Log In


Reset Password
  • MENU
    Columns
    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Still waiting for the state to accomplish ANYTHING with regard to the XL Center

    How ironic — or pathetic — that as Huskymania moves toward its annual March Madness crescendo, the potential renovation of UConn’s downtown Hartford home has been thrown down a flight of stairs. Once again.

    And so I ask all our politicos the following question: How is it you can mug for the cameras waving your UConn pom poms and still allow this farce that’s keeping plans for a new XL Center stuck in neutral?

    If you missed it last week, the Capital Region Development Authority announced that bids for the estimated renovations of $107 million came in at more than $140 million, leaving the project in peril.

    Mike Freimuth, the CRDA’s executive director, has scaled down this project with more versions than “Lord Of The Rings.” What began at $250 million was eventually sliced to $100 million, but each requiring bidding processes and other exigencies that faithfully move at the pace of an arthritic snail. Little wonder the costs keep rising. Every cost keeps rising.

    Freimuth said he thinks a new target number is $125 million, requiring a new set of bids, likely dragging this into June at minimum for work to begin in the fall. If at all. Of course, who’s to say that expenses tied to companies’ March/April bid won’t have swelled by June?

    Freimuth also alluded to what continues to befall the 49-year-old building, using Band-Aids to quell the hemorrhaging.

    Once again I ask: Why has the XL Center become Connecticut’s line in the sand, given its significance to UConn and downtown merchants? UConn’s athletic department, not exactly profitable, needs the revenues the seating capacity at the XL Center (vs. Gampel Pavilion) provides. Downtown merchants need the revenue from game nights and concerts. And yet here we are.

    I get there’s a crowd that would prefer all games at Gampel. Aside from Hartford being more convenient for much of the state, there is an economic factor that lawmakers continue to ignore. It begins here: UConn athletics need the money.

    Yes, UConn pays rent to use the XL Center: $40,500 per basketball game plus $3 per ticket sold; $20,500 for hockey plus $2 per ticket sold. But here is an example Freimuth used citing actual numbers from a game two years ago:

    The UConn men sold out the XL Center for a game against Villanova. The game was announced as a sellout (15,564). Actual tickets sold came to 11,858 at an average ticket price of $38.93. That’s a gross revenue of $461,666, which, even after expenses, is well north of what the profits would have been at smaller Gampel.

    Gov. Ned Lamont has supported XL Center upgrades, but with private investments that would balance at least some of what state taxpayers would assume. Nice sentiment. Except that UConn is the state’s de facto professional sports brand. Sixteen national championships (and counting) since 1995. UConn routinely brings people to downtown Hartford, 45,000 strong for the last championship parade and 15,500 to every basketball game. What other entity does that for Hartford?

    I’m not sure if Lamont’s pandering to overburdened, aggrieved taxpayers is a sound bite or if he really believes it. But this is an odd hill to die on, given the joy UConn has brought said taxpayers in the last 30 years. There are 80,000 UConn alumni within 30 minutes of XL, three UConn campuses in Hartford (Law, Business and Regional) and several downtown corporate sponsors supporting UConn. How many of them would actually care if this project was entirely state funded?

    Hartford is the No. 32 media market in the country, flanked by San Antonio and Columbus. San Antonio has the 18,418-seat Frost Bank Arena, built in 2002 (as well as the Alamodome). Columbus has the 18,500-seat Nationwide Arena, built in 2000. Neither are metaphorical spring chickens, but then neither are like the XL Center, 49, which will be eligible to collect a pension soon.

    Why can other states make this happen and we can’t?

    Freimuth thinks that the $125 million version will keep the many new amenities promised in previous plans. The building could still hold 15,000, he said, but with a special walling/curtain system that could shrink capacity to 10,000-11,000 where appropriate. There would be upgrades to premium seating and technology as well as more corporate opportunities to expand revenues.

    Straight up: I’m not saying this project shouldn’t include private funding. But somebody needs to assume a leadership role here and move this forward. Now. Arenas are not made to endure 49 years. And if we’re not going to spend money on the biggest brand in college basketball and if we’re not going to invest in the capital city where the biggest brand plays, then we have completely lost our way.

    Maybe a pair of 2024 national championships from the men and women would provide some hope, as Lucy was saying to Charlie Brown just the other day.

    Maybe the momentum from another national championship or two will be enough for state political leadership to do more than wave pom poms and profess undying love for their Huskies. Maybe they’ll actually accomplish something this time.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.