After two decades of doing nothing, it was announced earlier this year that the city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut would spend $250 million to upgrade the 41 year old XL Center to 19,000 seats in hopes of getting back the lost Hartford Whalers. The intention of the Mayor and the Governor are plain. They even sent a letter to the owners of the New York Islanders who have arena problems, inviting the Islanders to solve their arena mess by leaving Brooklyn and becoming the reborn Hartford Whalers once the XL Center is renovated.
But is Hartford doing the right thing? Are they spending $250 for nothing? Why should this question be raised at all? Because of what is going on in Calgary.
Out west, the 19,000 seat Saddledome, one of the biggest arenas in the NHL is 34 years old, seven years younger than the XL Center. But the owners of the Calgary Flames have suddenly turned against the structure, claiming it is old and obsolete. What is being proposed is a combined NHL-CFL arena-stadium project called “Calgary Next”. This project is so controversial that nobody can give an accurate cost figure. The gung-ho builders claim it costs $890 million. The “realists” say the actual cost will be near $2 billion.
The pouty Flames ownership has thrown an “or else” tantrum if they do not get their way, threatening to leave Calgary for fairer pastures. And of course NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman who loves new arenas, especially the new ones in Las Vegas, Detroit, and Edmonton, flew into Calgary earlier this year (on his new arena tour that included new arena pleas in Phoenix and Ottawa) urging the municipal Calgary government to accept “Calgary Next”.
The Flames ownership has never publicly stated what is specifically wrong with the 34 year old Saddledome. If they laid out their exact grievances, perhaps a much cheaper renovation could be done. But like all North American professional sports franchise owners in this day and age, they expect the local taxpayers to pay for a new facility to which they will contribute exactly 0 to build.
Well if a 34 year old arena with new renovations is unacceptable to a sports franchise owner and the NHL and its Commissioner, how is the NHL supposed to accept a renovated 41 year old XL Center? The NHL has not uttered one official comment about the proposed renovation of the XL Center. Clearly by their open letter to the New York Islanders owners, the Governor and the Mayor expect to get the Whalers back in return for spending $250 million.
But the city and the state should hold back. Much as I’d like to see a returned Hartford Whalers, and Gary Bettman said that the Whalers would be welcomed back in 2010 if they met his conditions about the fan base, the arena and a suitable owner, based on the situation in Calgary and elsewhere, there is no guarantee that the NHL will accept a renovated XL Center. The Hartford taxpayers could be spending $250 million for nothing.
When Jim Balsille tried to move the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, the city offered to spend $50 million to upgrade Copps Coliseum – in vain. And it has to be said that when Copps Coliseum was built during the 1980s, it was built with the specific intention of getting an NHL franchise. The people of Hamilton are still waiting.
It has been estimated that building a new arena in Hartford would cost in excess of $500 million. That’s double the cost of the offered $250 million. Quebec built its new Videotron arena for $375 million. If the cost of a new Hartford arena could be kept at that level, I would be 100% in favor of building a brand new arena. $500 million, double the cost of renovating the XL Center, makes me think twice.
Moreover I would also be thinking of the NFL as well. That league just recently stripped the city of St. Louis, which built a perfectly acceptable modern stadium, approximately a mere two decades ago of its franchise and shifted the Rams back to Los Angeles which finally caved in and built a suitable stadium, for the unspoken reason that Los Angeles is a bigger market where they can make more money. Then they told St. Louis to build another stadium. So much for fan loyalty, taxpayer money invested in a sports facility, local media investment, and local corporate investment. For added measure, they stripped San Diego and Oakland too.
What’s to stop another crybaby NHL owner, like the ones in Calgary for first accepting the Whalers and their renovated arena and then start complaining and threatening to leave because the arena, even though it has been upgraded, is 41 years old? If I’m a Connecticut taxpayer I would want a guarantee – in legal writing – from both the NHL and whoever wants to be the new Hartford owner that
a: Hartford is going to be guaranteed an NHL franchise by a specific date if the XL Center is renovated.
b: The new Whalers owner signs a legal document that the Whalers will be committed to Hartford for at least a fixed number of years before they can raise the issue of both a new arena and franchise shift.
The NHL made an unofficial commitment to Hartford in 2010 when Bettman made a tour of Hartford, Winnipeg, and Quebec and offered them terms for readmission. Winnipeg is already back, but Quebec, which built the Videotron that the NHL loves is stuck at the ownership factor. A returned Hartford with a proper arena and a suitable owner is a guaranteed money maker. The Whalers would renew their rivalry with Boston and other rivals in the New York area and the province of Quebec.
But unless the Mayor, Governor, and the taxpayers decide they want to build a new arena after all, they should pause and think this over before spending a single cent on renovating the XL Center. There are so many possible greedy and hidden pitfalls involved in this renovation that they may well be spending $250 million for nothing.