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.