Islanders fans buying into team now

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Islanders fans were excited for the future while watching the rookies play at the Coliseum on Tuesday night.  Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (Sept. 13, 2011)

Islanders fans were excited for the future while watching the rookies play at the Coliseum on Tuesday night. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (Sept. 13, 2011)

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

A dark cloud still looms over the Islanders' long-term future, but most people associated with the team have no control over that. For them there is only the present, one brightened by rays of sunshine on the horizon.

That includes the players, who scan the locker room and see a young, talented, playoff-bound team. And it includes another group of scrappy underdogs: those who sell tickets to watch them play in their infamously dated arena.

Before proceeding, let's put this in perspective: The Islanders have nowhere to go but up.

In four of six seasons since the lockout, they have finished last in attendance (according to, bottoming out at 11,059 per game in 2010-11, even with a relatively strong finish.

But they do appear to be heading in the right direction, partly in response to the optimism surrounding the team, partly in response to the price cuts, added perks and greater flexibility the team announced in March.

Whatever the reasons, the Islanders have added about 1,000 full-season subscribers since the end of last season, according to Paul Lancey, senior vice president of marketing and sales.

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They also have sold about 1,100 new partial plans and have built their overall season- ticket base up to about 7,000. That would be a pittance for many franchises, but for the Islanders, it's progress.

Business has been so brisk, Lancey said, that since August, the team has hired 60 people to handle the demand, more than half of them full-time.

"I think that certainly we tried our best and we will continue to improve on that in terms of winning, in terms of what the experience for the fans is like," owner Charles Wang said.

"But I'm very happy with the way it's been received by the fans. Again, it's a process that we're going through. We're at the point now where, let's show them."

Regardless of the creative packaging and multiple price points, showing them on the ice is the key to sustaining momentum. The vibe on that front is hopeful entering the lone preseason home game tomorrow.

"Rebuilding, they tell you, is painful," Lancey said. "We can vouch for that. Now they see the end of the pain. They can see maybe this is the year of the rewards . . . We're feeling good that finally maybe it's our turn. Maybe it's a good time to be us."

Maybe. It will be difficult for Long Island to fully fall in love with the Islanders again until their long-term future is secured with a new or renovated arena.

But Lancey said there was no discernible drop in sales after Nassau County voters rejected an arena plan Aug. 1.

"People believe there will be many more twists and turns until this is done," he said. "It hasn't really impacted it. They're focused on the team."

The new price list is complicated, but in March, senior vice president Michael Picker said that on average, season subscriptions would be 16 percent less expensive for 2011-12 than at the start of last season.

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One emphasis was expanding choices, including limited plans designed to attract young families.

"We have an older season base because most people became fans in the late '70s and '80s," Lancey said. "So we have a lot of new young families coming on line with some of the new packages, and that's good."

Islanders games are not inexpensive, but they are less expensive than most pro sports events. "It's a good value," Lancey said. "We do hear that a lot."

That is true on paper, but it will remain true only if the product is worthwhile.

"We have a great fan base," said third-year center John Tavares, who just re-upped for six years (and $33 million). "They're there. They want to see us succeed. We just have to give them more of a reason to come and believe in us. I think we'll do that."

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