The NHL’s return to Winnipeg has naturally resulted in conversations concerning whether this move makes the NHL’s return to Hartford more likely. Former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin, currently running the Connecticut Whale, believes that Winnipeg has provided a model for Hartford. I was reminded of a great article by Dan Canavan in November 2009 on this topic. The reemergence of Howard Baldwin is the most significant event since the publication of the article, and based upon his success last year, he should not be underestimated. However, Hartford is still missing the key ingredient – a new building.
In an era where Jacksonville, Memphis, and Oklahoma City host major league franchises, Hartford sports fans are asking themselves: Why not us? Here are 5 steps that can bring the big leagues back to Connecticut.
1. New Building. The XL Center is at the end of its useful life and falls well below major league standards. Without a new facility, no professional team will entertain Hartford as a legitimate candidate for relocation. The XL Center would be a significant downgrade as compared to almost all other professional venues, and as currently configured, the arena would preclude any hope of franchise profitability. The lone concourse is cramped, luxury seating is outdated, and vending and restrooms facilities are inadequate. Regardless, a new facility is needed for UConn basketball, NCAA tournaments and non-athletic events. The longer plans for a new building are sidelined, the more expensive it will become to ultimately build a facility. If so, the XL Center, and any hope of major league sports in Hartford, may share the same fate as the former New Haven Coliseum. The XL Center has served us well, but refusing to replace it will forever bar the return of major league sports to central Connecticut.
2. Ownership Group: Unlike minor league sports that peddle affordable family entertainment, a big league owner needs to win. And to win at the major league level, an ownership group will need to spend big league money. Hartford will need to attract a committed ownership group that will be willing to weather the inevitable financial difficulty over the short-term, while fielding an entertaining and competitive product over the long-term.
3. Local Corporate Support: Any major league team in Connecticut will need significant and dedicated corporate support over the life of the franchise. The lack of corporate sponsorship helped kill the Whalers in the mid-90s, threatened to eliminate the Travelers Championship in 2004 and again in 2006, and may very well eradicate the Pilot Pen Tournament in New Haven in 2010. Even with a new building and a motivated ownership group, no team will have success here without the support of local corporate sponsors.
4. Portable Franchise: Franchises are routinely bought and sold, and there is no question that teams are available and will continue to become available as the economy recovers. Major league expansion is either unrealistic or too expensive. The trick will be to find a financially struggling franchise that can be moved, unwind long term obligations, and relocate the team, free of preexisting liabilities, to a new building and revenue streams in central Connecticut.
5. Perception: If Hartford doesn’t believe that it’s a big league town, no one else will. It’s time for Hartford to start believing that it can be major league again.
Dan Canavan is an attorney in Hartford, Connecticut. He has appeared as an on-air guest with regard to the NHL and the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy proceedings on CBC Radio’s World Report. Dan’s analysis and commentary have also been published in various media outlets including The National Post, The Windsor Star, The Star Phoenix, The Montreal Gazette, The Edmonton Journal, The Ottawa Citizen, The Vancouver Sun, The Province, Faceoff.com, and the Sports Litigation Alert, a leading sports industry publication which is circulated throughout the United States. Dan has also served as the Carolina Hurricanes correspondent for The Hockey Writers. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DanielRCanavan, and he can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (860) 665-3276.