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Once-proud XL Center is now outdated and in need of rescuing

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published October 15. 2013 4:00AM

Mohegan

So now the American Athletic Conference takes its pageant to Mohegan Sun, another significant sporting event here in our corner of the world. The American, as it fancies itself, will bookend its women's basketball season in Neon Uncasville, with Media Day here Monday and the championship tournament here in March.

The dramatis personae said all the right things about the new digs Monday for the cameras and recorders. Great arena, perfect size, first-class treatment. Old friend Jamelle Elliott, now the coach at Cincinnati, called the property "a city in itself."

Hardly unexpected. New guests aren't going to track mud in the hallways and belch at the table. Still, though, there was a sense of earnestness that comes from standing inside a place with some cachet, thinking what it might look like for the television cameras and sound like in full throat a few months from now.

Which invites the following question:

Has Hartford, specifically the XL Center, ever been more irrelevant?

That's not posed with a hint of glee. We should root for our capital city. But think about sports and entertainment in our state at the moment:

Mohegan Sun gets the preponderance of concerts and shows. It is home to the Connecticut Sun and the state high school basketball championships, both of which draw well. AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco has hinted that it could become the home of the women's tournament.

Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport just landed a pair of UConn basketball games for this season, on top of normal duties with minor league hockey and Fairfield basketball. It will make a run at the state high school hockey finals (and should get it, by the way). It is smartly managed, done beautifully as host of NCAA women's basketball and hockey regionals and is perfectly sized with well-positioned luxury boxes.

Then there's the XL Center. Cavernous and outdated. Just lost its bid for the AAC Tournaments of both genders. It was charging UConn exorbitant rent, $50,000 for each home basketball game last year, per several school sources. It is cluttered with the cosmically irrelevant Hartford Wolf Pack for 40 nights per year and the occasional concert. (At least it landed a college hockey tournament Monday).

But is there one UConn student that prefers a game at the XL to Gampel Pavilion?

As one coach from the AAC said Monday, "it's a dump."

Nobody really likes going there. Sad. Because it's more convenient for most state residents to drive to Hartford than negotiate the traffic to Bridgeport or the boredom coming to them, thar hills of Uncasville.

Somebody needs to fix this. A vibrant, downtown Hartford is good for everybody. The building needs a facelift, if not a makeover. That's not exactly news. But is there anybody out there with some juice, or at least a bank account, that can assume command of the project sooner, not later?

No one can answer the question definitively about when or if the XL Center gets fixed.

Will it maintain the same capacity?

Will they move luxury boxes from the roof to the concourse?

Is expanding the concourse possible?

Would the arena stay in its location or move somewhere else?

Some conversations last spring with Those Who Know suggested that a new building might surface in a different part of the city, perhaps on land near the Sisson Ave, exit. A smaller capacity, perhaps 11,000 or so, but with all the amenities. Not a bad seat in the house, sort of like Mohegan and Bridgeport, but with access to luxury boxes in the same time zone as the arena floor.

That could run afoul of the Bring-Back-The-NHL folks, although their bouts with lucidity appear sporadic at best.

The XL Center appears to have one fan: Gov. Malloy. He fancies himself as instrumental in influencing UConn's impending move to Hockey East and expects that in return, conference home games are to be played downtown to pump more money into the region.

UConn students say they won't travel downtown for hockey with much frequency, inviting the question of whether they should build a new hockey facility on campus or at least expand the Freitas Ice Arena. One school source said that a new hockey arena on campus depends on whether Malloy is reelected.

Lots of ifs and maybes here. But this is what we know: Mohegan and Bridgeport are winning the race. Monday was merely another example.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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