Hartford hopes spending $100m on new restrooms and coffee bars will make arena profitable (it won’t)

A hearing on Connecticut’s planned $100 million renovation of Hartford’s sports arena has been pushed back to February so that the city can hold more talks with the owner of neighboring retail space, which, whatever, unless you’re really so bored under lockdown that you’ve resorted to watching arena renovation hearings. But the Hartford Courant article on the delay does provide an opportunity to see exactly what the state is planning to spend the money on, and why.

The state already spent $35 million on renovations in 2014 and $18 million more in 2017. Initial plans for a $250 million renovation that would have added new concessions concourses on both the upper and lower levels were rejected because $250 million, and also because hardly anybody ever sits in the upper level what with the arena mostly only hosting minor-league hockey and the occasional college basketball game. So instead the state is focusing on redoing just the lower level concourse:

The renovation will include industry standards restrooms, concessions, premium seating and other systems for the average 12,000 seats that events typically draw rather than the arena’s full 16,000-seat capacity.

The premium seating includes bunker suites at center court, a club with seating for 100 or more — both on floor level close to the action. More loge seating would be added elsewhere in the arena.

State officials hope the renovation will increase revenue with more premium seating and amenities; push the venue to make a profit, which it traditionally has not done; and reduce expenses, eliminating costly repairs to outdated equipment for which parts are difficult to find.

So, some math: The arena has previously been reported to be losing about $1 million a year in recent years. Interest rates are low right now, but even if $100 million in renovation bonds can be sold at a low rate like 3%, that’s still going to add $5 million a year in red ink to the arena’s books. So just to get the arena back to break-even, it will take at least $6 million a year in new revenues from the added concessions and luxury seating. I haven’t been able to find current concessions revenue numbers, but this article indicates that premium seating currently only generates $1.4 million a year currently, so this would require Hartford Wolf Pack and UConn basketball fans to be willing to increase their spending a whole lot to be able to sit and go on their laptops while the game plays on a screen somewhere in the background, which seems speculative, to say the least.

About that earlier article, by the way: It’s about a study from last February by everyone’s favorite dysfunctional stadium consultant, Convention Sports & Leisure, which projected that the Hartford arena renovations would indeed increase annual revenues, but would still leave the arena running about a $500,000 annual loss. The study also indicated that the arena is currently running a $2-3 million loss, not the $1 million previously reported, and that the new luxury seating would generate $3.6 million in new gross revenues, and — you know, honestly, trying to do math on CSL reports is hopeless, because they’re just number salad. But “even a consultant who’s paid to make arena renovations seem worthwhile can’t figure out how to make this one look profitable” is a perfectly legit takeaway here, if “people will spend millions of dollars more at the arena if you give them nicer bathrooms and coffee bars” wasn’t doing it for you.

 

Hartford unveils $100m arena upgrade so fans can ignore the game in comfort

The city of Hartford is taking advantage of pandemic downtime to move ahead with $100 million in state-funded renovations to its arena, something that would otherwise require interruptions to … the minor-league hockey Hartford Wolf Pack, I guess some concerts, whatever else they use the place for these days. The 45-year-old arena was previously described by its director as “out of its prime” and “tired,” and today we get a bunch of rendering showing how untired it will be with $100 million thrown at it:

Okay, this is some kind of dining area, I think? At least, that looks like a steam table of some kind off to the right, though one without any actual food on it. The woman in the shiny new Adidas appears to be taking a photo of it, because in the future, Instagramming empty plates will be a way to, I dunno, express solidarity with climate famine victims or something?

And this is … a cafe? The two identical bearded servers look to be pouring coffee, anyway. Not that anyone is drinking coffee, or doing much of anything else, other than using laptops and talking on their phones, while both hockey and basketball games play on ignored screens in the background.

This is a “bunker suite,” which would be built below the lower seating level. (You can glimpse the actual arena bowl at the top of those stairs to the right.) There would be a seating area for four to eight people outside the suite, while everyone else could sit on a sofa and watch on TV, or maybe in a comfy chair arranged so they couldn’t see the TV at all, in case the game is too painful to watch.

The Hartford Courant says the goal of all this is to “bring spectators closer to the action,” but if there’s one common theme, it’s that none of the renderings actually show people being able to see the action at all, or even paying the slightest attention to it. The reasonable conclusion is that the state of Connecticut has decided that the way to get people to go to more sporting events and concerts is to make doing so as much like sitting at home or watching at a bar as possible — which is definitely not an uncommon strategy, but does seem a little weird given that watching at home or at a bar doesn’t require shelling out for a ticket. We’ll see how it goes, I guess — the state will need to bring in several million dollars more a year to recoup its $100 million expense, so Connecticut sports fans had better be ready to drink a whole lot of invisible coffee.