Commentary: Hartford's `Hail Mary' Pass

It's one for the record books. To lure the New England Patriots to Hartford, Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland helped organize the most lavish package of incentives yet for a big-league ball team. Not only did the governor agree to pick up the entire $350 million tab for building a new stadium and infrastructure for the site where Interstates 84 and 91 meet in depressed downtown Hartford. He also pledged $15 million for a "state-of-the-art practice facility" and more than $100 million to maintain the stadium over the 30-year lease.

Rowland, a Republican, even guaranteed the sale of club seats and luxury boxes, which could cost taxpayers up to $17.5 million a year. In short, the Pats' deal is "the most egregious example yet of corporate welfare for a sports team," says Mark Rosentraub, a sports-business expert at Indiana University.

So why did Rowland do it? "This is the 800-pound gorilla...that will bring Hartford into the next century," Rowland exults. Adds Hartford Mayor Mike Peters: "This is the biggest thing that's happened here in 40 years." True, the 68,000-seat stadium is the cornerstone of a $1.2 billion redevelopment project, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft did pledge $75 million to build a convention hotel and an NFL entertainment pavilion. But he will own both facilities and profit from them.

"BUDGET HOLE." And it's no secret that the former home of Mark Twain and J.P. Morgan has seen better days. Its insurance industry has shrunk, and defense-related jobs have vanished. Its schools are in such bad shape that the state took over. And after Connecticut refused to build a new arena, the Hartford Whalers hockey team, the city's sole major league team, left town last year. "We're hungry," says Rowland, who argues there was nothing else that could provide anywhere near the same "turbo-boost to this community."

But the cost is breathtaking. Connecticut already has "some of the highest debt levels in the nation," says Standard & Poor's analyst Arthur Dial. Now, it must add at least $350 million in general-obligation bonds. While Connecticut can draw from a 10% tax on Pats' tickets, taxes on the player salaries, and other assorted levies, those won't be enough to cover the full cost--at least in the first years. "I can almost guarantee that a big budget hole will be created, requiring additional taxes or cuts in services," predicts Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist.

Rowland says he's confident all 125 luxury boxes and 6,000 club seats will be sold, meaning the guarantee "will never be exercised." But given Hartford's relatively small corporate community, the Pats will have to draw heavily from Boston, 100 miles away. "That could be a tough sell," warns Rosentraub. "And the sale of premium seating could get more difficult" if the economy weakens, or if the Pats play poorly, adds Larry Moulter, CEO of Woolf Associates, which helped build Boston's Fleet Center, home of the Celtics and Bruins.

POOR POLICY. Those risks might be worth it if the Pats would truly revive Hartford. The stadium will transform a now derelict area adjacent to downtown. But 20 years of research indicates that recruiting a pro team at most produces "a very modest economic impact," says Rosentraub, certainly "nothing like" the vision being painted.

Hartford is hardly alone. St. Louis, Baltimore, and Nashville have lured teams with deals nearly as bad. So Rowland may be right when he says this is the best he could do. And the public seems charged up enough to get the deal through the legislature before the Dec. 31 deadline.

That doesn't make it good public policy. NFL teams are owned by some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in America, and earn more each year through broadcasting contracts. As such, they are among the least deserving candidates for corporate welfare. The winner in this deal is owner Kraft, who started negotiating with Connecticut after Massachusetts refused to cough up even $72 million for a new stadium. But until the system changes or cities open their eyes, this is one game where the owners are likely to win every time.