Hockey A Pre-Eminent Concern In Deciding XL Management
Rationale Is That Keeping The Games In Town Maintains City's Vibrancy
By PAUL DOYLE and KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
February 04, 2013
Hockey is so critical to a stable and growing downtown that management of the XL Center will only be put in the hands of a firm that maintains the sport in Hartford, an official said Monday.
"We want and intend to maintain the [American Hockey League] in Hartford," said Michael W. Freimuth, executive director of the authority that oversees the arena. "Any contract will be conditioned on that. … Failure to secure the AHL would be reason to make the contract void."
That's a serious warning to the three entities bidding to manage Hartford's downtown arena, home to the Connecticut Whale, the AHL franchise that moved to Hartford when the Whalers moved to North Carolina in 1997.
Freimuth said all three bidders — who expect to learn whether they have the contract later this week — have been in contact with the company that manages the Connecticut Whale, as well as other hockey franchises. The Whale's lease expires this summer.
Downtown restaurants, bars and small businesses are dependent on the hockey crowds, explained Michael Zaleski, head of Hartford's Downtown Business Improvement District.
"These are dates that these business count on," Zaleski said. "Hockey in Hartford has a longtime tradition. On nights there are events at the XL Center, there is clearly a vibe that we would miss if those 40 hockey nights weren't there."
In the 2011-12 season, there were hockey games at the XL Center on 41 nights, compared with 27 for UConn basketball (men's, women's and the women's Big East tournament) and 38 concerts and family shows. Granted, attendance at the hockey games is lower on a per night basis than a UConn game or a concert, but the consistency of hockey is important to downtown. That explains why so much of the discussion about who will operate the XL Center has had to do with hockey.
The bidder chosen to run the XL Center will be expected to market and run the hockey franchise. The existing manager, AEG Management CT LLC — one of the bidders — has run the business operation of the Whale this season. But the Whale's lease at the XL Center expires this summer, and a new one has not been signed while the Capital Region Development Authority seeks bids.
The authority will chose between its current management — AEG — and two others: Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum as well as the Capital Region Sports and Entertainment Group, led by Bushnell Management Services. The Bushnell currently manages Rentschler Field, and whichever bidder is chosen by the CRDA Thursday will also inherit the contract to operate the East Hartford stadium.
Details of the three bids have been kept under wraps during the ongoing negotiations. Authority officials have said it is legal for them to negotiate privately under the state's right-to-know laws.
With the CRDA considering bids to run the building, the Connecticut Whale's owner (Madison Square Garden) has been unable to negotiate a lease extension at the XL Center. The Whale is the minor league affiliate to the Rangers, so executives for the New York Rangers have considered alternative markets. Assistant general manager Jim Schoenfeld said the organization is open pursuing a lease extension with the next Hartford arena manager.
Professional hockey has a long history in Hartford.
When the Whalers left (they came to Hartford in 1975), the Rangers' AHL team, which became the Wolf Pack, relocated from Binghamton, N.Y., to Hartford as Madison Square Garden Inc. assumed control of the Hartford Civic Center in 1997. The company controlled costs by running the building and the team.
MSG operated the arena until 2007, when the CRDA awarded the contract to Northland/AEG, a company formed when AEG partnered with a Massachusetts real estate investment company. Northland Investment Inc. removed its interest in the arena operation in 2010, leaving AEG as the sole operator.
Attendance of the AHL franchise was strong initially — third in the AHL for the season of 1997-98 and 1998-99 — but has dipped in recent years. The team was 23rd in the 30-team AHL in attendance last season and is 23rd this year.
Still, Freimuth estimates the AHL brings 100,000 people into downtown Hartford, so maintaining professional hockey is a priority for the next building operator.
Oz Griebel, president and chief executive of the MetroHartford Alliance, said people attending AHL hockey contribute significantly to how people who live inside and outside Hartford view the city.
"When you see people coming in for any event, it has an important impact on people's perceptions of the city, that the city is alive," Griebel said.
Monday, Catherine Smith, the state economic and community development commissioner, said the state is willing to consider an investment in the 40-year-old XL Center beyond what is proposed by the bidders. The scope of the improvements or how much might be invested hasn't been determined.
"It's obviously important that [the XL Center] gets the capital improvements that it needs to keep it competitive," Smith said.
The XL Center's need for improvements could further thwart efforts to lure another franchise to the city if the new manager cannot secure a contract with the Whale. Also, AHL President Dave Andrews said he expects little franchise movement this summer and Hartford is just one of two franchises — along with Houston, which is own by the Minnesota Wild — with leases expiring.
An AHL source said the Rangers and the league have looked at two upstate New York locations, Utica and Glens Falls, as possible locations for the Whale franchise. Utica has been without an AHL team since 1993, but the city has been pursuing a professional team for its arena. Glens Falls is home to the Adirondack Phantoms, a franchise slated to move into a new arena in Allentown, Pa., in 2014.
The Phantoms, affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, have agreed to relocate this summer if Glens Falls can secure a long-term tenant. Should the Rangers agree to relocate the Whale to Glens Falls, the Phantoms could spend one year in Hartford while the next manager of the XL Center seeks a long-term AHL tenant.
Schoenfeld, the Rangers' general manager, said his organization has investigated alternative markets. The Rangers would seek a favorable financial deal — the building operator must pay an affiliation fee to the organization — but Hartford does offer geographic benefit to the organization.
"If we need a player, we can make a call and he's in New York in a few hours," Schoenfeld said. "That's important. And it's convenient for me. I can jump in my car and be in Hartford for a game."
Bridgeport would offer an even better commute for the Rangers' hierarchy. The Rangers are interested in Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena, league sources have said, but the Bridgeport Sound Tigers have a lease that runs through 2021. Team President Howard Saffan told The Courant that the Sound Tigers, owned by the New York Islanders, have no plans to leave. Saffan also said rumors of a possible franchise swap between Hartford and Bridgeport were unfounded.
The only other minor league hockey option is the ECHL, a league that is a notch below the AHL on the development ladder. But the league, with teams in such markets as San Francisco, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Orlando, could be an option for the XL Center.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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