The inaugural season for Hartford’s AA baseball team in their new stadium has, on the face of it, been an unqualified success. Attendance is up sharply from 2015, when the former Rock Cats played their final game at New Britain Stadium. That year the Rock Cats drew 267,377 fans over 66 outings for an average of 4,051 fans per game. Those numbers put them solidly in the middle of the Eastern League.
This year, however, the Yard Goats drew a franchise record 395,196 fans over 68 outings, an average of 5,812 per game. That puts them in the Eastern League’s top tier, behind only Reading and Richmond.
And, by all reports, fans had a really good time. The new park has drawn rave reviews from fans, players, and the news media, and won an online poll by Baseball Digest as the best AA stadium in the minor leagues. There’s been a real buzz around the team and the park, something I haven’t seen in Hartford since the Wolf Pack won the Calder Cup in 2000.
It really does feel like the Yard Goats have become a crucial piece of the revitalization puzzle in Hartford, along with downtown apartments, Front Street, and the newly-opened UConn Hartford campus. The owners are making money, people are coming downtown, and everybody’s happy.
So the $71 million spent, the construction debacle, and the year-long delay were all totally worth it. Right?
Well … maybe not. A deeper dive into the history of AA baseball in central Connecticut suggests that, far from being a radical turnaround for a franchise that had long struggled in New Britain, the move to Hartford provided at best a mild improvement from the Rock Cats in their prime — which was only a few years ago.
Let me explain what I mean.
In the old days, New Britain’s baseball teams struggled to draw flies. But everything changed for the better in 2000, when a group led by Bill Dowling bought the team. They managed the team so well, and made the fan experience so enjoyable, that attendance started to climb. In 2011, the team had its best year, drawing 363,759 fans over 62 outings for an average of 5,867 fans per game.
That’s right. Their average attendance was right about where the Yard Goats are now. In 2011 the Rock Cats were third in the Eastern League in attendance, behind … well, Richmond and Reading. And they did it without the benefit of a new stadium, a more central location, or the media coverage and hype the Yard Goats had this year.
And then, in 2012, attendance started sagging again. That year the Rock Cats averaged only 5,061 fans per game, and lost fans in every successive season. In 2013 they drew an average of 4,653, which fell to 4,454 in 2014 and then to 4,051 in 2015, when the move to Hartford was announced.
What happened in 2012? That’s the year Dowling sold the team to realtor and current owner Josh Solomon and his siblings. It’s hard to say that that’s the reason why things started to go south, but these are the same people who thought moving a baseball team 12 miles down the road was a smart economic move.
There were other promises made that have been drowned out by the roar of sellout crowds at the new ballpark. Wasn’t there supposed to be a brewery across the street, and housing? Wasn’t this supposed to be the linchpin of a new neighborhood? Instead, there’s a baseball stadium sitting in the middle of a sea of parking lots.
And, on top of that, the City of Hartford spent millions of dollars it didn’t have on the ballpark, which made its already precarious financial situation that much worse.
So was it worth it?
Maybe. The ballpark is beautiful, and Hartford will hopefully benefit from it for decades to come. Maybe the promised development around the ballpark will actually happen. And maybe, once the newness of the stadium and the media attention die down, the owners will still find a way to get fans in the door.
I hope so. I’ll be there next year, and I want to see a bright future for the team and the city. But I also hope we’ve learned something from this mess, and that we’ll never let anything like it happen again.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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