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ESSAY

A fan base does not grow in Brooklyn

We've watched Jackie Robinson steal home a hundred times on those old reels, and breathed all the loving poetry about the Bums of Brooklyn. It is an idyllic vision, the rainbow merger of community and sports team, an interracial Eden.

Maybe, when the Brooklyn Nets and then the New York Islanders arrived in Brooklyn, there was a sense that this could all happen again; that the borough would once more fill the stands, unite behind inspiring teams in a newfangled, asymmetric arena. Maybe Barclays Center wasn't Ebbets Field, but it surely had its charms and convenient subway access.

The trouble, though, is that the Nets and the Isles aren't the Dodgers, and that Brooklyn isn't the same Brooklyn anymore. And maybe Brooklyn was never the rabid, hand-holding Brooklyn of our literate Dodger elegists.

This is heresy, but it is also statistical fact: From 1950 to 1957, while the Dodgers earned four National League pennants, they never averaged even 17,000 fans. In 1955, their championship season, the Dodgers averaged crowds of 13,423. By comparison, the New York Yankees drew 19,352. The second-place Braves, in their third year in Milwaukee, averaged 26,050.

So there was always a great deal of mythology about the borough's sports obsession from the start, and then these new teams showed up with warts and little hope for championship banners. They also were competing for the devotion already pledged by long-term residents to the New York Rangers and particularly the New York Knicks. Spike Lee, the ultimate Brooklynite, refused to switch.

Currently, the Islanders are slumping, 16 points behind the first-place Washington Capitals. Their star, John Tavares, has lost his strut in the new place and says that home games feel like road games to players who still live on Long Island. He is on a pace to finish the season with 60 points. Last season, lifted in part by the familiarity and acoustics of Nassau Coliseum, he amassed 86 to lead the Islanders to the playoffs.

The Nets are far worse off, falling apart at the seams. Mikhail Prokhorov dumped his general manager and coach on Sunday, and that will mean very little for quite some time. The Nets don't have a point guard and they don't have draft picks. Those are important things.

What has followed from all of this is inevitable: Islanders fans, most of them strangers in a strange place, are not filling enough seats. They commute from Long Island and grump about obstructed views. Closer to the arena, the hipsters in Red Hook and the Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach are largely disconnected from all the action, basketball and hockey.

The Nets are 28th out of 30 NBA teams in attendance, averaging 14,789 fans per game with an arena at 81.7 percent capacity. When they first came to Brooklyn, escaping moribund venues in New Jersey (nobody thinks the Nets should have stayed there), the Nets averaged crowds of 17,187. The novelty has worn off, however, and the losing has taken its toll.

Meanwhile, the Isles are ranked 29th out of 30 NHL teams in attendance with a 13,035 average, but because they play in one of the league's smallest arenas, they are at 82.4 percent capacity. They averaged 15,334 fans per game last season in the rickety Coliseum, though they struggled at the gate in recent years and NHL officials desperately wanted them out of the old arena.

The troubles are not for a lack of trying on management's part. Brett Yormark, chief executive of the Nets and Barclays Center, has targeted disparate communities in the borough. He has launched promotions and community outreach programs. Pat Singer, founder and executive director of the Brighton Neighborhood Association, recently received a batch of discount tickets to distribute for the Islanders games.

"I think it's going to build," Singer said. "There's something about a hometown team."

But the Islanders have only one Russian player, Nikolay Kulemin. When the first-place Capitals, with their batch of Russian stars, came to town last week, Kebeer, a sports bar on Brighton Beach Avenue, was deserted. Nobody was there to watch Alex Ovechkin score yet another goal on the big screen. Why? That day happened to be Russian Orthodox Christmas, another reminder of just how many factors come into play when loyalties and habits are forged.

Barclays Center has had its cool moments, even with its flawed sight lines and overpriced seats. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge came to Atlantic Avenue for a Nets game, and exchanged greetings with Jay Z and Beyoncé. That wouldn't have happened in East Rutherford, N.J. The NBA deigned to allow its dunk contest to take place in Brooklyn, even though the real All-Star Game was staged in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden.

So there is hope. If nothing else, Brooklyn is resilient, resourceful, ever-changing. As one neighborhood is gentrified, another welcomes a fresh batch of struggling settlers.

Does Brooklyn have the passion, the population and the demographics to marry a professional franchise? Did it ever? We may not know that answer until the Nets find a point guard, or Tavares beats the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals.

Then, those mythical Brooklyn fans better show up and create a fresh narrative. Otherwise, Walter O'Malley's decision to move west may be proved right.

A fan base does not grow in Brooklyn 01/13/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2016 7:00pm]
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