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UBS Arena: Built for Hockey, Made for Music

The new $1.1 billion UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y. opened with great fanfare in mid-November.

The new $1.1 billion UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y. opened with great fanfare in mid-November.
The new $1.1 billion UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y. opened with great fanfare in mid-November.

Following nine years of planning and more than two years of construction, the new $1.1 billion UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y. opened with great fanfare in mid-November. Located just outside New York City (in fact, literally across the street from Queens), the 19,000-seat multi-purpose venue is primarily the new home of the NHL’s Islanders hockey team, but it is also intended to become a key stop on major concert tours—so much so that it has adopted the slogan “Built for Hockey, Made for Music.”

To underline the statement, Harry Styles played the 745,000-square-foot arena’s first official show on November 28, followed by Eric Church a week later and Genesis soon after that. In all, the arena is expected to host upward of 150 events annually—a number that includes 50 Islanders home games and 60-plus concerts, as well as family-oriented entertainment aimed at Long Island’s nearly 8 million residents.

While 19,000-seat UBS Arena is in direct competition with 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and 17,000-seat Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the new venue is mainly seen as replacing Long Island’s notoriously decrepit, 49-yearold Nassau Coliseum. Opened in 1972, “The Old Barn” was the smallest arena in the NHL by total seating capacity (less than 14,000), and the league’s second oldest venue, only beaten by the Garden. A two-year, $89 million renovation in 2015- 17 only served to lower the venue’s capacity to sub-profitable levels for the Islanders while adding myriad new hard surfaces that compounded its problematic concert acoustics—a move highlighted by the addition of a giant curved wall behind the FOH position that inadvertently acted as a massive parabolic reflector aimed back at the stage. So while Islanders fans wanted a modern home for their team, Long Island’s music scene was in need of a new arena as well.

Making good on the “Made for Music” slogan then, Populous designed the UBS Arena with an eye towards far more than hockey. The new arena’s roof sports a 400,000-pound rigging grid that can support 300,000 pounds of production gear for entertainment events, whether in a center or end-stage arrangement. All that gear gets into the building via an underground, 60,000-square-foot marshalling yard containing not only seven loading docks with direct access to the arena floor, but also heat, power and data connections for nearly a dozen OB trucks, trailers or tour buses. Also inside the building is a 3,300-square-foot artist compound, sporting four dressing rooms, three green rooms, a kitchen, bar and other facilities for acts, crews and entourages.

The Factory Gets To Work in St. Louis

Of course, the most important factor for any visiting concert tour is how the venue sounds, and to ensure that was handled properly, Populous worked with acoustical design consultants Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW). Sports venues are traditionally designed to have hard surfaces that reflect crowds’ cheering back on to the arena floor, serving to hype up players and fans alike. What makes for a great sports experience, however, is a wreck for concert sound, so much of WJHW’s work was focused on curtailing reverberation.

In a nod to the intimacy of the old Nassau Coliseum—despite having thousands more seats—the UBS Arena’s roof is 93 feet above the floor, a mere three feet higher than the Old Barn. Within the roof structure, an estimated 80 percent of the ceiling has fiberglass baffles hung horizontally to absorb sound. Meanwhile, upper corners of the venue use the building’s architecture as the foundation for large-scale bass traps, including one built in the space between the press box’s ceiling and the roof.

All vertical surfaces between seating sections are covered with absorptive, perforated metal acoustic treatments, particularly the back of the lower seating bowl, which is roughly in-line with the house speaker system used for Islanders games. Perhaps most crucially, however, every seat in the venue is upholstered, an option chosen not for crowds’ comfort, but rather to help absorb sound.

Of course, some surfaces—such as glass panels on luxury boxes and the two LED ribbons circling the room—can’t be treated, and the Islanders’ need to hear their fans is still a crucial consideration. After the team’s first game in its new home (they lost to the Calgary Flames, 5-2), Islanders coach Barry Trotz told the local media, “The fans are there; the acoustics in terms of the volume back at the bench is outstanding.” The venue’s acoustics were not lost on the media either; covering the game for Long Island paper Newsday, sports reporter Andrew Gross tweeted, “UBS Arena acoustics very good. Can clearly hear people screaming at #Isles PP unit ‘SHOOT IT!!’”