Photo credit: New York MTA
I’m a hockey fan by marriage, and our family’s team is (are?) the New York Islanders. The Islanders have a lot going for them. In recent years, they’ve had that scrappy underdog appeal, but they still hold the record for the most consecutive playoff series won by any major professional sports team (19 consecutive series while winning four consecutive Stanley Cups).
The Islanders are also a really interesting team from an urban planning perspective. The 2013 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the Islanders –in addition to telling the crazy story of John Spano’s brief, fraudulent ownership of the team in the mid-1990s– describes how the Islanders’ peak years, starting with their Stanley Cup dynasty in the early 1980s coincided with a peak in national enthusiasm for suburban living – which was perfect for a team based in Nassau County on Long Island. People were proud to live in the suburbs and support a suburban team. The film describes how, when a reporter asked a player how he felt about bringing the Stanley Cup back to New York, the player responded, “I’m not bringing it to New York – I’m bringing it to Long Island!”
The impression from the film that the Islanders’ peak coincided with that of suburbia seems to be supported by data, especially if we think of suburbia as sprawl. Christopher Barrington-Leigh (of McGill University) and Adam Miller-Ball (of UC Santa Cruz) have created a really interesting measure of sprawl based on street network connectivity and have found that, based on this measure, sprawl in the United States peaked in about 1994. That same year marked the beginning of the ongoing 22-year streak during which the Islanders have not won a playoff series and a 7-year streak in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs – the longest such streak in their history.
Over the past few years, planning scholars have started to talk about a “back-to-the-city movement” as people (or at the very least a subset of millennials) seem to be gathering to (at least some) urban downtowns. While there’s is some debate over how real a force the back-to-the-city movement actually is, for the Islanders at least, it’s definitely a thing: the team moved from Nassau County to Brooklyn this past year.
They’re still a Long Island team though. Most of the players live on Long Island, and they still practice there. On game days, they commute to Brooklyn via the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), as team captain John Tavares describes it, “like all Long Islanders.”
The team’s Long Island fans are also making the trip out to Brooklyn for games, also on transit, which wasn’t necessary (or I think even possible) when home games were still at the Nassau Colosseum, which offered plenty of parking and hosted a rare hockey tailgating culture. Today, a local CBS column reported that over a third of Islanders fans at home games this season have gotten there via the LIRR. In light of this, the team and the LIRR have plans to make the train ride more special for fans with visits from the team mascot, Sparky the Dragon, and from legendary players from the team’s glory days. They’re also bringing on transit ambassadors to assist fans who may not be used to riding the train.
Special events (like sporting events) tend to be a really effective way to get non-habitual transit riders onto transit. It would be interesting to see if Islanders fans who start riding the LIRR for the first time to come to games might increase their use of public transit for other trips as well – perhaps for trips into Brooklyn even on days when the Islanders aren’t playing.