Sports Stories We Forgot: The New England Patriots are Moving to Hartford

Sports Stories We Forgot: The New England Patriots are Moving to Hartford

In today’s sports landscape, new stadiums are all the rage for team owners because it’s a new revenue source that they don’t have to share with other owners.  While there are plenty of examples of how this works, the New York Yankees last year proved how much of a boon a new stadium can be, opening the new Yankee Stadium and recognizing the earnings potential by signing C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira to $160+ million contracts, plus A.J. Burnett’s $80+ million deal.

The Minnesota Twins took a step themselves this year, opening up Target Field yesterday only a few weeks after signing catcher Joe Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract, by far the largest in team history.  But with new stadium revenue, they were able to make the deal.

While the new Yankee Stadium and Target Field used some public money (whether through tax breaks, bonds offered from their respective cities, or simple direct payments), the days of 100% publicly financed stadiums appear to be over.  However, that doesn’t mean we can’t look back at one of the craziest offers a professional team has ever turned down: former Connecticut governor John Rowland’s offer to the New England Patriots to have them move from Foxboro, Massachusetts to Hartford, the capital of Rowland’s state.

On November 17th, 1998, Rowland offered to build the Patriots a brand new stadium as part of a $1.0 billion development in Hartford.  The $375 million stadium would be the centerpiece of a revitalization project in downtown Hartford, a city that was in desperate need of an upgrade.

Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, was trying to get a new stadium in Massachusetts, but had been turned down and was open to the offer from Hartford.  In fact, Kraft was so intrigued with Hartford that he actually agreed to move the team into the (then) 27th largest media market, from the Boston area, which was sixth at the time.

What was so impressive about this deal was that the Patriots would not have to put in any money up front.  That’s right, none.  The state would pay for the construction costs by selling bonds and the Patriots would use the stadium for free.  While 10% of future revenue from tickets, parking and concessions would go back to the state, 90% would go right into Kraft’s wallet.  It’s no wonder that Kraft jumped at the deal.

Under the terms of the agreement between Kraft and Rowland, the state of Connecticut would build a 68,000-seat open-air stadium in Hartford with not a single dime coming out of Kraft’s pocket.  So the obvious question arises: how did this deal not happen?

While the move to Hartford would have been economically advantageous for Kraft, the NFL felt differently about his team and the League as a whole.  Not too much before Kraft hinted at moving to Hartford, the Houston Oilers moved their franchise to Nashville, Tennessee, becoming the Tennessee Titans.  The biggest issue for the NFL was that they now did not have a team in the third largest city in America.  With the possibility of losing the Patriots to Hartford, the NFL was going to be without a team in three of the largest cities in the country (Los Angeles was already vacant).

So how did the NFL and the Connecticut legislature respond?  By bringing up a concern about the environmental contamination of the riverfront site in downtown Hartford where the state wanted to build the stadium.  A report submitted to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) on January 19th described the site area as thoroughly contaminated with such toxic chemicals as lead, cadmium, and benzene.  I guess they forgot that the point of this redevelopment was to clean up these types of areas.

Eventually, the pressure from the EPA and the NFL led Kraft to reconsider his move.  Also reconsidering?  The state of Massachusetts, which eventually came in and offered to help the Patriots build their new stadium in Foxboro.  While Hartford never ended up getting its act together, or maybe the NFL would never let it get to that point, it did get a $2,399,060.66 payment from the League to cover the costs of (not) luring the Patriots to the city.

We know what happened next.  Tom Brady came in and led the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins after the team moved to Gillette Stadium and the city of Hartford, not to mention the state of Connecticut, is still without a professional sports franchise.


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