The United Football League, still trying to find its way, will do so without a team in Hartford this season. The Hartford Colonials have suspended operations at least for now, and possibly forever.
UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue, who grew up in Windsor, said Wednesday that he hopes the league can return to Hartford, but that finances dictated that the league operate with four teams this season, not five, and Hartford lost out. The league lost more than $100 million in its first two years.
Huyghue said the league will re-evaluate Hartford at the end of the season. The UFL will start its third season Sept. 15 with franchises in Las Vegas, Sacramento, Omaha and Virginia Beach. Some Colonials players will join the other UFL teams through an allocation draft Monday.
"When we looked at the operations of our teams and the resources we have for this season, it became clear that we can afford four teams and not five," Huyghue said on a conference call Wednesday.
"And that was driven by the fact that we didn't have full ownership in each of the markets. But we did have ownership in Hartford. We didn't have it in Virginia. As we evaluated the two markets, what became clear to us was the cost of operation in Virginia was almost half, relative to day of game costs, stadium costs, those type of issues, than it was in Hartford. And while Hartford was not a disappointment, Hartford didn't do anything necessarily to be dropped from our league, the reality is that we had to adapt a budget and a model that was going to fit with the resources we had."
Colonials owner William Mayer, a New York investment banker, is expected to take over ownership in Virginia Beach.
The Colonials played in 40,000-seat Rentschler Field in East Hartford, a stadium slightly larger than where Las Vegas plays, Sam Boyd Stadium, which seats about 37,000. But Rentschler is much larger than the other stadiums in the league and about three times the capacity of where the Virginia Destroyers play (Virginia Beach Sportsplex, about 14,000). Omaha plays in TD Ameritrade Park, which seats 24,000. Sacramento plays in Hornet Stadium (22,000).
Rumors of the demise of the Hartford franchise -- and possibly the league -- have been floating for months. Now the league stays and Hartford goes.
"For me it's a personal disappointment," Huyghue said. "As a Hartford resident, I had a special place in my heart for Hartford ... believe that Hartford is a good market for us, but in evaluating it and making a strong business decision for us that was in the best interest for the league, I think we made the right decision."
Huyghue said that the cost of playing at Rentschler Field drove the decision to suspend operations of the team. He said it was at least 50 percent more than other stadiums in the league.
"The comparison, for example, for security for a game in East Hartford, we pay something like $28,000 per game; in Virginia it's something like $7,000," Huyghue said. "It's just a lot of elements that go into it because it's a big stadium. We sort of pay the full cost as if a full stadium is sold and it just gets very difficult to deal with."
The Colonials averaged just more than 14,000 a game in four games last fall in East Hartford. The league average in 2010 was just below 15,000 a game. Huyghue said attendance was not a factor in suspending operations.
"There's no question it's a beautiful facility and it's where we wanted to play and there's a cost associated with playing in that type of a venue," Huyghue said. "If you want to drive a Mercedes, there's a cost associated with it, and you can't complain when that's the car you want to drive. The problem is that in our league right now we really can't afford a Mercedes type stadium."
Michael Fresher, general manager for Bushnell Management Services, which operates Rentschler Field, said the per game rent for the stadium for the Colonials was $17,500.
"They added a lot to their games," Fresher said. "When they want to do a halftime show with a national recording star, and they have to build a stage and bring a sound system in, that all costs money. ... I think our numbers are in line with other stadiums across the country."
The Colonials were 3-5 in their only season in Connecticut and were coached by Chris Palmer, a former University of New Haven coach and longtime NFL assistant. In February, Palmer left the Colonials to become offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. Palmer was replaced by former NFL coach Jerry Glanville, who never got a chance to coach a game in East Hartford.
"I've had better days," Glanville said by phone Wednesday. "You have to look at the big picture. This is not about one team, it's not about one guy, it's not about one coach. It's about what's best, really, for 450 people that love this game of football. And unfortunately to keep 400 people in existence and let them continue to do what they love to do, some people have to suffer. If you only look at yourself, then you've lost what you preach and what you preach is being a team member."
A press release from the league Wednesday said Glanville would remain with the UFL as a league consultant.
"I was told that this morning," Glanville said. "I don't even know what that entails. ... I was never involved in the financial discussions involving any teams in any cities. I know [Hartford] had a good fan base. I know people loved the product."
Fresher said the team owes no money to Bushnell Management Services for the stadium use. Huyghue said a plan is in place to pay off any remaining debts the team or the league has with local vendors.
"We certainly hope that they can come back next year once they regroup," Fresher said. "We certainly would love to see them back and we're looking forward to that if they can work out their issues."
Fresher said stadium officials are looking to fill the dates that had been reserved for Colonials games with high school games.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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