It’s been 20 years since the Hartford Whalers left Connecticut and the attendance problem that contributed to the departure still haunts hockey teams in the state.
Despite being a New York Rangers affiliate with the second-longest running affiliation between a National Hockey League club and an American Hockey League city, the Hartford Wolf Pack ranks near the bottom of AHL teams in average game attendance.
Through the first 24 games of this season, the Wolf Pack’s average attendance was 3,847, ranking 27th among the American Hockey League’s 30 teams, according to statistics supplied by the Massachusetts-based league.
Perhaps that’s why Connecticut leaders are trying to persuade the New York Islanders NHL team to relocate to the XL Center in Hartford.
“This is a ready market anxious for an NHL team, eager to fill seats, buy merchandise and support your team,” says a Feb. 3 letter sent to Islanders ownership by Gov. Dannel Malloy and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin.
Released to Crain’s Connecticut by Mayor Bronin’s office, the letter cites ongoing XL Center renovations as well as the residual Whalers fan base, which the letter calls “one of the NHL’s most energetic.”
Islanders Director of Communications Kimber Auerbach could not be reached for comment on the letter.
Attendance woes plague both teams
The Hartford Wolf Pack is struggling with a 16-24 win-loss record this year, putting it at No. 29 in the league standings. Average attendance for all AHL teams combined this season is 5,551.
For the previous season of 2015-16, the Wolf Pack’s average attendance was 4,440 per game, placing it No. 23 among AHL teams with 1,542 fewer fans per game than the average attendance of all teams combined. Hartford’s average attendance fell by 28 from the 2014-15 season.
Meanwhile, Connecticut’s other AHL team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, is experiencing steeper declines in average attendance and also ranks near the bottom of the league.
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers, founded in 2001, play home games at the 10,000-seat Webster Bank Arena. The Sound Tigers this season rank 28th in attendance, with an average of 3,604 fans, despite an impressive 25-15 win-loss record.
Islanders spokesman Auerbach said in an email that the parent team is preparing marketing plans for the Sound Tigers but declined to give details, citing competitive business concerns.
Despite withering attendance, the revenues of the Sound Tigers and Wolf Pack are not declining, said David Andrews, who is the AHL’s president and CEO.
“We audit their results and their revenues are not going down,” he said.
Winter is the strongest period for attendance, so it’s possible the Wolf Pack and Sound Tigers could reverse the trend by season's end, Andrews said.
Wolf Pack are committed through 2017-18
Amid the fan attraction problem, the Wolf Pack will continue playing home games at the 16,294-seat XL Center in Hartford at least through next season. The New York Rangers announced on Jan. 11 that they had reached an agreement with XL Center manager Spectra by Comcast Spectacor for the 2017-18 season.
Financial terms weren’t disclosed.
The agreement covering the 2017-18 season stems from an earlier pact that included three years guaranteed plus two option years, said Michael Freimuth, executive director of the Hartford-based Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees structural upkeep and improvements to the XL Center. The 2017-18 season is the second of the two option years, he noted.
The authority is pushing for a $250 million renovation of the XL Center, which opened in 1974 and used to be known as the Hartford Civic Center. The authority has spent $40 million in the past few years on the city-owned stadium, including upgrades of training facilities in 2013 and locker rooms in 2014. Fan amenities have been added with many more included in the renovation plan, Freimuth said.
Freimuth said he doesn’t see the Wolf Pack’s future in Hartford as dependent on the size and timing of the renovation, however. Preliminary discussions have begun with the team about a longer-term extension, he added.
“It’s pretty informal right now,” Freimuth said in a phone interview. “It’s just business partners talking over coffee at this point.”
AHL President Andrews said he had a recent conversation with Spectra by Comcast Spectacor, which manages the downtown arena on a day-to-day basis, and that they were upbeat about the Wolf Pack’s future at the XL Center.
“They feel very comfortable with how things are,” he said.
From the city’s perspective
With the Wolf Pack attendance ebbing, however, it’s not a certainty that the city would favor extending the arrangement, said Christopher Bruhl, president and CEO of the Business Council of Fairfield County and a Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau board member.
It’s important to keep people coming to the XL Center to help businesses in that area and enliven the downtown, he said. Whether some other entity or a combination of things could draw more than the Wolf Pack remains to be seen, Bruhl said.
“Facilities need product,” he said, noting that he is not privy to any talks on the team’s future. “If the product doesn’t lose too much money than a strong case can be made for continuing the arrangement.”
Hartford leaders generally like having sports teams, but financial circumstances could force their hand, Bruhl added.
“It may end up being an issue of civic pride versus civic responsibility,” he said.
Mayor Bronin said he is glad to have both the Wolf Pack and UConn playing at the XL Center, adding that he takes his three children to the games. UConn has been drawing well compared with its 11 Hockey East Association competitors, he noted, calling the Wolf Pack “a steady draw.”
The $250 million XL Center project would likely get hockey attendance heading up, Bronin said.
“It’s an older facility in desperate need of renovation,” he said. “If we want to remain competitive it needs the upgrade.”