By SEAN O'LEARY, Hartford Business Journal Staff Writer
April 21, 2008
As state and city officials consider building a new downtown arena with a hefty price tag of about $300 million, turnout at University of Connecticut men’s basketball games fell to decade lows this past season at the XL Center (formerly the Hartford Civic Center).
Notably, UConn sports are not only revenue-makers for the university, with ticket sales raking in more than $14 million in recent years, they are considered an anchor attraction for the XL Center.
Men’s basketball games at the XL Center drew an average crowd of 13,584 this year, down by almost 3,000 from a peak of 16,294 in the 2004-05 season and 2,000 less than last year, during the 2006-07 season.
Attendance woes also affected the university’s women’s team, which averaged 12,799 per game in Hartford, down by more than a 1,000 from a year earlier.
Attendance also dipped at the university’s football games at the 40,000-seat football stadium that opened in 2003. In 2007, the UConn football team had its lowest attendance since its inaugural season at Rentschler Field, despite a successful season on the field.
The 2005 UConn football team, which had five wins and seven losses, sold out every game. In 2007, the team won nine games, lost only four and made a bowl game, yet sold nearly 2,000 fewer tickets per game, averaging 38,205 in attendance. The Sept. 15 game against Temple drew 33,810, the second lowest attended game at Rentschler Field.
UConn’s situation is unusual, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and author of several books on sports, noting that attendance at most college games is not declining.
Separated From Campus
“You don’t have a winning team and the team is separated from the campus,” Zimbalist said. “That will be a long-term issue for them. The football stadium is in East Hartford, half an hour from campus. That is very unusual. It is very risky for them to do that — dubious to do that. Normally, these college games are supposed to be university activities. It is supposed to be on campus.”
Although attendance was a sell-out when Rentschler Field was brand new and the UConn football team had just graduated to Division 1, Zimbalist said that going forward, the university will need to go outside campus for continuing support, which he believes will be very difficult to sustain on a steady basis.
“My guess is that UConn has that problem in greater degree than other schools because the stadium [and arena] is disconnected from the campus,” he added.
Another big factor is that sports fans are fickle, he said, noting that sold-out arenas and stadiums are often the result of winning streaks. The rub for UConn’s football team, and also for its basketball teams, is that a better won-lost record has been greeted by smaller crowds in the 2007-08 season.
But the UConn athletic department is pointing its finger at the recession for the drop in attendance.
RFP To Drive Sales
“There are a lot of factors involved when it comes to attendance, and definitely I think that the economy could be a factor for this year,” said Michael Enright, UConn’s associate athletic director for communications.
But Zimbalist disagrees. “It is very hard to pin it on the economy,” Zimbalist said. “Historically, recessions are not something that affects attendance at sporting events. People don’t cut back on attending sporting events. They cut back on something else.”
Earlier this month, UConn issued a request for proposal for a sports advertising agency to produce a comprehensive plan to “drive ticket sales and increase game attendance” for its top sports teams.
The timing of the RFP is purely coincidental, Enright said. “We had a contract with another agency that had been handling the marketing, and their contract just expired,” he said.
Robert Leffler, owner of the Leffler Agency, said the company was preparing to bid on the request and declined to comment on the particulars of the previous contract.
Ticket revenue is big business at UConn. In 2001, men’s basketball brought in $4.2 million, and women’s basketball brought in $2.3 million in ticket sales for a total of $6.7 million. Rentschler Field had not yet opened for football.
By 2006, the total ticket sales doubled to almost $14 million — $5.2 million for men’s basketball, $4.8 million for football and $3.9 million for women’s basketball. It made up almost half of the athletic department’s $29.5 million revenue for the year. Ticket sales for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, were not available.
Despite the drop in attendance, officials of Northland AEG and Northland Investment Group, which manage the XL Center, believe a new downtown arena should be constructed at the same site. Northland owns and manages Hartford 21, a $160 million mixed-used development adjacent to the XL Center.
“I think you have to go in with the understanding that UConn basketball, along with the AHL team, will be the anchor tenant of a new arena,” said Northland spokesman Chuck Coursey. “There is no assurance an NHL team is ever coming back, and you have to take care of your anchor.”
Even with the drop in attendance, UConn basketball games easily outdraw the AHL Hartford Wolfpack hockey games. Coursey said there is, as of yet, no concern about UConn’s drawing potential. “They are a strong draw in this area, and they will continue to be,” he said.