Fix Rentschler Field? Not before the XL Center

Sep. 20—A (mostly) rhetorical question posed to the sports fans of Connecticut:

Are we a college basketball or college football state?

Chances are, the overwhelming majority of you just answered with an absorbing, "well, duh." And so in the hoopla of our hardwood hankerings, we recall the words of Jim Calhoun:

Not one dime.

Not one dime earmarked for the $63 million dollars a recent study reported to repair Rentschler Field. Not one dime until our lawmakers actually make a decision about the XL Center.

Because we are a basketball state first.

It's why UConn poohbahs decided to return to the Big East in the first place.

And so we're suddenly going to contemplate tossing $63 million samolians so Dead Program Walking, otherwise known as UConn football, has a modernized place to play?

Sorry. Can't do it.

You remember the XL Center, no? The Grande Dame of downtown Hartford, home to UConn basketball and hockey, the Wolfpack and concerts? The XL Center: a coughing, wheezing, crumbling rockpile, whose well-being has been hijacked by politicians and lawmakers, who have kicked the metaphorical can to somewhere near El Paso by now.

Seriously: Gov. Lamont and Sen. Murphy love tweeting about their beloved Huskies. Now maybe, you know, they can actually do something to help?

What began some years ago at $250 million to renovate the building has been downsized to a taxpayer-funded $100 million (although that could be rising), lessened mostly through what Mike Freimuth, the head of the Capital Region Development Authority, calls a "lower bowl strategy." It is designed to "shrink" the XL to 11,000 seats for certain events, while also preserving the upper bowl capacity to reach 16,000 by using a special walling system.

I asked Freimuth, a good guy and straight shooter, about Rentschler vs. the XL the other day in the wake of the Hartford Courant's report about potential repairs to The Rent.

"Yes, the XL is more desperate for help, is used more and generally speaking, arenas drive more economic spin than stadiums," Freimuth said. "But they're two different worlds with different markets and different facility demands.

"Had we invested in the XL 25 years ago, we would have avoided some of the obsolescence we face today and shouldn't repeat that mistake with Rentschler or for that matter, the convention center."

A word on Freimuth: He is by no means a politician. He has been more transparent than a bottle of Aquafina throughout the process. He's fond of calling the XL project "a big nickel." He's also rid $150 million off the original price tag with smartly altered plans.

"Most venues tire out at 20 years," Freimuth said, "either because the industry standards move on or wear and tear catch up to normal life cycles. There is depreciation of equipment and systems. For technology, it's even quicker.

"The Rentschler study suggested that even more dollars should be invested but we had to prioritize and recognize budget realities and suggested a five-year, $60 million phased approach."

But this is where our lawmakers need to awaken. The downtown arena in the capital city has more cachet — especially in a basketball state — than the suburban stadium, whose primary tenant has lost approximately 99 of its last 100 football games.

Earlier this year, Freimuth talked about potential partnerships between the CRDA and some entertainment management groups. Promising? Perhaps. But it also sounds a lot like the foibles of Route 11, the useless 8.5-mile highway from Colchester to Salem whose construction stopped in the 1970s several miles from the shoreline. Despite a number of possibles, maybes and God willings, Route 11 became Lucy yanking the football from Charlie Brown.

UConn faces a $47 million athletic deficit (provided we're done paying Kevin Ollie, which Vegas might call a pick 'em at this point). This is concerning for many reasons, not the least of which is a department hemorrhaging money paying rent to the XL Center for home games there. Freimuth said rent for men's and women's basketball is $40,500 per game plus $3 for every ticket sold. Hockey pays $20,500 per game plus $2 for every ticket sold, although UConn receives an incentive fee once an annual attendance threshold is met for each team.

The good news: Amenities in a renovated XL Center might keep UConn's rent stable.

"If we're able to fully renovate the building, the idea is to restructure the basic UConn/XL deal," Freimuth said. "That effectively creates increased revenues for UConn from premium, club and new floor level suite revenues that also impact donations and sponsorships as well as bigger upside from improved concessions."

Many UConn fans offer a dismissive wave to Hartford games and blithely suggest playing all the games on campus. But this comes at political peril.

UConn's participation in playing games over the years at the XL Center has come mostly through unwritten rules. It keeps the downtown business owners happy and is politically astute. Good relations between UConn and lawmakers means favorable appropriations.

"The building operates at a loss (pre-COVID) of roughly $2 million annually," Freimuth said. "The state allocates between $600-800K towards this. The rest is covered by parking revenues at the attached Church St. garage generated by XL events.

"However, the building does not get credit for the nearly $2 million it generates in taxes to the state coffers. The state earns annually $2 million and appropriates $600-800K, so the XL is contributing about $1.4 million to the state budget that could cover its operating costs."

Think about that the next time you see another inane tweet from a lawmaker about how much they love their Huskies.

They might consider pulling the plug on the rhetoric and investing some thought into the central artery of downtown Hartford and home to the state's biggest sports entity: UConn basketball.

And if the discussion ever creeps into a discourse about Rentschler over the XL, refer to the resident Hall of Famer.

Not one dime.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro