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Hartford’s Howard Baldwin Problem

21 Nov

 

Is it time to cue up the Brass Bonanza? People in Hartford are starting to salivate over the thought of the Whalers coming back. Howard Baldwin is a chronic dreamer and he now has a new dream. He plans to renovate the XL Center in the hopes of luring back an NHL team. It’s a nice thing to think about but how Baldwin could ever do it for only $105 million is an interesting question. That seems like a very low number for this type of project. The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau goes so far as to anoint Baldwin as Hartford’s version of Mark Chipman. There’s only one problem. There’s no David Thomson in the picture and Baldwin is notorious for talking things up and watching them go nowhere.

Unless a Thomson like figure shows up, I don’t see how this deal would ever happen. Baldwin isn’t exactly a terrific financial manager. His management of the Penguins helped lead it to bankruptcy. True, the Penguins had plenty of success on the ice, but it was another story off of it. Just how ugly was it? Under Baldwin’s tenure, the Pens signed one of the worst regional television contract deals in league history.

BALDWIN’S TV BLUNDER

In 1995, the Penguins signed a long-term contract with regional sports network, KBL Sports. KBL would later become Fox Sports Pittsburgh, FSN Pittsburgh and is currently known as Root Sports Pittsburgh. Now, there’s plenty of good that comes with this deal as it did bring in a decent amount on income for the team. But KBL ended up getting the better end of the deal. Amazingly, the Penguins gave up a host of advertising and arena income as part of that deal. KBL gained control of all local TV rights, radio rights, advertising signage in and around Civic/Mellon Arena, and a luxury box. Yes, believe it or not, the regional sports network controlled the rink signage, inside of the arena. How in the world does anyone agree to that type of deal?

By 1998, the Penguins were going broke and Baldwin had brought in a new partner in Roger Marino. One of the first things Marino did was to try to get out of that terrible television contract. In March of 98, Marino decided to make a bold move. He threatened to take all the games off of what was now known as Fox Sports Pittsburgh. That was announced on March 3, 1998, and Marino claimed that the new Marino Sports Television would launch on March 11, with Penguins games. Marino stated that Fox had breached their contract by failing to pay out of market fees.

It was a nice excuse, but in the end, this was really about getting rid of Baldwin’s terrible TV contract. Nobody in their right mind would think that you could pull games off of a RSN in the middle of a 15 year contract and move them to a new network seven days later. A judge agreed with Fox and the games stayed on FSP while the two sides bickered. They finally came to a new agreement during the summer with Fox giving up and sharing some rights and the Pens dropped their threat. Even with that, they were back in court just a month later. This time, it was Fox complaining that the Pens weren’t paying up. While Baldwin wasn’t very hands on by this time, it was under his watch, that these financial woes started.

THE HARTFORD MARKET

I’m not against Hartford getting a team but the television numbers aren’t necessarily in their favor. The Hartford market is extremely cramped, and it’s TV territory would be quite tiny. Proteau tries to slant his story in a pro-Hartford way –

Hartford’s population was measured in 2010 at 1,212,381 – nearly half a million more people than are in Columbus (787,033), nearly double the population of Nashville (635,710) and triple the population of Raleigh, N.C. (403,892). Hartford is a cold-weather climate with a genuine hockey history and a small-but-passionate generation of devoted Whalers fans. And most importantly, Baldwin has maintained ties with the NHL and is pursuing the league with honey and not vinegar.

Interestingly, Proteau uses Hartford’s metro numbers, but he fails to do that with any of the other cities mentioned. In reality, Hartford’s TV DMA numbers are behind all three of those markets. Further more, Hartford’s outer market would be pretty much non-existent. For instance, Columbus’s outer market includes Cleveland and Cincinnati while the Hurricanes take up all of the Carolinas and has coverage in several surrounding states. Hartford has nowhere to go with Boston and New York bumping into them. It’s not very likely that either team would be willing to give up or even share some TV territory with them. That presents a league territorial issue, similar to putting another team in southern Ontario.

THE BALDWIN FACTOR

In the end, it appears that it all comes down to Howard Baldwin. I think Baldwin has great intentions. He’s passionate about hockey but he doesn’t always know how to run teams the right way. I already shared some of his blunders with the Penguins. His AHL Iowa Chops were thrown out of the league for various indiscretions including reportedly, breaking some league bylaws. His way of buying teams was largely picking up debt with the real capital provided by other partners. That was his strategy in Pittsburgh, and we see how that ended. I will give him credit for the Wilkes-Barre and Manchester franchises, two relatively successful AHL teams that Baldwin helped start.

I just question if Baldwin is the guy that Hartford should be hitching a ride with. I don’t think he can pull it off. He needs help. He needs his own version of David Thomson. Someone needs to build or renovate an arena, and Baldwin can’t do it himself. Baldwin’s financial track record is a little spotty as he’s always using other people’s debt and investments to his advantage. Should Hartford ever get another team, it needs to have a solid owner. Baldwin might not fit that description. My fear is that the fans in Hartford are going to be let down again. Let’s hope Baldwin is serious this time, and can find a partner to perhaps make this all work.

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7 responses to “Hartford’s Howard Baldwin Problem

  1. vintageteamstore

    November 23, 2011 at 1:31 am

    Forget about Baldwin. The NHL is slowly moving toward stable franchises in stable cities. Canadian cities, with the strength of the Canadian currency, are now getting priority. Look for Quebec to come back to the NHL first, closely followed by a city like Seattle or Portland to create a regional rival for the Canucks. The NHL will never come back to Hartford, unfortunately

     
    • paranoidpuck

      November 23, 2011 at 1:50 am

      Agree with you. I prefer all three of those places to Hartford. I wish Portland and Seattle had better arena situations. There’s been some rumblings about something happening in the Seattle suburbs but there’s nothing concrete yet.

      Quebec City is well on its way with the arena planning. Quebecor is a solid owner waiting in the wings. Even if the Canadian dollar drops, Quebecor should be able to keep a franchise afloat. Howard Baldwin and Hartford can’t compete with that.

       
  2. Peter

    December 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    What ParonoidPuck here fails to see is that the reason Proteau had to use Hartfords Metro POP is because Hartford is only 17 Square Miles. It wouldn’t be fair to compare Hartford’s 17 square miles with the hundreds of square miles that belong to Nashville, or Raliegh, or Columbus. Hartford is the larger market over any of the previously mentioned cities, with over 2 million people living within a 30 minute drive or less of Hartford.

    Also the TV market in Hartford is not small at all. Infact it is the 30th largest Television market in the Nation. Just last year the Stanley Cup finals ratings had Hartford listed as 4th in the entire country. Hartford did better than; San Jose, LA, Chicago,Dallas, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and many more.

    The NHL is not going back to Quebec, the ratings are one reason, Quebec will not be able to build an adequate TV market that will interest investors. Players do not want to play in Quebec as we saw in the 80’s and 90’s.
    A second team in Toronto is possible though overall the NHL is not luke warm to putting teams in Canadian markets. Their arm had to be twisted to let Winnipeg back.

    Both the Rangers and Bruins have said they will not get in the way of a team returning to Hartford. In fact the Rangers have said on record that they will back up and relocate thier minor league team when or if the NHL returns to Hartford. The path is clear once the building issues are completed with this new renovation plan and Baldwin/Aetna complete their ownership group which they are presenting to Bettman currently on more than one occasion. Hartford is not out by any means but it is still just a chance.

     
    • paranoidpuck

      December 22, 2011 at 6:12 pm

      I never said Hartford was a small TV market. I said its territory would be. It’s location is a plus for business and home owners but not for sports. It would have to either share the territory or have one that’s perhaps the smallest of any team in the league. That’s a product of its location in the Northeast Corridor. Most teams have wide territories that take up multiple TV markets. Hartford won’t be able to do that.

      Many of the same things you say about Quebec City were also said of Winnipeg. Quebec has a very large media company ready to bankroll a team. They just launched a sports network that was basically created to show a potential QC team. If one of Canada’s richest media companies is involved, then it will be hard to turn them away.

      Either way, I’d rather not see any teams move. And if anyone did, I’d prefer them to be in the west just to help balance things out. That was a plus of Atlanta moving to Winnipeg.

       
  3. Peter

    December 22, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Yes I agree geographically its a small TV market.
    It is bigger than many professional team held markets.
    For example: Hartford is a bigger TV market than Columbus, Buffalo, New Orleans,KC,San Antonio,Cincinatti,Las Vegas,OK City to name a few.

    I still say that the NHL will easily choose a second team in Toronto over Quebec. Their is already plans to build a new arena for a second team, and they are in line to possibly get the Coyotes this summer. Quebec is never spoken of in high regards any time I read anyting about NHL relocation. The culture, language barriers, and a horrible travel schedule, may leave them on the outside.

     
  4. Russ

    January 16, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    The financial backers for Howard Baldwin are Travelers & Aetna.
    Both companies are desperate for something to attract young employees.

     
    • paranoidpuck

      January 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm

      They are interested in revitalizing downtown Hartford. That’s not the same thing as owning a hockey team. I can’t imagine Citigroup or Aetna announcing to their shareholders that they are buying a professional hockey team. Nationwide’s stake in the Blue Jackets is the closest thing to that but they are privately held and have a large real estate firm under their control, hence they built the arena and the surrounding mixed use development.

      Aetna certainly has a stake in this but I don’t see them putting up hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the NHL to Hartford. Revitalizing the city and renovating a decrepit arena isn’t the same thing as owning a team. Their real estate firm can help renovate the place but are they gonna put up millions to buy an NHL team?

       

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