As far as wasting public money goes, there’s nothing quite like a sports arena.
Not so long ago — think the days of the L.A. Coliseum, maybe — cities built stadiums affordably, with versatility and civic purpose in mind. Today, the people of Atlanta plan to give the Falcons $550 million to build a wacky mess of glass polygons and luxury boxes. We know this is silly. The existing stadium is 20 years old, a perfectly fine place to watch a football game. If the team’s billionaire owner needs a new stadium for the sake of new revenue streams, surely he could fund one himself.
But elected officials and sometimes even voters are often too caught up in awe over a stadium’s new design, or too pleased with the recent success of their team, or too piqued by some dubious economic impact report, to envision what things will look like years down the line. They imagine that paying up might exempt them from future shakedowns. They imagine that paying up guarantees a long-term commitment from a team to a city.
But the story of Bridgeport, Conn., its Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League, and the Webster Bank Arena where they play provide the latest object lesson in just how misguided those assumptions usually are.
“Despite relocation speculation, Sound Tigers remain committed to Bridgeport” read the headline in Friday morning’s Connecticut Post. “Remain committed” are words you often encounter when team owners feel slight guilt about breaking agreements with the public, and those words generally mean the precise opposite of what you’d expect them to mean.
As they do here. The Sound Tigers, it was announced later on Friday, will soon move to Long Island to play in a renovated Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale. The Coliseum would otherwise have lacked a full-time hockey tenant once the New York Islanders moved to Brooklyn in 2015. It should be noted that the Sound Tigers issued a non-denial denial after the announcement, saying that ownership had not told them that a deal was in place to move to Long Island. But because Bridgeport and the Islanders share owners, it seems certain they will follow orders.
The Sound Tigers’ agreement with the city and the arena had called for them to stay there until 2020, a few months shy of the arena’s 19th birthday. Now the arena will in all likelihood lose its primary tenant before it turns a still-young 14, sticking it with second-tier concerts — the bigger tours head for Hartford or Mohegan Sun, or skip small-potatoes Connecticut altogether — and Fairfield University basketball, unless it poaches a hockey team from another city.
That’s not what Bridgeport had in mind. Consider the goals when the $56 million arena was built: “We are now on the brink of doing what people thought was unthinkable just a few years ago — making Bridgeport a place not only where people want to live and work, but also a place people want to visit,” then-Mayor Joseph Ganim told the Boston Globe (Ganim later spent seven years in prison for corruption-related offenses, some of which concerned kickbacks and overruns in the construction of the arena).
So, today, is Bridgeport a place people want to visit? Not really.
No real neighborhood developed around the arena. It’s a place where you park and then leave. And the data concurs. Arts, entertainment, hotels, restaurants, and recreation makes up 8.4 percent of Bridgeport’s jobs, according to the most recent American Community Survey. In Hartford, that sector has 13 percent of the city’s jobs; in New Haven, which lost its arena because of the pressure Bridgeport’s glimmering new one put on it, that sector still has 10 percent of the jobs. The story is the same when looking at raw numbers rather than percentages. New Haven and Hartford are both smaller than Bridgeport, yet both have more entertainment-related jobs.
The Sound Tigers — who last season ranked No. 18 in attendance out of the league’s 30 teams, after ranking No. 20 the year before, and No. 23 the year before that — have not turned Bridgeport’s fortunes around. That’s no surprise; they’re just a minor-league hockey team. $56 million, of course, was far too much to spend to figure that out.
But the cost to society seems just a little less steep if others can learn from Bridgeport’s lesson.