 season."

Boe checked further and learned the size of his risk: "I was told the Nets had lost $500,000 in the season just completed. I figured that if I increased expenses and put together a better team we'd get much higher attendance and more income. I estimated we'd lose $500,000 the first year, $300,000 the next and we'd make some money our third season, which would be our first in the Coliseum."

It took a few seasons and a lot of losses but Boe's Nets were eventually a success, thanks in large part to 1970's basketball superstar and free throw pioneer Rick Barry.

Boe bought into the NHL with the expansion Islanders, who would play out of the one-year-old Coliseum starting in 1972. The expansion fee to join the league was $6 million on top of the $4 million indemnity owed to the Rangers. Fortunately, the Islanders were a hit right out of the gate and, after last place finishes in their first two years, they started a run as one of the top teams in the league.

Prior to the 1973-74 ABA season, Boe swung a deal that rocked the basketball world, bringing "Dr. J." Julius Erving, the league's best player and its biggest star, to the Nets. The electric, superhuman, awesomely-coiffed Long Island native would lead the team to titles in 1974 and 1976, the last-ever ABA championship.

At the risk of sounding like an old man, it must be noted how extraordinary The Doctor was. This is a man who, in an era before ESPN, before homemade highlight packages on YouTube, before SBNation blogs and playing in a rival, secondary league, was unarguably one of the most famous players in his sport. His media reach was immense for the time. Literally, everyone and their grandmother knew Dr. J. This does not happen by accident.


Both of Boe's teams were booming but his wallet wasn't. His debts were piling up faster than he could pay them. The ABA was folding and four of its teams - San Antonio, Indiana, Denver and New York - would merge with the NBA. The price to merge was $3.2 million per team, plus the Nets got hit for an additional $4.8 million for invading the territory previously owned by the Knicks. Oh, and Dr. J wanted to renegotiate his contract. Boe simply didn't have the scratch.

And so a sports legend was forged. Boe, feeling the pressure of running two pro franchises on almost zero dollars, made the deal from hell: he sold Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million.

Unfortunately, the sale didn't help. In 1978, the Islanders still owed the Rangers the indemnity from their expansion year among other debts totaling almost $20 million. Boe, who had sold portions of the team, was sued by one of his co-owners for allegedly using Islanders revenues to cover Nets debts. Boe was stripped of his presidency of the Islanders and could have lost the team outright if a "solid financial plan" was not submitted to the NHL's Board of Governors. Their counterparts in the NBA had the same request for the now-New Jersey Nets, who still owed on their merger and indemnity fees.

That year, Boe finally sold both of his beloved teams. The Nets would play in the shadow of the Dr. J sale for decades, while just a short drive from East Rutherford, Erving was leading the Sixers to four finals and a title by 1983. Two years after being sold, the Islanders, under new owner John Pickett, would go on to win four straight Stanley Cups.


Boe returned to the team ownership ranks thanks to the AHL, first owning the Worchester IceCats in the 1990s, then rejoining the Islanders family by founding their affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, in 2001. In 2004, he was honored by the AHL for his contributions to the league. He passed away in 2009.

For all his enthusiasm and contributions to sports in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state area, Roy Boe's most lasting legacy is an impressive list of unpaid bills. He is and will always be remembered for being the guttersnipe that pawned the one-and-only Dr. J.

How did he feel about that? In 2002, he told the Newark Star Ledger:

"It isn't fair," Boe says, "but who ever said life is fair?"



Part Three of a series. Read the rest of the series here.

Reporting cited in this article: