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UBS Arena striking a new chord

UBS Arena development aims to transform NY concert market, provide the Islanders with a palatial new home and create a year-round Long Island travel destination.

By Bret McCormick
The Islanders’ new home ice is just part of the development at Belmont Park. A hotel and shopping are coming.New York Islanders

UBS Arena’s northeast entrance, a 35-foot-high space with two immense murals flanking an equally immense staircase that leads up to the main concourse, has a Grand Central Terminal-type quality. The scene makes visitors cock their necks back and drink it all in, which could be an issue given that 80% of fans will enter the new arena through that portal.

 

The murals, featuring imagery from Long Island and Belmont Park, UBS Arena’s host site, let New York Islanders fans know they’re home. The $1.1 billion arena opened just before Thanksgiving, the culmination of a process that began in 2012 when the team announced it was leaving its aging venue of 40 years, Nassau Coliseum. Nine years later, New York Arena Partners — consisting of the Islanders’ ownership, Sterling Project Development (SPD) and Oak View Group — own a brand-new arena in Elmont at the western edge of Long Island, home to nearly 8 million people and maybe America’s most overlooked sports market.

“No way this should have taken 30 years,” said OVG co-founder and CEO Tim Leiweke. “It just shouldn’t have.”

UBS Arena enters one of the most competitive live entertainment regions on the planet but boasts a considerable suburban space superiority over its peers, Barclays Center, Prudential Center and the inimitable Madison Square Garden. The extra room affects fans and live music performers’ in-venue experiences, and, outside, leaves plenty of room for a 350,000-square-foot retail shopping village and a future 250-key hotel that will make the site a destination beyond just hockey. And the back-of-house design is clearly an extension of OVG’s live music as a co-anchor tenant concept that it recently debuted at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle.

“An artist economically is going to make more money playing our facility,” said Francesca Bodie, OVG president of business development. “It’s going to cost less for them to produce an event, and they’re going to ultimately make more money from their show than they would at any other metropolitan New York arena.”

Harry Styles, whose manager is the son of OVG co-founder Irving Azoff, closed his North American tour at the venue on Nov. 28, the kind of show that MSG or Barclays Center would typically host and a clear sign that the new venue will be a player in the crowded market.

“It’s New York. No bullshit. You’ve got to be perfect, and they’re going to call you out if you’re not,” said Leiweke. “Here, you’re not going to be able to sell your way out of it. You have to perform. I think this building is going to perform better than anything on the East Coast. And we’re going to find out.”

Like a grand train station of the past, the main entrance to UBS Arena has massive murals and a large staircase welcoming fans to Long Island.Populous

Creating a better product

Five years ago, Islanders co-owner Scott Malkin called Richard Browne and Jeff Wilpon, SPD co-founders, and said the Islanders needed a new home. A subsequent SPD feasibility study spanning 2016 and 2017 zeroed in on five possibilities: a full-scale renovation of Barclays Center to make it more suitable for hockey; the same for Nassau Coliseum; a site in the Long Island town of Ronkonkoma; the parking lot of Citi Field; and Belmont Park, which emerged after City Football Group’s attempt to build a soccer stadium there for its New York City Football Club fell apart.

The Islanders were some of OVG’s first clients when the company was founded in 2015, so it made sense for Malkin and Wilpon to bring them into the fold. Thus, New York Arena Partners was created, featuring Malkin’s successful retail background and ownership of a primary tenant for the arena, Wilpon’s understanding of New York’s unique development conditions and experience building Citi Field, and OVG’s expertise in financing, building and operating arenas.

UBS Arena

Capacity: Approx. 17,000 for hockey; approx. 19,000 for concerts
Tenant: New York Islanders (NHL)
Owner: Oak View Group, New York Islanders, Jeff Wilpon 
Operator: Oak View Group 
Cost: $1.1 billion   
Architect: Populous 
Owners’ rep: Sterling Project Development
General contractor: AECOM Hunt 
Structural engineer: Thornton Tomasetti 
Mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineer: M-E Engineers
Seat provider: Irwin 
Suites/premium areas: Verizon Lounge, UBS Club, Dime Club, Spotlight Club, Hyundai Club, Spotlight Suites, Pitchbook Suites.
Premium area capacity: 2,993
Naming rights: UBS
Legacy/Founding partners: Northwell Health, Verizon, Heineken, Hyundai, Dime Community Bank, Ticketmaster 
Concessionaire: Delaware North 
Soda pouring rights: Coca-Cola
Video boards: Daktronics 
Wi-Fi provider: Verizon   
DAS provider: Verizon

With a successful RFP bid for the Belmont site, the arena partners ended the Islanders’ six-year sojourn in Brooklyn by signing a 49-year lease with the state to use the property, as well as a revenue sharing agreement on parking money with the New York Racing Association, which owns Belmont Park.

“All the planets seemed to line up for Belmont,” said Browne. “This was a homecoming in all respects.”

The site, amid Belmont’s 400-plus acres, provided an immediate advantage over other New York arenas, chiefly that the arena could be designed however the partners and their architects decided. MSG and Barclays Center were both built atop public transit stations, which dictated their design; the new Long Island Railroad stop for UBS Arena, expected to open ahead of the 2022-23 NHL season, is located at the edge of Belmont Park.

And while MSG and Barclays sit amid two of the densest areas in the United States, UBS Arena is surrounded by over 5,000 parking spaces, including a new 1,500-car garage. Leiweke said they spent $130 million on campus development, including an underpass that goes beneath Hempstead Turnpike and connects to the parking deck and the retail area.

“Never would you imagine in New York state you would have a blank canvas where you didn’t have to make any compromises for space, construction, development, and you could build the perfect venue for music and professional hockey without having to account for anything else,” said Bodie. “That’s where we saw the opportunity.”

UBS Arena has a smaller upper deck to maximize value for both fans as well as the new venue.Javier Alvarez

Changing the live music market

Since 2013, Madison Square Garden has averaged a second-place finish in Pollstar’s global annual ranking of most tickets sold by arenas; Barclays’ average finish was seventh, out of hundreds, maybe thousands of indoor venues. UBS Arena has just one anchor sports tenant (both Barclays and MSG have two each), leaving plenty of open dates that need to be filled, especially given the venue’s price tag. Leiweke said the arena expects to host 150 events annually, including roughly 50 Islanders home games and 50 to 60 concerts.

Oak View Group’s Tim Leiweke, along with his partner Irving Azoff, see concerts as the second major tenant at the new New York-area venue. Javier Alvarez

OVG’s focus on live music in its buildings is influenced in no small part by Leiweke’s OVG co-owner, Azoff. The pugnacious Rock and Roll Hall of Famer began as manager of the Eagles in 1972 and has stayed with the band ever since, along the way accumulating hundreds of A-list clients including Bon Jovi, Steely Dan, Christina Aguilera and Nicki Minaj, and immense clout in the entertainment industry. The 73-year-old’s experience and partnership with Madison Square Garden Entertainment (MSGE) helped formulate much of OVG’s thinking on designing buildings with music as a co-tenant, instead of an afterthought.

Azoff bought out MSGE’s equity stake in his entertainment company in 2018, and The Garden is now among UBS Arena’s substantial competition, though Leiweke made clear his respect by saying that he didn’t expect UBS Arena to compete directly with The Garden, but just try to live up to that experience.

Every tour will try to book a date in the marquee New York market, said veteran tour manager Tasha McGahee-Shangvi, whose past clients included Rick Ross, Boyz II Men and Cardi B, but any New York stop will almost certainly be the tour’s most expensive. The bands that are big enough to play MSG and make money are limited, but UBS Arena’s developers wanted to make sure it’s the second choice if there was going to be multiple New York-area stops, or even the first choice for touring acts that are more family-focused. OVG has signed a deal with Feld to bring the company’s various shows to Long Island, starting with Disney On Ice in January.

“There are tons of families that live out in that area,” said Jeff Meyer, Feld Entertainment senior vice president of global partnerships. “It’s going to change the market for sure.”

UBA Arena was packed for the Islanders’ home opener.New York Islanders

Back of house, front of mind

The attention to touring acts’ experience at UBS Arena starts with the loading dock, 65,000 square feet, enclosed and heated, with space for 10-plus trailers and seven loading bays with direct access to the arena floor. McGahee-Shangvi guessed that most arenas have between two and five loading docks.

“When you go into markets that are cold and you have loading docks that can accommodate indoors, it makes a big difference,” said Meyer. “It speeds things up, it allows us to get in quicker and get out quicker. Time is money.”

Offering a unique shopping experience for fans, the Islanders’ team store was designed by Value Retail, which will also create the retail shopping village outside. populous

Compare that to MSG, where equipment and gear must be loaded onto elevators or pushed up ramps and taken up multiple levels to the event floor. Trucks and buses must park on sidewalks or wherever they can fit in the middle of Manhattan. Logistics are similar at Barclays Center, in crowded Brooklyn.

Consider that Drake’s tour has 27 trucks, or Bruce Springsteen’s has 12. At UBS, they can park trucks or a tour bus in the building during the show, or at least elsewhere on-site. And the loading area is ventilated, so the tour can have a bus, which can be a valued oasis on the road for performers or crew members, running indoors.

It’s a short walk from the venue loading docks to the artists’ compound, 3,300 square feet of secluded space where the performer can prepare in comfort and style. It includes four dressing rooms, three separate green rooms and hangout spots, a kitchen, bars and clubs. And it’s a 10-second walk from the compound to the stage.

“Some of the nicest finished spaces in the building are for the stars,” said Populous project manager Kurt Amundsen.

In McGahee-Shangvi’s experience, sports locker rooms geared toward men aren’t the most comfortable spaces for female performers. Having a private area for women to shower or for hours-long makeup, hair and wardrobe sessions are appreciated perks on the road, not to mention money-savers. McGahee-Shangvi usually needs to rent a hotel suite and arrange transportation to the venue, costs that quickly snowball over the course of a tour.

Islanders’ impact

Under Malkin and Jon Ledecky’s ownership, the Islanders have steadily grown into a Stanley Cup contender. And they now have an arena that can boost revenue through greater premium offerings and more seats, but also concerts, retail and parking, giving the team some financial insulation if its results drop off, or NHL play is disrupted for some reason, like a labor conflict or unexpected global health crisis.

UBS Arena Facts

INTERIOR LOOK
The interior design, led by Populous Principal and Senior Interior Designer Tracy Payne, featured, among other materials, 94 kinds of tile and copious wood finishes throughout, part of the venue’s New York Public Library-inspired interior aesthetic. Payne, who also oversaw interior design at Fiserv Forum, was supported by Jump Studios, a Populous-owned design firm based in London that did the interiors at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
NO MORE NOSEBLEEDS
UBS Arena’s smallish upper deck is emblematic of another change hitting the sports industry — a gradual shrinkage of the least enticing, least revenue-generating seating sections in lieu of more clubs, bars, and open, seating bowl-facing areas, whether premium or general admission. 
“We absolutely tried to maximize the number of lower bowl seats,” said Populous Senior Principal and architect Jason Carmello. “In terms of the upper bowl, we tried to get people as close to the ice as possible. Those first six [upper] rows are almost suite-level sightlines. It’s not a very large upper bowl.” 
JOB SHUTDOWN
While many of the previous year’s big venue projects were deemed essential work and allowed to continue during the pandemic, the UBS Arena project, guided by Sterling Project Development and done by AECOM Hunt, had a two-month-plus shutdown in 2020 as the New York metro area was hit hard by COVID, making an already tight construction timeline that much slimmer. 
“We literally needed every minute of those 24 months to get this done,” said SPD co-founder Richard Browne. “It was a tremendously challenging job to execute within this compressed time frame.”
FRESH AIR
When it opens, UBS Arena will have more fresh air than any other New York indoor arena, according to Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke. M-E Engineers’ novel air circulation system design brings in nearly 100% outside air, a rare occurrence in a hockey arena, which needs to maintain a consistent and cool temperature for ideal ice conditions.
PLENTY OF CLOVER
UBS Arena’s concessions setup is further evidence that belly-up stands are being left behind; there is only one in the building. The concessions options, backed by Delaware North, are otherwise focused on open market concepts with streamlined payment options, including self-checkout. Fiserv partnered with the arena, which has 363 Clover point-of-sale devices deployed throughout the building. — B.M.

Belmont Park’s location reaches a huge addressable ticket audience, according to Bryan Calka, Islanders senior vice president of global partnerships. The vision is that the combination of the arena and its games and shows, and the horse racing track, the shopping, and, eventually, the hotel, will all make Belmont Park a destination for people living not just on Long Island, but also in Connecticut and parts of New Jersey.

Leiweke feels like the New York Arena Partners’ bet on the Long Island market is right so far. The Islanders sold out more than 12,000 season tickets and have a waiting list for the first time in team history. Premium seating sold out, and the sponsorship roster is nearly full. The ability to incorporate brands into the arena, which the Islanders couldn’t do at Nassau Coliseum or Barclays Center, arenas they didn’t own, helped the club far exceed any sponsorship revenue number it imagined pre-UBS Arena, Calka said.

“This has been an amazing opportunity and transformation from a business perspective, all aspects,” he said. “We’re going to see some very large growth, from year to year, for our business.”

UBS Arena’s Goodrich-designed premium offerings include a speakeasy that’s hidden in the venue’s gut, 38 suites, 20 loft boxes, 18 event-level suites with direct access to the seating bowl, and 10 bars that open right onto the seating bowl. Calka called the premium areas the “nicest I’ve seen in my career,” which includes previous stops with the Yankees and BSE Global.

Several of the premium-type spaces are available to ticket holders of any type, including the Heineken Terrace, an outdoor bar above the arena’s main entrance that looks out over the campus. Leiweke thinks that if live music is successful enough, it’s possible the view from the Heineken Terrace could someday include a 5,000-6,000-seat theater somewhere on the property.

“There will be additional development here,” he promised.

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