By SEAN O'LEARY, Hartford Business Journal Staff Writer
August 06, 2007
July was a quiet month at the Hartford Civic Center. In fact, it was dead silent.
Not a single concert, event or function took place at the center for the entire month. Among its peers, it’s unusual for a venue like the Civic Center not to host some kind of mid-summer event. Comparable venues in cities like Worcester, Mass., and Albany, N.Y., routinely host events throughout July.
“If you look at the past five or 10 years, there have probably been other Julys where we didn’t have any events because it’s a downtime for indoor arenas,” said general manager Marty Brooks. “But it drives my crazy because we’re not bringing in any revenue.”
This July is significant, since it’s the first under the Northland AEG partnership that took control of the arena and Rentschler Field earlier this year. For the last 10 years, both were managed by Madison Square Garden.
Brooks, who will continue as the general manager after doing so for Madison Square Garden, said the change in management has already had an impact.
“What we’re seeing is a very energized, supportive team in Northland AEG,” he said. “They’re very excited in the future opportunities here and rebuilding the city. They’ve let us know that we have the tools now to further develop business.”
Northland CEO Larry Gottesdiener said the first step in company’s tenure as manager will be review of the Civic Center with an eye toward improving customers’ experiences.
“We are looking at absolutely everything, from the food to eliminating the $2 charge on same-day tickets for Wolf Pack games,” he said. “The bulk of it is going to take time and everyone needs to have patience because we just took over.”
Questions about its viability have plagued the Civic Center for years, especially as new arenas have popped up across the country. Sixteen cities with NBA teams, including Boston, have built new arenas since 1995.
“It’s a functional facility,” said Gottesdiener. “The seats are good, it functions. But as you go around the country to the new arenas, you see the structural issues with the building.”
Those problems date back to the Civic Center’s expansion following a roof collapse in 1980.
The renovations increased the seating capacity to 16,000, up from 10,000. That 60 percent increase worked poorly with the footprint of the 32-year-old building, said Brooks. The concourse shrunk, along with the number of bathrooms.
The luxury boxes are another remnant of out-of-fashion design. When they were added in the mid-1980s, they were placed in the rafters. “At the time, no one wanted to put the luxury boxes down low and displace the fans,” said Brooks.
Now, however, most arenas put boxes and suites down low, spread through levels across the arena.
Flaws with the arena’s outdated design add to the difficulty of attracting an NHL or NBA team. In the spring, the state legislature approved $250,000 for a feasibility study for a new arena.
Gottesdiener said it needs to happen.
“There are certain elements about the building that mean you can’t love it,” Gottesdiener said. “It will never be an attraction to people like a new arena would. A new downtown arena can serve as a catalyst to getting people downtown to spend before and spend after.”
Still, despite its age and design, Brooks said the building does not hinder bookings and attendance.
Some upgrades have been added over the last decade, including an electronic scoring table for basketball, and two new scoreboards.
It’s also added curtains, evident at Wolf Pack home games, which block off some upper level seating and lower the capacity to just fewer than 10,000. “With the curtains, it gives it a more intimate feel,” Brooks said, which is better for concerts.
Still, The Hartford Wolf Pack saw its attendance drop by 500 people a night last season.
Despite its design flaws and drawbacks, the Civic Center may benefit from the massive reach of AEG, the music arm of which sold more than $700 million in tickets in 2005, promoting tours with the likes of Paul McCartney, Kanye West and Prince.
Brooks said AEG wants to make Hartford a more frequent stop on the concert circuit.
The difficulty with July concerts however, is the movement of concerts to outdoor stadiums, as well as competition from nearby arenas such as Mohegan Sun.
Still, the Civic Center’s management is confident it can succeed in drawing events to Hartford – and it’s willing to put up the money to attract those visitors.
“Northland AEG is not risk averse,” said Brooks. “They have told us to spend money like it’s ours, to take chances and they want measured risks when it comes to developing the business.”
Added David Biggar, Northland AEG’s vice president of sales: “Northland has not invested a half-billion dollars in Hartford for this to fail.”