Questioning the conventional wisdom put forth by the Church of Neil DeMause, author of “Field of Schemes”, can seem daunting. Having established himself as the leading voice regarding public spending and sports, his work is ubiquitous. Any time a stadium or arena is built or upgraded, his work is mentioned. Without fail, someone who doesn’t like sports will smugly provide a link to DeMause’s smug website, chiding the foolish supporters who dare suggest that a sports-related development could possibly benefit the host city.
“Actually, the research is well-established that there is no measurable economic benefit from professional sports.”
THE DEMAUSEIAN MEDIA “EMPIRE”
DeMause’s website, smug as it may be, is impressive. Having written a book that became a touchstone of sorts, he has not rested on his laurels. He posts almost daily about various stadium and arena “debacles”, “fiascos” and other synonyms for “train wreck”. There is a fairly extensive list of studies and research on which his basic thesis is built upon.
The bulk of the content is the aforementioned semi-daily news items, which tend to be brief, light and snarky in tone. There is a slight sense that DeMause is reaching for content, as some of his potshots are at privately-funded arenas, or adopt a reflexively cynical tone regardless of the merits or risk of the particular project. There is no professional sports expenditure DeMause can’t find fault in, and apparently no expenditure too small to warrant scrutiny. I get it. Content producers gotta produce content. I’m guilty myself.
If you live in a major media market such as New York, Boston, or L.A., DeMause’s work is probably irrelevant to you. There is no amount of ink that could be spilled, no public policy change dramatic enough, to prevent the construction of stadiums in those markets. The existing economic activity and population density makes professional sports and the attendant venue construction an inevitability.
In all fairness, he’s not all wrong. His arguments, while haphazardly applied, are substantial. He does his homework, or at least he did at one point. There are many markets where the ownership of a sports team has convinced municipalities to enter into arrangements which don’t pay off. I’ll focus on hockey since it’s my area of expertise, but as the most niche of the major leagues, a sport still growing outside of its traditional hotbeds, it demonstrates the limitations of pro sports as an economic driver well. There is little argument that money invested by Raleigh, NC and Glendale, AZ has failed to yield a return which justifies the expense. There are a variety of reasons, but largely a combination of unfavorable leases which require a very high bar of success (as measured through gate attendance combined with television revenue) and the inability of professional hockey to draw interest away from other sports and forms of entertainment have conspired to make these ventures perennial money losers.
Even in these cases, where I agree fully that these ventures were better off never being entered into in the first place, there’s a flaw in DeMause’s theory of the crime. While the owners certainly do whatever they can to shift the burden of financial loss to their host city, no one makes money in these situations. Glendale, the Coyotes, and the NHL alike have all lost many millions of dollars trying to make major league hockey happen in the desert. It doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of greedy corporate robber barons bleeding cities dry and getting rich while incurring no financial risk. Everybody is losing.
SMALL PEG IN AN AGGREGRATE HOLE
Ultimately, my focus comes back to Hartford, as it always does. Our city, in particular the baseball stadium, is a favorite and a frequent subject of DeMause. He has this to say about the situation:
“Connecticut is like a lot of other states in that it has a lot of cities that are struggling economically, and I think when you have that, you get a lot of people throwing out, ‘OK, what’s the big idea, what can we do to try and turn the city around in a hurry?’” deMause says. “The idea is this will put our city on the map. This will turn us around. Unfortunately, the evidence is overwhelming that it doesn’t work.”
That sounds reasonable, and in a very general sense it isn’t factually incorrect. The studies which DeMause relies upon do suggest his conclusion. However, they do so by aggregating three very different types of markets, which I will refer to from here on out as Coyote, Ranger, and Whaler Markets.
The Coyote Market is an unmitigated disaster that was doomed to fail. The Ranger market is unprofitable by design. It’s an amenity, a loss leader of sorts. DeMause occasionally grouses about the lucrative leases granted to teams in these markets, but seems to acknowledge the inevitability of professional sports as a permanent feature of the landscape in major media markets. The Whaler market is a different beast, neither inevitable or doomed, and DeMause’s boilterplate blurb betrays his failure to understand it.
The elephant in the room, as my nickname may have suggested, is Hartford’s historical relationship with professional hockey. Nothing in his narrative jibes with our experience.
Excepting a few bitter malcontents and nay-sayers, there is a nearly universal consensus that the Whalers had an overwhelmingly positive on Connecticut, the greater Hartford area in particular. At least today. In 1996, state and city officials (who we now know were secretly negotiating the exit of the Whalers in order to pursue the Patriots of the NFL) were flirting with rhetoric that could be described as proto-DeMauseian. This article by Mike Swift of the Courant from that year cites a sweeping study of relocated franchises from 1958 to 1987 and suggests that the loss of the Whalers would hardly be noticeable. A year later, Swift wrote this Pollyanna-esque piece suggesting that Hartford had made the painful but correct choice in refusing to give the Whalers a new arena. Things would not just be okay, they’d be better.
I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry as a laundry list of business owners, every single one of them gone just a few years later, are quoted saying things like “I think it will make more of a difference to me than the Hartford Whalers” and “I’m really ecstatic”.
The mall was demolished. Retail is non-existent, restaurants are smaller and less numerous and the city has become known once again, as it was before the Whalers came, for being dead after 5:00pm. Only in recent years, as makeshift arena upgrades have made it temporarily feasible for UConn athletics to come Downtown, has the arena been able to turn a profit. Downtown residence is increasing, restaurants are staying open later, retail is beginning to exist. The area around the ballpark, be it a fiasco or not, has attracted ancillary development in the immediate area. The Yard Goats brand itself, something DeMause and his ilk never talk about, has done something twenty years of slogans and Metro-Hartford Alliances and millions of dollars in attendant funding have failed to do: get people talking about Hartford for something other than insurance or its high murder rate.
The Goats, seizing on the intangible sense of identity that the Whalers gave Hartford and once drew the entire metro region into the Downtown area in droves, have quietly built a Hartford marketing empire while DeMause has gloated about the chaos around the stadium. They have successfully quantified the benefit that Swift failed to put a number on back in 1996: in merchandise sales. Number one in minor league baseball sales, merchandise sold in all fifty states and several foreign countries. Last week a Yard Goats-focused blog I write for part-time, Bleating Hartford, was ranked #14 out of all baseball blogs on the host site. Out of hundreds, at all levels of the game.
EVERYONE’S A CRITIC, BUT NO ONE HAS A SOLUTION
I raised this point earlier today in a discussion which set the ball rolling for this piece, and the response I received to this description of how professional sports did indeed benefit Hartford was that Hartford subsequent economic decline was not a great argument for bringing the NHL back. I don’t totally disagree with that point, nor do I totally agree with it, but on its face it strikes me as evasive. The original argument I was responding to was the DeMauseian assertion that there is no benefit to cities in investing in professional sports. I made the above point about Coyote, Ranger and Whaler markets (thought with much more brevity though, as we were on Twitter) to illustrate exceptions to that assumption. Shifting the concern from the economic benefit of cities to “what’s in it for the league and team ownership?” feel like moving the goal posts.
That said, it’s not a totally unfair point. As I illustrated earlier with the lose-lose-lose situation of the Arizona Coyotes, it is in everyone’s best interest for any given team to be financially viable for all parties. A professional sports franchise that benefits the host city while the owner loses money is a ripe for relocation as the inverse.
In this case, professional hockey remains an outlier. As salaries sky-rocketed in the nineties, the NHL tried to respond as other leagues had, by expanding their footprint into the south and the west, and pulling out of smaller markets. Hockey, even after having grown in popularity, remains a niche sport compared to the other major leagues. Unable to convert larger markets in the warmer climates into the basis for a national television deal, the NHL has shown an openness to the stability of smaller traditional markets. Winnipeg, back in the league, and Quebec City, currently being considered for expansion, would never be considered for a second in any other league. In the NHL they offer a much-needed stability that only a passionate one-horse town can. Hartford, not being saddled with the Canadian dollar or French-language media, has no rational basis other than the lack of arena to consider ourselves less viable than these two cities.
Perhaps the biggest red flag for me in Hartford’s growing affection for the ideas of DeMause is in who is embracing them. Carrie Saxon-Perry, the now-infamous Hartford mayor who was ousted after suggesting it would be better if the Whalers left because “only white people like hockey” and alienating the CEO of Aetna to the point where he bluntly informed the city that “either she goes or we go”, was a big proponent of redistributing public funds away from pro sports and into addressing the plight of poverty. Years later, local nutjob Ken Krayeske, famous for being publicly dressed down by Jim Calhoun at a press conference and assaulting Governor Jodi Rell on a bicycle, had this to say in response to DeMause’s words regarding the Hartford stadium:
“People in one of the poorest cities in the country should not be bonding money or paying for a stadium so that billionaire owners of baseball teams can field development teams,” says Krayeske, who launched several lawsuits against the city in an attempt to block the stadium’s development.
The irony of Krayeske, who has made a career out of frivolously litigating against the city and state, decrying wasteful public spending, is rich. As of this writing, we are still waiting for his endless series of lawsuits against the city and individual police who apprehended him for charging at the Governor to conclude so a final cost to the taxpayers and can be assessed.
There is a larger point illustrated here. DeMause adopts a practically libertarian tone when talking about “building stadiums on the taxpayer dime”, as do many of his supporters, but what I’ve never seen addressed in any substantial way, is how the money could be better spent. Make no mistake, psuedo-libertarian rhetoric aside, Krayeske and his ilk are not suggesting that anyone be allowed to keep their tax dollars. They represent a hard left which borders on openly socialist and has no reservations about public spending for their pet causes.
The interesting thing about having this discussion in Hartford is that it’s not speculative. Ultimately, the state resisted both the reasonable arena request of the Whalers (studies suggest that a modern arena would have indeed provided enough revenue to make the team viable), and the less reasonable requests of the Patriots. We’ve had moderate-to-liberal leadership at the state level, and it’s been decades since a Republican was politically viable in Hartford. No amount of wealth redistribution has put a dent in poverty, but the loss of regional pride and lack of attractions Downtown have compounded the economic decline in the city and region.
If the economic benefits of stadiums are negligible, and the public funds expended on them so harmful, Hartford should have been a model of success in the post-Whalers era. Money was invested in schools, social services, and “other ways of marketing the city” as is so often vaguely suggested. Until very recently, Hartford has been religiously DeMauseian in its refusal to spend a dime maintaining or building arenas and stadiums. Having followed his playbook to a tee, the state today faces a deficit of over $900 million.
It strikes me as opportunistic and disingenuous to suddenly lay the blame for the city’s decline at the feet of a AA baseball stadium.
SNARKY ANSWERS TO COMPLICATED SYSTEMS
A final irregularity to consider, which speaks to the ideological underpinning of the movement DeMause has birthed, is that all of these figures regarding economic benefits not only exclude certain ancillary economic benefits in way which strikes me as somewhat arbitrary (I can find absolutely no accounting for the very real benefit of publicity, which is something Hartford currently and unsuccessfully spends millions of dollars on), but have been offset to account for tax breaks, gifted land etc.
This is not to say that there is no value to even a blighted lot, such as the one the Hartford stadium now occupies, but allowing a team to occupy an empty space that had no prospective tenants, even at no or reduced cost, is not the same as giving money outright to a team. It’s simply intellectually dishonest to suggest they are equivalent. And to conflate the situation of the Ranger Market and the value of the land where Madison Square Garden sits, with the Whaler Market and the useless vacant lot which became a ballpark, is another example of where the simplistic analysis of DeMause fails to truly explain a complex system.
Furthermore, the narrative of greedy owners swindling naive cities over and over may be true in some cases, but when stretched out to the point of becoming a sweeping generalization, it becomes mighty thin. Even Peter Karmanos, as arrogant and selfish as he might be, can not be honestly said to have entered the Raleigh market with any intention of failure. He simply miscalculated the market and his ability to succeed there. And while all owners are certainly profit-driven, the suggestion that owner greed is driving the ever-escalating race towards bigger and better arenas is simply flat-out wrong, the most simplistic analysis possible. Arenas are a response. The real driving factor is rising player salaries.
Prior to Bob Goodenow’s 15-year reign as head of the NHL Player’s Association, Hartford, despite having one of the smallest arenas and lower-than-average attendance, was one of the most profitable teams in the league. Creative merchandising and an affluent fanbase which was willing to pay premium prices for tickets made the market’s size a non-issue. This changed in the early nineties. Under Goodenow, player salaries started rising rapidly. Teams which could afford new arenas which provided additional revenue streams did so and survived until 2005, when the salary cap and revenue sharing were mercifully implemented. Teams that could not or would not moved.
The particulars of this are widely misunderstood (to the extent that they’re known at all) by fans, which is why Hartford’s loss of the Whalers seemed like a sudden, confusing and most of all undeserved betrayal by the league and our owner. The arena had been full every night for a year and we had successfully grown one of the largest season ticket bases in the league. The team still left.
It didn’t matter, and no one understand the real reason why: The arena and it’s attendant streams of revenue were the only thing which could have saved us.
DeMause’s response to this phenomenon is glib, dismissive, and oft-repeated: “Of course they really need a new stadium, LOL”. In his world, sports is less a business than a hunting ground full of amoral wolves and misguided sheep. The fact that the escalation of expenses is driven in part by, of all things, a labor union, is not a point of view many anti-stadium activists are willing or able to process. So greedy owners it is.
In the real world, where human behavior is notoriously responsive to both profit and multi-million dollar losses, things are more complicated. The swindle theory is debunked by a very obvious fact which (yet again) DeMause’s anaylsis fails to address with an substance: cities keep walking into these stadium deals, over and over again, with clear eyes.
Why would somebody do something, over and over again, if there was such overwhelming evidence that there is no benefit to doing so?
The simple explanation: They wouldn’t, and they don’t.
I recently invited to participate in panel on public spending and sports by Colin McEnroe of WNPR, serving in the role (of course) of a Whalers historian of sorts. The panel included the owner of the Yard Goats, a well-paid public official who heads up an agency that exists for the sole purpose of promoting the state nationally, and Victor Matheson, an economist from Holy Cross who DeMause cites in his work. We discussed many of the things I’ve written about here, and at a certain point Matheson was pressed to explain, as an economist, why cities kept building these stadiums if they were such bad deals.
He made the point as eloquently as I could have, albeit reluctantly and with several qualifications.
If you have a good lease, and have done due diligence on the market, and have a stable tenant, and the ancillary development happens as planned…yes, he admitted, it can be a sound investment. The words seemed to be dragged from his mouth against their will, and you could hear audible groans from members of the crowd who were counting on Matheson to make DeMause’s case on their behalf, but there it was. At the end of the day, we weren’t disagreeing on the facts. It was more a matter of worldview.
The problem, he went on to explain, lies with the intangibles. A normal business model wouldn’t consider breaking even a success because other area business benefited from its presence. Sports, as a whole, exist not because they are profitable, but because they mean something to people. Even when they are economically beneficial, they are irrational in a way that makes people uncomfortable. People who don’t like sports or don’t care to see them as positive seem simply unable and unwilling to consider the more nebulous benefits of pride and positive regional identity.
For people who find the idea of corporate welfare odious (even when it comes in the form of not taxing revenue that wouldn’t exist in the first place) and the idea of professional sports brutish and trivial, it’s understandably difficult for them to wrap their heads around the fact that so many people are willing to expend so much time and money propping up this massive industry. They can’t understand why that money isn’t invested in education or the arts or theatre, anything loftier than this dumb, ugly American monolith of professional sports. But again, it’s intellectually dishonest to pretend this is some kind of swindle perpetrated on an unknowing public. Athletes and owners make as much money as they do because we want them to. We voted on it, with dollars. They won. Over and over again.
The trouble with democracy is that even dumb ugly Americans, yes, even those of us who are passionate about men in green whale uniforms punching each other on ice, are allowed to decide what benefits them most.
And that’s exactly what we’ve done.
$100 Million: the economic activity generated annually by the Hartford Whalers (Per Mike Swift of the Courant this figure includes ticket sales, parking, concessions, restaurants, hotels and sales taxes and is in 1995 dollars)
$59 Million: The average NHL payroll circa 2012, a significant portion of which is spent and taxed locally
556,000 Viewers: An average audience for regular season Whalers games against out-of-market opponents on weeknights when broadcast on ESPN. There is considerable debate about how to best quantify the value of national exposure cities receive from professional sports branding, but it is not factored into any of DeMause’s studies.
$147.5 Million: the proposed cost of the NHL arena the state refused to build for the Whalers
$374 Million: the cost of the stadium that the state offered to the Patriots, which was refused
16%: The percentage of visitors to the city of Hartford who came exclusively because of NHL hockey (does not include employees of businesses who were incidentally profitable because of the presence of the Whalers)
$14.6 Million: The latest available figure for annual charitable contributions by Aetna, a Hartford-based corporation which built and and subsidized the Hartford Civic Center and mall. In 2012, Aetna approached the state with a Downtown revitalization plan which included a renovated and modern arena. Their plan was rejected by Governor Malloy. Aetna is currently considering a move out of state. General Electric recently departed for Boston, citing not taxes but a lack of amenities. Both companies employ thousands.
$700,000: The annual revenue loss suffered by Chuck’s Steakhouse, one of the restaurants in the Civic Center mall, as a result of the Whalers departure. Every game played Downtown brought approximately 600 additional diners to Chuck’s, which quickly became unprofitable and closed.
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BONUS HILARIOUS VIDEO:
You know, if you’d asked to interview me, I would have happily responded to your questions.
I didn’t really have any questions, as this was just a long-form explanation of a point that was ill-suited to being made on Twitter. Did not expect you to read it or be interested in clarifying anything, but if you’d like to respond toor clarify anything I’d be happy to hear your side.
Well, I don’t have a media empire, or a church. (If I did, I could ask for more in tribute. Or tithes.) And I agree that the Coyotes situation has been a lose-lose all around. And I’m certainly not a libertarian, nor do I think that ever spending public money on sports is a bad thing — I’ve been open in my praise of the funding of the Minneapolis Metrodome, for example, which was 100% paid for with government dollars, but repaid by the Twins and Vikings via rent and sharing actual concessions and ad revenues.
As for Hartford and the Yard Goats and Whalers, sure there’s some small economic benefit to getting more people spending money on sports in your town (especially if they’d otherwise be spending it in Rocky Hill or wherever), as well as some benefit to being known for something other than crime stats. (Though when I think of Hartford, I personally think of insurance companies and “Judging Amy.”) But it’s simply not very big. A long list of economists at this point (including Victor Matheson) have searched for any evidence that cities that build stadiums to attract teams do better economically than cities that lose teams, and it just doesn’t show up anywhere in the data — per-capita income doesn’t go up, sales tax receipts don’t go up, nothing. It’s possible there’s something that’s too small to accurately measure, but “Hey, if you spend $50 million on a stadium there will be an insignificant blip in Hartford residents’ income” isn’t much of a sales pitch.
Does this mean that sports is worthless? Of course not. I love sports, and if I were in Hartford, I’d be happy to have a chance to go see the Yard Goats. (Of course, I could have gone to see them when they were in New Britain, too, but having them 15 minutes closer has some value.) As I just told a reporter in Texas who asked me if it was worth spending $500 million to keep the Rangers from moving from Arlington to Dallas, “If you’re a Rangers fan and it’s worth $500 million to you to not have to drive an extra 20 minutes to the next town to watch your team, or to be able to take pride in the team playing in Arlington, by all means vote for this plan. But don’t do it because you think you’re going to get $500 million worth of economic benefits, because it’s not going to happen.”
The problem with most stadium deals today isn’t that they’re publicly funded. It’s that they socialize the costs and privatize the profits, with the public getting stuck with all the bills and the team owner reaping all the revenues. That’s what’s going on in Hartford with the Yard Goats — so I hope they get to play in their stadium soon, and people really enjoy the games, because they’re paying through the nose to do so before they’ve even walked up to the box office.
Re: Your church/empire/cult, I wasn’t casting any aspersions on your personally. There is a local tendency to quote your work rather than debate which makes it feel like one is dealing with a religious fanatic, but I don’t fault you for that. I will say that while I don’t agree with your assessment of Hartford, I think the reason your work resonates is because there are so many bad deals out there.
I would argue that given the unique situation of Hartford, where Downtown Hartford was connected to the entire metro region by the Whalers, the benefit was more than a little significant. The studies I’ve seen give numbers between $75-100 million in economic activity lost. It’s pretty visible as downtown was once a place where it was hard to move and is now a ghost town. Dozens of businesses left and were replaced with absolutely nothing. There’s also some more intangible stuff which it seems like economists are just starting to get a handle on, like the value of publicity and regional pride, which is really significant in a small town with one team like Hartford in a way it might not be elsewhere. 97% of Whalers fans were from surrounding suburbs. At the time, that was seen as a bad thing. Today we have a problem where people actively avoid the capital city and take a REALLY dim view of it as this awful place which alternates between being terribly boring and incredibly dangerous.
I guess my whole point was that every city is unique in it’s own ways, and exponentially so when it’s a smaller city like Hartford.
I do agree in many situations we’re breaking even at best, and shouldn’t expect a dollar-for-dollar return. But I could say the same about many public expenditures. Sports seem trivial compared to social services perhaps, but on the other I know people who survived childhood cancer because the Whalers built a treatment center for a type of cancer which was previously untreatable in Connecticut. That stuff gets lost in the broader discussion.
Economist Geoffrey Propheter actually did a study of NBA cities not too long ago, and found that there was a small positive impact for one particular type of market: those where the NBA team was the only pro sports franchise, and it brought people downtown who otherwise would have been spending money in the suburbs. So you’re right that Hartford is the best-case scenario for the value of a team, but even then, it’s still small.
I haven’t seen the economic studies showing the amount of spending lost by the Whalers’ departure, but those sorts of studies are typically pretty weak. The best way to figure this out would be to look at year-to-year sales tax receipts for the city of Hartford, and see if they changed significantly when the Whalers left (and if they changed more during NHL season, which would indicate that it’s probably not just because the overall economy changed or whatever). I’m sure some businesses were hurt by the Whalers leaving, but in general sports are a pretty bad anchor for retail businesses — there’s only about 40 home games a year, and only about a one-hour window to sell things to people before and afterwards, meaning you have to struggle like crazy the other 8,680 hours a year to find customers.
The branding aspect is interesting, and something I’m increasingly curious about living as I do in possibly the most aggressively branded places on earth (Brooklyn). I tend to suspect the impact of sports is overrated there, too, though — if anything, more people have been convinced to move to NYC by “Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City.” Maybe Hartford should have spent its $50 million funding a reboot of “Judging Amy.”
Dozens of business no longer existing is not an exaggeration. It’s hard to overstate the difference in the downtown area post-Whalers. An entire mall was physically destroyed in response. Your point about a team only occupying 40 nights a year is valid, but in Hartford those 40 nights served to make Hartford attractive to the metro area for the other 325 days. You didn’t just see a loss of business on the days the Whalers weren’t playing. You saw people stop coming to Hartford altogether. At this point, there is an entire generation where a significant number of people have deliberately avoided the capital city for their entire lives.
It’s funny that you identify us with “Judging Amy”, I’d forgotten the show ever existed and I’m not sure if anyone who lives here has ever talked about it. Our identity, in my estimation, is 1) Whalers (Yard Goats is seen as a subsidiary of that) 2) UConn and 3) Arts/Theatre.
It had Tyne Daly! And Cheech! And, um, that guy who plays the general on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! Admittedly, I probably only noticed it was set in Hartford because I’d never seen anything else set in Hartford.
It’s been decades since I last lived in Connecticut, but the idea that people from the surrounding area stopped going to Hartford because they no longer had the Whalers to remind them that Hartford was a place to go to strikes me as confirmation bias at best, and urban legend at worst. If you have economic numbers to show otherwise, though, I’d love to take a look, because it would be an extremely unusual situation, to say the least.
In the absence of evidence, I’m not sure I’d assume either confirmation bias or urban legend, but I suppose the burden of proof is on me. Having lived through these events without ever leaving the Greater Hartford region, and then having spent much of the last two years researching, writing and discussing this matter daily, I feel I can confidently say it’s neither.
First, a minor quibble over phrasing. I think the notion that the Whalers reminded people that Hartford was a place to go isn’t an entirely accurate way to describe the situation, nor would I ever claim that the Whalers were of such economic importance that they bore sole responsibility for the economic health of Downtown Hartford. I would say that prior to the construction of the Civic Center, Hartford’s role as a regional gathering place was significantly less. This was by design, part of a vision the local business community had for Hartford. They invested significantly both in the construction of the arena and the adjacent shopping mall, but in the Whalers, who became its main tenant.
So the Whalers anchored the Civic Center, which anchored the mall, which anchored the majority of Downtown retail and food service. A full 16% of visits to the city by non-residents were attributed solely to NHL hockey at the time of the Whalers departure. This is not a majority, but it’s a significant percentage for events which occupy only about 40 nights. 97% of the people who attended these games did not live in Hartford, and part of the design of the facility was such that people would return to Hartford on nights when there were no games.
Chuck’s Steakhouse, a restaurant inside the Civic Center itself, reported that on a non-game night they drew about 25% of the revenue they did when games occurred. While that 25% was not enough for the restaurant to be profitable alone, it’s a remarkable amount of activity for a restaurant inside an arena with no event occurring.
Part of the damage done to Hartford’s relationship with residents of the suburbs by the Whalers leaving was that the places where people went simply did not exist any longer. The NHL games no longer occurred. The restaurants which depended on them closed. That led to the mall closing, and most other retail followed. There wasn’t so much a lack of reminders as there was no place to go even if they did remember. The games in and of themselves, as you’ve noted, were only 40 nights. But the games had successfully established Hartford as a destination.
We didn’t just lose 800 meals at Chuck’s on games nights. We lost 200 meals every night. And it wasn’t just Chuck’s. I can name over a dozen businesses off the top of my head that folded quickly.
The harder to quantify part is the public perception of Hartford by people who live in the metro area. There is some data starting to be assembled by economists over the value of publicity and regional pride as related to television and marketing exposure, and this was one of the things discussed at the panel I participated in with Matheson, but it’s not something anyone has really nailed down as far as I can tell. There certainly is no data from the eighties or nineties regarding Hartford.
I can tell you as a resident of the region however, that the problem was not that the Whalers weren’t reminding us that Hartford existed. While to some degree, Hartford was forgotten as the popular businesses that relied on the Whalers closed and were replaced by new businesses in the suburbs (nearby Manchester in particular engaged in some very parasitic development at Hartford’s expense during this decline), the bigger problem was that Hartford started to be known for being dangerous. While the crime was largely isolated to one or two neighborhoods which were isolated from Downtown, public perception began to shift as people spent less and less time Downtown and constant news reports of shootings supplanted first-hand experience in forming impressions of the city.
Today in 2016, it is entirely common for people who live within 10-15 minutes of Downtown Hartford to express serious concerns that they might be shot or robbed while attending a Yard Goats game. There is no factual basis for this fear, and the small number of folks such as myself who still visit Hartford regularly are well aware of this, but we no longer live in a world where either you or someone you know is Downtown frequently for NHL hockey or the Civic Center mall. I suppose I could conduct a survey or something of the sort to provide some hard data, but as someone who writes about the subject and is constantly fielding comments about the subject of Hartford I can assure you that fear of and disdain for the city is becoming alarmingly widespread.
It’s hard for me to put a cash value on any of this. We will probably agree to disagree on the degree of economic impact since we have philosophical differences on how that impact and cost should be calculated, but even if I stipulated that the NHL itself was an investment that broke even at best for Hartford, the things which grew around it and subsequently collapsed, both material and spiritual, were a catastrophic loss. There are few people living here today who would, given a time machine, hesitate to go back and spend the $150 million it would have taken to retain the Whalers in
Oh, I wholeheartedly agree that how attitudes toward cities end up getting constructed — “branding,” for lack of a better word, but it’s far more complicated than that, since it involves ideas about race and crime and all sorts of other things — are a huge area yet to be researched. (I’m currently doing so some for the Brooklyn Nets arena for a book project, though obviously Brooklyn and Hartford are on very different trajectories right now.) I’ll touch base with Matheson to see what, if anything, he’s found on this.
Would I recommend that Hartford go back in time and spend $150 million to keep the Whalers? That’s a tough call, but you can certainly make the case that, once you’ve built your whole local economy on a single linchpin, you need to spend whatever it takes to keep it from leaving. (This is the argument for Glendale continuing to throw money at the Coyotes to keep them in town.) It might depend on how long a lease they’d been willing to agree to — if it had solved the problem for the long term, that’s one thing, but if the Whalers owners were today talking about demanding money to build a replacement for the arena that replaced the Civic Center, that’s a treadmill you might not want to be on.
Either way, I hope we can agree that it sucks that Karmanos could buy a team out from under Hartford fans and move it to whatever city offered him the most arena cash. However you think Hartford should have responded, that’s a scenario that can only end badly.