A day after it was thrown into chaos and a mere 36 hours before it would, perhaps, be irreparably broken, the principals involved in the $195 million sale of the New York Islanders came to terms on an agreement that formally transfers ownership of the team to an investment group known collectively as New York Sports Ventures.
Almost until the very moment the agreement was reached, shortly before 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the ever star-crossed sale of the Islanders looked more like a dead deal than a done deal.
The problem was that at virtually the 11th hour, Spectacor Management Group, or SMG, the Philadelphia-based company that has a long-term contract with Nassau County to run the Islanders' home, the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and must therefore approve any ownership change, began seeking assurances that would safeguard that contract.
Why did Spectacor, which has a contract with the county that runs until 2015 assume such a last-minute position? Because the prospective new owners had indicated that "they believe there are numerous defaults under the arena lease agreement the Islanders have had with Spectacor and Nassau County," this according to a February 12 letter from Spectacor's Chicago-based attorney, Richard Meller, to Barrett Pickett, an Islander vice president and son of majority owner John Pickett.
According to sources close to the situation, David Seldin, who was hired by New York Sports Ventures to be president of the Islanders, was reportedly stunned by the conditions at the coliseum during a recent walk-through inspection.
Among the items he reportedly took note of and issue with were "weeks-old garbage being stored in the facility," broken seats scattered throughout the arena, dirty glass around the frozen surface the Islanders play on, and a number of broken loudspeakers.
Fearing that such statements were a prelude to New York Sports Ventures and the county attempting to break its contract, Spectacor was demanding that the Islanders sign a statement saying that the company is meeting its responsibilities as coliseum operator before it would give its approval to the deal. The Islander's opposed signing such a statement.
By Tuesday, with virtually no progress being made in the talks, County Executive Thomas S. Gulotta held a news conference at the Supreme Court Building in Mineola, to publicly assail Spectacor's position.
Flanked by former Islander great Bobby Nystrom, New York Sports Venture's principal Howard Milstein, and Barrett Pickett, Gulotta formally signed the papers finalizing the proposed sale and called on representatives from Spectacor to do the same.
Over the next 24 hours, he also engaged in some high-level sabre-rattling, threatening a county lawsuit against Spectacor if they failed to sign on and killed the deal.
If no resolution had been found by Friday, either the buyer or the seller could have walked away from the deal.
With all that could happen in a very short period of time, New York Sports Ventures, which is headed by Milstein, a real estate developer, and hockey fan and insurance executive Steven Gluckstern, continued to try and convinced the facility's operator that approving the sale was in everybody's best interest.
On Wednesday afternoon, Milstein announced that the transaction had been closed.
"I'm absolutely delighted," he said.
At stake, from SMG's perspective, had been millions of dollars of future arena revenues, revenues garnered from luxury suites, club seating, coliseum parking, and concessions. Given the proposals that have been made about upgrading the coliseum, they didn't want to be cut out of that money prior to the expiration of their contract. The owners, of course, are counting on as big a slice of that pie as possible, to recoup their investment.
Reportedly, SMG dropped its demand for a signed guarantee from the Islanders after reaching a "a handshake agreement" with Milstein. The real estate developer has assured the arena operator that New York Sports Ventures does not intend to try and squeeze them out.
"I gave them my personal assurance that we would treat them fairly," Milstein said.
Gary Lewi, a spokesman for Milstein, said that SMG signed the letter of consent to the sale with "no strings attached, which is a victory for common sense."
From the very outset of the proposed purchase, however, the trials and tribulations relating to the sale of the team were just a small part of a much bigger story.
"This is a real estate deal," said a source close to the Republican leadership of the county. "Buying the Islanders is just the price of admission for getting in on the development of what's being billed as 'Nassau Central.'
Privately, a number of local lawmakers agree with that assessment. In their view, it's most significant that New York Sports Ventures is a partnership that combines a love of hockey with money and the where-with-all to see a major real estate development through.
"Buying the Islanders is a two-part deal," said Mort Certilman, Chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Board and of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum Privatization Committee, during a recent interview with this newspaper regarding the future development of the Nassau Hub.
"Gluckstern and Milstein are buying the Islanders and hoping to get development rights too. Of course, we haven't given them that yet, but clearly, they are the favored parties."
How important is having even a piece of that development? Consider that it would greatly enhance New York Sports Ventures ability to recoup their investment and make good on their ability to bring a new, state-of-the-art facility into being.
In addition to the new coliseum which County Executive Gulotta has already committed his administration to, and for which New York State Governor George Pataki has already pledged some $30 million in state assistance, Nassau Central will also be comprised of a new hotel, a new convention center and an undisclosed number of restaurants and sports-related retail shops.
"The only retail space left to be developed in the Hub in the Nassau Central area," Mort Certilman said.
To serve that development, a new parking garage is also in the plans for Nassau Central, to be located directly north of the coliseum site. Given that among the proposals to fund the proposed people mover system in the area is establishing more paid parking in the Hub, that parking garage too can become a significant source of revenue for the investors.
If the goal of the new owners of the Islanders is to make the team more profitable while enhancing its position in the hearts of area residents then, equally important is the team's place within the Hub proposal, the much discussed plan to link the coliseum to other area sports venues, to the retail mall along Old Country Road and to Hofstra University.
Asked in December about New York Sports Ventures' awareness of the Hub proposal before they committed to purchasing the Islanders, Milstein said that if anything, it was a key factor in his deciding to pursue the team.
"Working with local government, and working particularly with the county and the state governments has always been important to us, and the concept of the Hub fits very nicely into what we'd like to see happen in regard to the coliseum.
"Frankly, we think that a new, modern arena, an arena that's appropriate for the Islanders to play in, will be a great attribute to the Hub.
"While I don't think that we're ready to discuss the details yet, I can tell you that we'd like to see a redevelopment of the entire 70-acre site," Milstein continued. "That said, I think we have to discuss our desires and our plans with the government officials first, and get their input, before we go public with a proposal."
Though the former owners of the Islanders didn't have a say in what acts or activities transpire at the coliseum when they are not on the ice, David Seldin left a very clear impression during that same December interview that New York Sports Ventures might try to alter the basic arrangement now in place between the team, the county, and Spectacor which now runs the facility.
"I really can't comment any further on that though, as we're just at the point of beginning to understand those issues," he said at the time.
"I think one thing we're going to look very seriously at is bringing another sports team to the coliseum," Milstein said. "Right now, operating in something less than an optimal situation, the Islanders pump between $85 and $95 million into the Long Island economy. With a high-powered, more hands-on management, I would expect those numbers to grow significantly over the next several years.
"At the same time, I think the overall economic picture improves even more greatly when you begin to think about bringing one or two more teams to the facility. So that is going to be one of our highest priorities," he continued.