ALBANY - When the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers square off in the 2018 NHL Winter Classic in Queens, the Sabres will be the home team despite being headquartered 385 miles away.
Why? The answer appears to be property taxes (or lack thereof).
Madison Square Garden, the privately owned Manhattan home of the Rangers and the NBA's New York Knicks, would risk a lucrative property-tax exemption worth more than $40 million a year if either team plays home games in New York City outside the iconic arena.
The home-game requirement is laid out explicitly in New York state law, which says property taxes for the arena would kick in immediately if it's violated.
"If one or both of said teams shall cease to play their home games in said property at any time, the tax exemption provided herein shall cease immediately and such property shall immediately be restored to the tax rolls," New York's Real Property Tax Law states.
Home or away?
The Winter Classic is the NHL's marquee annual event, pitting two teams against each other in an outdoor stadium on or around New Year's Day.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Tuesday that the Sabres and Rangers would match up for the 2018 edition, which will be held Jan. 1 at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets.
It will be the 10-year anniversary of the first Winter Classic, which pitted the Sabres against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a snow-filled game at what was then known as Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park.
The NHL says the decision to make the Sabres the home team was based on a variety of factors, but did not elaborate. The decision was made in consultation with the Rangers and Sabres, according to the league.
A spokesman for the Rangers declined comment, while a Sabres spokesman did not immediately respond.
The Sabres being the home team will have little, if any, impact on the game itself. But it means they will play 40 games at Buffalo's KeyBank Center during the 2017-18 NHL season, rather than a full 41-game home schedule.
The Rangers will play a full 41-game schedule at the Garden.
The tax break for Madison Square Garden dates back to 1982, when New York City was still recovering from a fiscal crisis and the Knicks and Rangers were threatening to leave.
Since then, it's become a recurring controversy.
Some state and city lawmakers have long called for it to end, pointing to the profitability of The Madison Square Garden Co., the publicly traded company that owns both franchises and the arena. The company has a market value of nearly $4.8 billion.
Supporters of the exemption argue the draw of the teams -- which play more than 80 combined home dates a year at the Garden -- benefits the city financially.
The value of the exemption has grown in recent years, fueled largely by major renovations to the Garden from 2011 through 2013.
For New York City's coming fiscal year, the tax break is expected to cost the city about $42 million, according to the NYC Independent Budget Office. Prior to the renovations, the exemption topped out at about $17 million.
Home away from home
It's not the first time the Rangers have been the away team in New York City.
In 2014, the Rangers played two games at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, with the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils serving as the respective home teams.
The New York Times noted the requirements of the property-tax exemption at the time.
Having the Rangers serve as the away team also served a financial benefit to the NHL, since the league reimburses the home team for a lost date at its arena, according to the Times. The Rangers draw more ticket revenue than the Islanders and Devils.
The Rangers and Sabres, meanwhile, both drew about 18,000 fans on average to their home games this season, though the Rangers charge more for tickets.
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