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Colonials Nudging Hartford Toward Being a Sports City

By Brad Kane

July 04, 2011

Hartford may be the insurance capital of the world, the third largest metropolis in New England and home to the oldest publicly funded park in America, but there’s one thing it definitely is not.

A professional sports town.

Home to the professional hockey’s Hartford Whalers from 1972 to 1997, Connecticut’s capital city has had little else.

The region briefly flirted with bringing the New England Patriots to Hartford, but that effort left only a 40,000-seat Rentschler Field in East Hartford that’s nearly empty year-round, save for a few events and University of Connecticut football games.

As the Hartford Colonials prepare to start their second season of UFL football on July 12 and bring four home games to Rentschler Field, a handful of people from around the state see reason to hope Hartford is on the road to becoming a professional sports town.

They see Hartford as the largest metropolis in the country without a major professional sports franchise. They see great facilities such as Rentschler Field that could be put to better use. They remember the good times with the Whalers. They imagine a future where Hartford doesn’t lose its fan base to the sports-crazed towns of Boston and New York, but develops great rivalries within the region that will only add fuel to Hartford’s professional sports identity.

“It is a market that lost its self-esteem when the Whalers left, and they had the unfortunate situation with the Patriots,” said Howard Baldwin, founder of the Whalers who is actively trying to encourage the NHL back into Connecticut.

The key strengths of the Hartford market is its individual fan base for the different sports and a strong corporate support, Baldwin said. That will help win over the professional leagues.

“The market has been a little flat, but we are starting to wake it up,” Baldwin said.

The Greater Hartford area has 1.2 million people, more than a few cities with professional sports franchises such as Oklahoma City, Raleigh, N.C., New Orleans, Salt Lake City and Ottawa, Canada.

Add in the Springfield market and its 686,000 people roughly 30 minutes away, making the metropolis the largest in America without a major professional sports franchise in hockey, soccer, basketball, baseball or football, said Peter DeMaille, the former chairman of the Connecticut Central Regional Tourism District.

The 1.9 million residents in Hartford and Springfield are more than in Buffalo, Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Memphis, Milwaukee, Nashville or Charlotte, N.C. The area’s population is nearly triple the 694,000 in Winnipeg, Canada, which was just awarded an NHL franchise.

“We are a region with Springfield. We share an airport. We share a highway. We share a workforce,” DeMaille said.

To attract and retain a young workforce in Connecticut, the state needs exciting attractions like professional sports, DeMaille said. Having an NHL or MLS team in this metropolis would help in bringing top level business talent.

“I used to have seasons tickets when the Whalers were here,” DeMaille said. “My son and I went when he was a little guy and we had a blast.”

The Hartford Colonials found a better than expected fan base when they moved to the city last year. The franchise started in New York, and averaged 3,000 people per game for that first season.

Last year in Hartford, the team got an average of 14,366 out for four home games at Rentschler Field. The Colonials expect bigger attendance this year as more area residents get used to them being in the Hartford area.

“It is going to take awhile because building the brand is never done,” said Bill Mayer, owner of the Colonials.

But the team was encouraged by the higher attendance, political support from U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, and the corporate sponsorship, particularly from St. Francis Hospital, said Mayer.

The Colonials start training camp on July 12 in Berlin. The first of the team’s four home games is Aug. 27 at Rentschler Field.

For Hartford to get a team from the NHL, MLS, NBA, NFL or MLB, it will need the facilities to house the teams.

The XL Center is home to the minor league hockey Connecticut Whale, which Baldwin owns, but it will need an expansion to house an NHL team, DeMaille said. At least 1,500 more seats to be suitable for NHL, or even the NBA.

Baldwin said he would like the XL Center to become more user-friendly and bring back restaurants and shops into the arena; but Hartford doesn’t need to build a new facility for the NHL.

“Some part of the XL Center might need fixing up, but it is a great arena,” Baldwin said. “We live in houses that are 300 years old, so I think we can live with an arena that is 35 years old.”

Having a cable television station to air Connecticut sports including UConn and other professional sports would help teams reach a bigger fan base.

“Then you get a revenue stream so that you can support a team here,” DeMaille said.

The Colonials picked Hartford in their second year of existence as part of an initiative by the UFL to move into major cities without NFL teams. Hartford is the only major city on the East Coast from New England to Washington, D.C. with a UFL football team, Mayer said.

The team still has an uphill battle to maintain and build interest in the UFL, and — much like marketing Hartford as a professional sports time — it won’t be accomplished overnight.

“We are in the business of creating a consumer product,” Mayer said. “It is going to take a lot of work and some time.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
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