MAKING A RELOCATION, PART SEVEN: Dead Whale Walking

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“Making A Relocation” is an ongoing series exploring the inconsistencies between the facts and the public narrative surrounding the demise of the Hartford Whalers. If you’re new to the series, we recommend that you start at the beginning:


 

In October of 1995, exactly one year into the his promised four-year reign  as owner of the Hartford Whalers, Peter Karmanos approached Governor John Rowland (successor to Compuware’s newest board member, Lowell Weicker) with both a request and a plan.

THE REQUEST

A conditional exemption from their their four-year commitment to remain in Hartford, a direct response to a home game versus the St. Louis Blues that drew only 10,000 fans.

The expectation was that a large crowd would turn out for golden boy Brendan Shanahan’s first home game against his former team. I’m not going to invest a lot of time trying to unravel why this one particular game only drew 10,000 (which is still a good 5000 more than a normal Friday in Raleigh these days, just saying), but the expectation that Shanahan’s history would be a matter of any special interest to the fans in Hartford showed how disconnected the ownership was from Hartford. Shanahan had been brought in with great fanfare and was handed the Captaincy immediately upon arrival. He responded by openly complaining about being stuck in Hartford. He was a guy who got booed every time he touched the puck. At home.

At any rate, it was a suspicious request. There were supposed to be three more years before the issue of relocation would be broached again. The attendance was not stellar, but it was up about 1500-2500 (depending on if you count luxury seating) since Karmanos took over, despite a continued play-off drought and years without any core group of players to rally around since Gordon gutted the franchised in 1990-91. Karmanos claimed they lost $11 million in the first year. This was significantly less than the $30 million of losses the state had agreed to subsidize in advance, not to mention the $30 million in losses Karmanos had pledged to withstand himself per the terms of the sale.

$11 million was also a $3 million reduction in loss from the prior year under Richard Gordon, in which the team reported losses of $14 million. Attendance was trending up. It wasn’t a good situation, but it was a good as could be expected by Karmanos as he knowingly took on a team with no modern revenue streams. In spite of the modestly positive trend, and the much touted competence of Peter Karmanos, he projected the next year’s losses to be $20 million.

I have no idea how a team whose main source of revenue was ticket sales saw a overall increase in attendance yet saw their losses double. I expect an answer is not forthcoming at this point. But it’s hard to overlook the convenience of that number. The combined total of those two years, $30 million, was exactly the amount needed to trigger a clause allowing Karmanos to request permission to relocate. Even more conveniently, it was also the exact amount of loss that the state had agreed to subsidize. In exactly one year, with two years left on the contract he signed, Karmanos was free to attempt to relocate the Whalers while claiming financial hardship while not having actually lost a dime of his own money.

I’m not saying he made up the numbers. I can prove no such thing.

I’m just saying it was awfully convenient.

THE PLAN

In that October 1995 meeting, a plan was proposed by Karmanos and accepted by the state, though the public remained unaware for almost seven months. The plan, now widely remembered as the April 1996 “Save the Whale” campaign, was to offer the Whalers all of the revenue from luxury boxes, concessions and parking which they needed to stave off the ongoing losses, in exchange for a commitment to stay. The condition placed upon this relief was a demonstration of viability of the fanbase, in the form of the sale of 5500 season tickets to meet an overall target of 11,000. The number was chosen as the minimum needed to guarantee profitability.

There are a lot of things that don’t make sense here.

First of all, the state was making a deal in which they gave something to Karmanos (revenue), and in return he gave them something he’d already given: a commitment to stay. In effect, the state was the one pulling the trigger on losing the Whalers by demanding a target be reached on short notice.

Why was the target necessary? There had been a respectable increase in attendance without any prompting or targets, just by removing the cancer of Richard Gordon. The fans had withstood a roof collapse, league merger, temporary home in Springfield and many years of bad play on-ice. It was bizarre, so late in the game, for the owner of the team, to be publicly questioning the viability of the market itself. After rolling out the red carpet for Karmanos and spurring a committed local owner in the Dowling Group, and after twenty years  in Hartford, we were suddenly being vetted by our own government and ownership as if we were a new market of questionable worth requesting an expansion franchise.

That aforementioned short notice is also puzzling. The “Save the Whale” drive was conceived in October of 1995. It wasn’t made public until April of 1996. When it was finally made public, it was following an increase in ticket prices and the elimination of partial season ticket and “flex” packages.

This is the sales pitch, as the faithful received it in April of 1996: They had exactly one month to sell 11,000 season tickets, and not only was the price going up, but the more affordable partial plans were gone. You bought a full-season ticket package and you bought at the new higher price, or you bought nothing at all. Failure to succeed in this task would result in the immediate relocation of the Whalers to an undisclosed location, despite the fact that we were only two years into a four-year lease that had been paid for with tens of millions of dollars in public funds.

In a case of shocking coincidence, the beginning of the “Save the Whale” campaign coincided perfectly with ticket office being closed, the staff sent away to Boston on a bus trip to “root for the team” during an away game. Fans who called to buy tickets under these onerous conditions got an answering machine.

Seven chapters in the mess, I can smell sabotage a mile away. This whole thing stunk.

Up until this point, the whole thing seems very neatly sewn up and perfectly executed. It’s like a professional wrestling match, all of the parties acting out protracted negotiations and taking turns playing heel, when in reality they’re all reading from the same script. It’s hard to believe, knowing what I know now, and looking at the ridiculous conditions put upon the campaign, to believe that the “Save the Whale” effort was supposed to succeed. It was just the final death blow, one last sad hurrah before everyone walked away with their hands clean claiming to have done everything they could do.

The problem with this plan is that it was built upon lies. In expecting it to play out smoothly and quietly, it was clear that they’d come to believe their own fiction.

Hartford didn’t win. But we didn’t go quietly into the night.

We damn near did the impossible.


 

hc-the-hartford-whalers-beginning-to-end-20130-044JOHN ROWLAND AND THE NFL

Despite having the dubious distinction of the being the only major player to reap the felony convictions and prison time that all of them probably deserved, John Rowland remains the biggest wild card in the story. It’s hard to say for sure what he knew or intended for sure at any point, and given his eventual disgrace, it’s hard to write off any possibility as being “too far” or to dismiss any speculation of malice as paranoia.

There is absolutely zero evidence that John Rowland accepted kickbacks or bribes to play along with the deal Weicker and Karmanos hatched to kill the Whalers. Even if it happened, I doubt it could ever be proven. That said, it’s exactly the sort of thing he was eventually convicted of doing.

What we do know is that in 1995, as Rowland was quietly arranging for the ticket drive that was likely to end the NHL in Hartford, he had resumed talks with the NFL that had been suspended a few years earlier when Robert Kraft bought the Patriots. At the time, Kraft insisted relocation was off the table. However, by 1995, he’d been spurned in an effort to reestablish the Patriots in the south end of Boston proper. Unwilling to tolerate the outdated arena in Foxboro any longer, Kraft publicly declared that relocation might in fact be an option after all.

The state capitol in Hartford kicked into high gear. The stadium offer was back on the table. By 1996, not only was Rowland in talks with Kraft and the NFL, but he’d been visited by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well. Whatever other backdoor deals may or may not have taken place or factored into Rowland’s willingness to play along with the deal that Weicker had brokered, there is no doubt that he happily ignored the NHL situation while enthusiastically chasing professional football. Weicker’s open offer of $175 towards a stadium would swell to well over $300 million under Rowland as he courted the Patriots. The concessions revenue the Whalers were asking for seems laughably small compared to the no-strings-attached offer that was eventually thrown desperately at the Patriots: approximately $7-8 million.

For me, the real cognitive dissonance lies in the conflicting narratives employed in these two efforts. The impossible hurdle the Whalers were expected to clear before being considered worthy of those meager concession revenues we to serve as proof of the market’s fundamental viability. It was no longer a question of marketing or on-ice performance, but whether the market could sustain a major-league team at all. The population was too small, Hartford was too close to New York and Boston, there wasn’t enough corporate support. All familiar refrains today.

But at the exact same time we were seriously discussing spending hundreds of milions of dollars on a new major league footbal franchise. The parking and concessions revenues being used as a bargaining chip against the Whalers? There was no discussion, not even the passing mention, of either the city or the state retaining those rights.

It would have been laughable.

Everyone involved knew this, of course. It was a fact of life in professional sports at this point. The dog and pony show surrounding these revenues with the Whalers were just that, a charade. Whatever doubt remained about the possibility of the state retaining  these rights and keeping an NHL franchise had been dispelled in 1994 by the arrival of Gary Bettman.


WE WOULD HAVE GOTTEN AWAY WITH IT TOO, IF IT WASN’T FOR YOU MEDDLING FANS…

In early April of 1996, it began. Tickets prices were jacked up by 20%, partial packages eliminated, and the required deposit was increased by 750%. In case that wasn’t enough alone, an impossibly high goal was set: 30 days for 11,000 tickets.

When asked if he felt a month could possibly be enough time, Karmanos said “I find people respond best in the first 24 or the 11th hours”.  It would have to be the 11th, since the ticket office phone lines were conveniently out of commission for the first 24 hours of the ticket drive.

It was a classic screw job if there had ever been one. The cause was largely considered hopeless.

Something about the fatalism of the attitude towards drive, the way its failure was treated as a foregone conclusion, awoke something in the Hartford faithful. Maybe it was pure obstinance. For some, I’m sure, it was a rude awakening that however frustrated we were with the team, boycotting was no longer an option. Many folks had come to believe that between the state and the consortium of rich fools behind the team, there would always be deep pockets to save the team. Staying home was just a way to send a message. UConn basketball was a good distraction and made it fairly painless, at least until folks started realizing that there may be no team to come back to when or if things got better.

Defying all expectations, the drive started to work. The Whalers start selling tickets. A lot of them.

Though the campaign was officially being spear-headed by Governor Rowland (who embarrassingly admits in public at a rally that he hasn’t purchased tickets himself) and delegated as a special project to Lt. Governor Jodi Rell (who at one point towards the tail end of the campaign openly discourages people from purchasing tickets and publicly attacks the Whalers), the real thrust came (not surprisingly) from the grass roots.

Aetna and several other local corporations subsidize employee ticket purchases by buying one season ticket for every one bought by workers, an effective discount of 50%. The Hartford Whaler Booster Club, in its most heroic act since the Civic Center roof collapse, orchestrate a “buddy system” in which displaced partial-season ticket holders are able to find other fans who are unable to purchase full season tickets and pool their resources. A few particularly enterprising fans even managed to employ the nascent internet of 1996 to coordinate the “buddy system” ticket sales and to gather thousands of petition signature protesting the relocation of the Whale.

In the midst of this heroic effort, comes a report from Keith Olbermann of ESPN that the ticket drive is a ruse and that a deal has already been struck to relocate the Whalers to Nashville. The report is calmly denied by all parties involved, with the exception of Peter Karmanos. He explodes. In a public rage, Karmanos vehemently denies the rumors in a profanity-laden diatribe about “lies”. He attacks not only Keith Olbermann, but Nashville itself, referring to it as “a cruddy market”.

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Love him or hate him, he may well have saved the Whale for another year.

The next day Karmanos admitted to having been in talks with the owners of an arena in Nashville. In hindsight, Keith Olbermann may have single-handedly saved the last season of the Whalers by provoking the outburst which tanked the Nashville deal.

This is where it gets weird: A week later, the relocation deal dead, Karmanos hints that an extension of the drive may be possible, and that a renegotiated lease may be more important than obtaining the final 3000 ticket sales needed to meet the drive’s sales target. The state holds firm on the target of 11,000, and for the first time it becomes public knowledge both that the drive is the result of an agreement that was made months earlier, and that contrary to public perception, the state was a voluntary party. Until this point, it was widely believed that Karmanos and the Whalers had been putting the screws to a state that was desperate to save the Whale.

The complete breakdown between Rowland and Karmanos came as May approached and the drive neared it’s deadline.

On the eve of that deadline, with rumors circulating that about 7500 tickets had been sold, General Manager Jim Rutherford mentioned publicly that in light of the state’s unwillingness to budge on the issue of the ticket drive deadline, he had requested permission from Gary Bettman to shop the team to other cities. The next day Bettman publicly refused. The day after that, Governor Rowland announces that 7600 tickets have been sold.

On one side was Gary Bettman’s refusal to vacate the four-year contract. On the other were the local corporations who had played no small part in helping the Whalers maintain an 85% ticket renewal rate while selling 3500 new tickets, in spite the new and incredibly onerous conditions. Trapped between the two, John Rowland reluctantly agreed to a two week extension about ten minutes before the deadline press conference.

Now while the ticket campaign hadn’t met its ridiculous goal of 11,000, 3500 new season ticket sales in a month was probably some kind of record, and under the conditions imposed by the team it bordered on miraculous. No one would have been surprised if the drive ended in embarrassment by resulting in a net loss of ticket base. Given this impressive show of support and sudden change of heart by Karmanos, and Bettman’s denial of any immediate exit plan, Governor Rowland and the state were compelled to spend the two-week extension in talks to renegotiate the Civic Center lease. The negotiations, obviously, were fruitless, but the sticking points are very telling as to the intentions of John Rowland.

Rowland initially refused to yield on the matter of arena revenues, citing the drive’s failure to meet the target of 11,000. He instead pressed for an immediate exit at a reduced buyout fee, reportedly to avoid the losing the team as scheduled in 1998, an election year. Again, the local corporate interests who had invested so much both over the years and in the recent ticket drive, put the screws to Rowland and made it clear again that standing by while the Whalers limped away was not an option.

Rowland abruptly reversed course, publicly vowing to play “hard ball”. He demanded not just that the Whalers stay for the full four years of their contract, but that they agree to an additional year with no exit clause. This extension, it should be noted, would conveniently keep the Whalers in place until immediately following the aforementioned election.

I’m not saying the John Rowland’s primary concern in these negotiations was protecting his political career. I can’t prove that. Again, I’m just noticing things which are oddly convenient.


 

kraftThe talks ended having resolved absolutely nothing. The Whalers were left where they started, two years into a four-year lease, though admittedly in a much better position having reached close to 9000 season tickets sold during the two weeks of pointless negotiation. It was an amazing achievement, soiled by being overshadowed in the end by a farce of fake negotiations and an embarrassing public back-and-forth between Rowland and Karmanos.

We’d achieved something remarkable. After years of being a laughingstock under Gordon, and then underestimated by Karmanos as being dead on arrival, we’d risen up and built one of the largest season ticket bases in the NHL. Not only did we do it completely through grassroots organization, but we did it with active opposition from both the state and our ownership. There can be little doubt that if the team had continued selling partial-season ticket packages, we would have easily broken the 11,000 mark. What we did in 1996 was a hell of a lot more than they’ve done twenty years later in Carolina, Miami and Arizona even with years of relocation threats looming over them.

The evidence is pretty damning that Karmanos purchased the Hartford Whalers for the express purpose of relocating them to a southern market. By his own admission, he had negotiated a deal with Nashville only halfway through the four-year commitment he made to Hartford. I find that difficult, if not impossible, to defend.

That said, I come close to feeling sympathetic toward Karmanos after all of this. He certainly can’t be blamed for the Gordon years, where most of the damage was done. He had no ties or loyalty to Hartford when he bought the team, and by ever indication it was offered up to him with with the explicit intention of relocation. Up until the “Save the Whale” campaign, he operated accordingly and seemed intent upon relocating the team using low attendance as a pretense.

When we surprised him by actually selling tickets, he seemed surprised (everyone did, to be honest). Keith Olbermann’s sabotage of the Nashville deal with certainly a contributing factor, but every piece of evidence I’ve found indicates that from that point, Karmanos negotiated in good faith. It was hard to ignore the success of the ticket drive. It was probably the first time he’d had any glimpse of anything worth saving. Nashville was gone. Bettman, if only responding to the public tantrum thrown by Karmanos, wasn’t allowing any talk of relocation.

In the midst of all of this, the Whalers ended their season with a victory over Boston but still no play-off contention. They averaged just shy of 12,000, close to 13,000 if you account for the luxury seating, which was downright respectable in an arena that held 14,000 and change.

So they made a go of it and fought for the only chance the Whalers had to survive in Hartford: the arena revenues.

John Rowland, for his part, went rogue. He responded with bizarre posturing in public, and political machinations in private. At the time, a lot of people perceived him as “standing up for the taxpayers”, but in hindsight it seems incredibly unlikely that Rowland every stood for anything other than himself. He already had a plan, which we’d find out in 1998, and he wasn’t going to derail it by rolling the dice with the Whalers in an election year. Nor was he going to endanger the $300+ million he was offering the Patriots by allowing them to succeed. The long-term success of the Whalers in Hartford meant only one thing, as we’ve established: a new arena.

 

Meanwhile, we had one last season to play.

The Whalers didn’t make the play-offs, but came closer than they had in a long time. They weren’t great, but they were competitive. There was optimism about the team’s future, and with at least a year left on the lease and sell-out crowds having become a regular occurrence again, reasonable hope that said future would take place in Hartford.

When the final season’s attendance is acknowledged at all by nay-sayers, it’s typically dismissed as a “last hurrah” or compared to rubberneckers stopping to look at the wreckage of a car wreck. I can understand how it might appear to be so in hindsight. But at the time, while there was certainly some apprehension about the future, there was no sense of impending doom. If anything, the prevailing sentiment was cautious optimism. After all the fuss made about ticket sales, it was hard to imagine a team that packed the house every single night being relocated. At the very least, there was one more season left.

Until there wasn’t.


 

At the end of the 1996-97 season, negotiations resumed. A year earlier and prior to the ticket drive, Jim Rutherford dismissed the very notion of a new arena as being 6-8 years premature. There was little sense, he noted, in building a larger arena to replace one that was never full. Things had changed quite a bit in the interim. This time, the negotiations centered entirely on that very issue.

There’s an alarming lack of awareness in the media surrounding this second round of negotiations. Rowland seemed to have cast a spell over the press, who fully embraced the narrative of him as a noble defender of the taxpayer from the whims of greedy billionaire sports magnates.

It was a big ask, to be sure. The Whalers wanted a new arena for approximately $145 million. It was slightly less than the open offer Weicker had extended to the NFL some years back. Factoring in an additional $45 million of anticipated loss during construction and revenue from concessions and parking, it was still well below the approximately $250 million the state had last offered the Patriots.

Rowland tanked those negotiations with aplomb. He stood before the press repeating the words “revenue neutral” as if they were a rallying call for the state of Connecticut as we took up arms against this robber baron owner for the last time. There would be no arena unless it was “revenue neutral”. As Rowland well knew, this was thinly-veiled code for “there will be no new arena”.

Karmanos abandoned his brief flirtation with committing to Hartford. Bettman, reading between the lines, did not stand in his way this time. The Whalers abruptly announced their intention to relocate, destination unknown. After a series of ridiculous proposals, one of which involved playing in an aircraft hangar, the Whalers settled in Carolina. They played in an AHL arena in Greensboro while a new arena was built in Raleigh, reportedly drawing in the hundreds for early games.

It is some small comfort, and I mean small, to know that they are currently drawing several thousand less on average than they did upon leaving Hartford. Peter Karmanos has paid dearly for crying wolf about his losses in Hartford in 1996; the Carolina Hurricanes have lost many millions of dollars since they left Hartford.


 

Against all odds, for one brief moment John Rowland had the power to stop a murder seven years in the making. Instead, he finished the job. And then he held a press conference to gloat and pat himself on the back for having done so. They clapped and brayed like seals.

A year later, Rowland announced a deal with the Patriots. He gave them everything Karmanos asked for, and a few hundred million extra for good measure. The same folks who cheered as John Rowland took his bold stand against the Whalers cheered against as he offered Robert Kraft $374 million with absolutely no strings attached.

pats

Six months later, the Patriots terminated the deal on a technicality. Hartford had been a bargaining chip all along. Kraft, at least, got the stadium he wanted in Massachusetts.

Within five years, John Rowland was indicted for corruption.

I can’t say it any better than Jeff Jacobs did, so I won’t even try:

“On the saddest day in Hartford sports history, they stood and cheered. It was disgusting.”


 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “MAKING A RELOCATION, PART SEVEN: Dead Whale Walking

  1. Pingback: MAKING A RELOCATION, PART EIGHT: Requiem For a Pipe Dream | exile on trumbull street

  2. Pingback: MAKING A RELOCATION: The True, Untold Story of How Hartford Lost the Whalers | exile on trumbull street

  3. Well done and enjoyable read.

    As a writer covering the exit years of the team, I would boil it down to a few salient points to consider.
    1) The CDA was a huge political minefield – it was created as a slushfund for (if I recall correctly) Weicker to lure businesses to (CT, but ostensibly Fairfield County, from New York and New Jersey) but was already under heavy fire because it cost a ton of money and had created zero jobs.

    2) Rowland didn’t correctly interpret the magnitude of feelings about the Whalers in political terms; Fairfield County always claimed they didn’t care and they drove the economic bus, and Hartford, the city, had done little to politically support the team (not to be confused with the Hartford business community, which accurately understood the loss of the team, any team, would forever consign the town to minor league status) Rowland equated a lack of team success with indifferent feelings among his political base. Thus the narrative became, verbally defend the small, politically insignificant Whaler fanbase, while looking for the “big win’ which was to have been the Patriots.

    and most important, 3) Bettman was disingenuous about the team’s standing from the get-go. As a relatively new on-the-job commissioner, he wanted to curry favor with the NHL ownership power brokers in New York AND Boston by carving the CT market in half AND provide another team to the untapped Southern market.

    Makes me want to dig out my own stories from the time and run through them again, as the rhetoric changed weekly, and sometimes, daily!!!

    Like

    • Thank you, these are good points. I wrote this on the fly as I was doing the research without any idea where it would lead me; with the luxury of hindsight I may have focused quite a bit more on the CDA and dug deeper there.

      I agree with your assessment of Roland’s miscalculation, and yes, it was maddening to dig through newspaper archives and reconcile the constantly shifting narrative to the facts. This was a dirty, dirty deal. I’d love to see anything you wrote if you ever dig it up.

      Cheers,

      Jeremiah

      Like

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