When UBS Arena opens for the 2021-22 NHL Season, it will ostensibly be known as the home of the New York Islanders – but as their tagline goes, the arena is “built for hockey, but made for music.”
That’s a function of the 50/50 partnership in the development of the site between the Islanders and Oak View Group, a sports and live entertainment development company fronted by two men representing each of the worlds: former Ticketmaster and Live Nation executive Irving Azoff, and ex-AEG and Maple Leaf Sports exec Tim Leiweke.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been involved in building an arena, and in our role as equity partners and arena developers, it took a little while for us to find our balance with Scott and Jon’s vision for where they wanted to take the team and the arena,” OVG CEO Leiweke told WFAN, referencing Islanders owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky. “This is a different role for me and my company, but it gave me a perspective on the design, and the content we’re going to put into the building. We don’t have the burden of running the team, but we know our 50/50 partners are focused on making the fan experience as great as possible, and want to make this a great arena for music and other events, too.”
Ledecky and Malkin wanted to make sure that as the Islanders’ home, the arena had all of the charm of the Nassau Coliseum, with some updates to fit the modern feel. But in many respects, from the size of the lower bowl – the largest in the NHL, as well as the Tri-State Area – to the amenities that many take for granted (such as expanded concessions and larger bathrooms), UBS Arena is being built with fans in mind for any and every event the venue can hold.
“It’s a nod to the passion Scott and Jon have for the Islanders – it’s being built for the team and with their fans in mind, but the partner was focused on music, and that led to some free thinking,” Leiweke said. “As Jon was worried about wait times at concessions and the experience in the bowl, we wanted it to be the most unique experiences a fan can have when they choose to see a musical event.”
Leiweke and OVG may have never built an arena from scratch, but the group does have some recent experience in design – the group is responsible for the renovation of Seattle’s KeyArena (soon-to-be Climate Pledge Arena), which began in 2018 and is expected to be completed in time for the debut of the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, a team that Leiweke’s brother Tod represents as CEO and president.
“Certain things were really unique to Seattle – we kept the roof, which is from the 1962 World’s Fair, because it’s a landmark and we wanted to honor that,” Leiweke said. “That arena is completely different, though; it’s on a 75-acre campus that’s a top tourist destination, but we learned a lot of things we’re sharing – security, sanitization, customer service. We’re sharing ideas together, so we’re taking the best of those, but the identity is unique, as will be Belmont.”
The reason that the new arena at Belmont will be so unique? Well, as Leiweke says, while KeyArena was existing and local arenas like Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center were built around, or are hamstrung on renovations by, their surroundings, the nearly 900,000-square foot UBS Arena was a “fresh piece of clay” with an unimpeded footprint.
“The brilliance of Belmont compared to any other arena in New York is that we could build it right because we were unencumbered on space,” Leiweke said. “Scott (Malkin) was genius in that he said we have a fresh ball of clay, and the space to do it right from the start.”
And so, as he explained, in the vein of their focus on making UBS Arena a premier music venue, OVG brought in touring managers, ticket sales execs, acoustics experts, and other industry heavy-hitters to get thoughts and suggestions on how to make literally every aspect of the venue user-friendly on both sides of the curtain.
“We have a loading dock area designed by the guys at Live Nation who do the touring – they helped us think through building the best arena ever built from a production standpoint,” Leiweke said. “For the artist, it’s 15 steps from the car to a permanent locker room, an entire wing on the event level built for the artists and all facets of their tour. We asked Irving (Azoff) how to create the greatest back of house ever for music, and we did it. Then we sat in the bowl, and asked the guys who sell the premium seats how to design it, and we’ll have more premium lower-level seats for music than anywhere else.”
And they may have more events than anywhere else thanks in part to the construction of the loading docks and back-of-house staging area that can accommodate up to eight semi-trucks at once for load-in (plus two more on the floor), and has room to park 24 inside the footprint of the venue.
A stark contrast from Barclays Center, whose noted “revolving elevator” still can only accommodate one at a time, or the concert mecca that is Madison Square Garden, where load-in is crowded around very-public access points on 31st and 33rd Streets. It’s not a competition, Leiweke notes, but as he says, because events can load in and load out of UBS Arena in one day, acts can “play MSG for the show, and us for the dough.”
“Listen, The Garden is The Garden, and we have great respect and relationship with the garden. That’s about history and tradition, and for us it’s not about taking dates away, because we don’t have to do that,” he said. “We’re going to get some second and third nights, from date standpoints might be easier than The Garden. They have so many teams and 80-plus concerts a year, whereas we have a calendar built for music.”
And another thing UBS has over some of its venue competition? Three things, actually, that are three of the most important factors in real estate: location, location, location.
“We did a heat survey for every ticket bought for music in the Tri-State area, and as we sat in a meeting analyzing it, I said, ‘look at how many people are going to be closer to this arena than any other,” Leiweke said. “We’re closer to 10 million music fans than other buildings, and for a long period of time, Long Island and Connecticut haven’t had a brilliant place to see music that is closer to them. We knew someone was gonna figure out a way to build a great arena on Long Island. Why not us? And, we’ll look at this heat chart and see what kind of music fans we have in the area.”
Quite a lot of thought put into the process indeed, even if, for 40-50 nights a year (hopefully closer to the higher end), it’s Islanders country. And hey, if the arena has to hold dates from April through June for an Isles Stanley Cup run, so be it, says Leiweke.
“Our loyalty is to the team, but that balance has worked well, because at a time when New York needs hope and excitement, the Islanders have done that.”