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What's Next For The XL Center?

College SportsXL CenterElectionsFinanceNCAABig Ten

I have no answer. I'm going to ask the question, anyway.

If the forces that oppose the Rock Cats' move to Hartford in what has become a daily food fight are able to kill the $60 million stadium deal, will it enhance or diminish the chances of getting a new XL Center?

Like I said, I don't know the answer. The question still needs to be asked.

When Geno Auriemma took over as an afternoon host on WTIC radio the other day, he was candid about the state of the XL Center, especially the floor level. It's bad. In some areas, it is beyond bad. Auriemma pointed out that if you took people on a tour of the place and then told them that this is the home of dual national basketball champions, they'd be astonished.

Auriemma probably thought he was stating the obvious, but the interest his words drew is indicative of how much weight they carry in the state. Sometimes it's not just the message. Sometimes it's the messenger.

The XL Center, as currently constructed, has reached its expiration date. The $35 million in improvements for heating and cooling systems, for locker rooms to help the building to limp through a few more years, is a band-aid on a massive gash, lipstick on a pig, however you want to term it.

So as this heady Travelers Championship week begins — a stark reminder of something precious that we nearly lost — you can bank on this much: When the Capital Region Development Authority study is completed in the coming months, there will be a recommendation for either a near total makeover of the XL Center or a new arena. You're looking at a price tag between $250 million and $400 million.

We're talking up to seven times as much bonding as the $60 million on the baseball stadium. Granted, this will be a state-run operation on a city-owned building, not a city-run one. And, granted, there are many differences between the XL Center and a baseball park and their tenants.

Still, after the outrage over the secrecy of the meetings between the city and Rock Cats, after cries that the money should instead go for education or roads, after the quoted studies that stadiums/arenas do nothing for a city's economic engine, there stands one indisputable fact.

Many people don't want any public funds to go to sports venues. And if there are enough of those people, eventually they can carry the day.

So it gets back to my question. If the baseball stadium deal falls, will it enhance the chances of getting a new XL Center or diminish it? Will it be seen as a better place to spend it on or proof that resistance is contagious?

I don't know. But I sure as hell want to find out, because beyond hockey and some concerts, the XL Center houses the crown jewels of Connecticut sports, basketball jewels themselves that are threatened by changes ahead within the NCAA. If there is no real appetite to put in the hundreds of millions of dollars needed on the existing site or one just north of downtown, it would be enlightening — make that imperative — to hear systematic input from the power brokers in political office and the news media in front of the CRDA findings.

We don't need the reactive mashed potato throwing like the one we're seeing with the Rock Cats.

The hard truth is that sports venues have a tough time getting approval in a public referendum. Lots of people don't like sports and more hate what they see as an extra tax burden. Even when it doesn't come to a public referendum — the XL Center approval in all likelihood will go through the legislature — there can be overwhelming pressure on elected officials.

For example, read Kevin Rennie's recent column in The Courant about voters sending a message to those who support the baseball stadium. An opponent of the deal, Rennie, a former Republican lawmaker, all but endorses Eric Coleman against Shawn Wooden, city council leader and a stadium proponent, for the Aug. 12 state Senate Democratic primary. And you thought they play rough in the athletic world? So when the lights burn harsh on the XL Center, with huge money and huge stakes, will some legislators lose their courage under fire in their own district? What, it would never happen to UConn? It already did in 1997 when a fractured legislature voted down a stadium for a move to big-time football.

I am for baseball downtown. I've already expressed that point. And although some want to paint me as a fan boy, I have and will continue to write that the ability to pay off the annual debt has to make some sense. Tough questions on whether the financials work is something I root for.

In an op-ed piece for The Courant, Andrew Campbell, who got his master's in business administration from Worcester Poly, ran some raw numbers and came up with a $20 million shortfall on a $60 million deal. I talked at length to Rock Cats owner Josh Solomon on Friday. He is passionate that it is a good deal for both sides.

"This is a win-win," Solomon said. "And we've done a significant amount of our own due diligence."

It would do Solomon little good to beat the city's brains in on a deal and have the team fail downtown. He'd ultimately pay a price, too.

Mayor Pedro Segarra, unfortunately, emerged from secret talks to breeze over everything and called it a done deal. Well, proposals have to be considered by the planning and zoning commission and two of its own committees before being voted on by the city council. There's a public hearing on the proposals scheduled for July 21, too. Done deal is not a phrase I would use.

At the news conference June 4, Segarra said that 600 full-time jobs would be created. The commissioned study said "supported" 600 jobs. He deservedly got hammered on that point. Thirty years of experience have exposed me to repeated hyperbole on those economic benefits. Having said that, I firmly believe that there is much value above and beyond the actual bonding deal, especially when you're looking at 76-100 warm weather events in a downtown that has so few. Yet if Campbell's numbers are accurate, $20 million in the hole isn't good enough. Campbell also doesn't nearly have all the data that some of the experts hired by the city and Solomon have. We need clarity here. And as difficult as it could be, I would encourage city and team to be open to improving the deal if necessary. Something else: Where are the corporations right now? You want things for your employees, to stop the brain drain to Boston and New York? If you are supportive, speak up.

Look, no significant venture is without snafus. If someone is dead-set against it going in, it's not so hard to cause death by a million pinpricks. It's called being a cynic. I know. In the sports world, I make a living at it.

According to a WNPR report the other day, a little-known city charter provision states that any improvement of more than $2 million for which the city borrows money can be pushed to a citywide vote after the council approves it. Did not know that. If the city decided to kick in money for the XL Center, that could play a role there, too.

A UConn athletic department source told Mike DiMauro of The Day of New London that UConn is under intense political pressure to play in Hartford to help out businesses.

"Honestly," the source said, "if the XL Center disappeared tomorrow and we had to play all our games on campus, everyone here would celebrate."

"Nonsense," UConn athletic director Warde Manuel said. "We never talked internally or externally about not playing in Hartford. We love the renovations they are doing at the XL Center and hope the renovations continue."

UConn would be foolish to look away from potential big days at a new XL Center. UConn also wants to see big things happen. Yet make no mistake, there are some fans who simply would rather that the money go into a total makeover of Gampel Pavilion than play in Hartford, and that further fractures the situation.

This much I do know. If nothing is done, UConn athletics will suffer. The power five conferences are rattling their swords for more autonomy. Using issues like more financial support for athletes and transfer rules to create gaps between them and the rest of the nation's schools, those big boys are positioning themselves for the biggest television paydays.

"They sound like the South during the Civil War," UCF football coach George O'Leary told the Orlando Sentinel recently. "If they don't get their way, they're going to secede and start their own country. ... I think college football is in real trouble."

"I think it's going to create a disparity and another gap between institutions," UConn football coach Bob Diaco said.

If I tried to convince you that an addition to Rentschler Field ahead of any decision to expand by the Big Ten is not an insane idea, hundreds of you would try to get me committed to the NCAA rubber room. When you're drawing 25,000 fans, the reasoning for a 50,000 seat stadium is insane, right? Still, let this stand as fair warning that if the Big Ten, with a cache that would carry UConn into the next century, does come calling, we better be ready for a bigger stadium. Non-buyer beware.

The larger point that UConn sports is a crown jewel is non-negotiable, and those jewels are at risk by something as big as the NCAA and something as local as state and city politics. You have my question. Think about your answer.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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