Maybe we should blame it on Morrie Silver. In 1956, faced with the loss of his city’s beloved Red Wings minor league baseball club, the Rochester, New York businessman rallied more than 8,000 of his fellow citizens to purchase stock in Rochester Community Baseball, Inc. in order to buy the team and its ballpark from the St. Louis Cardinals. Today the Rochester Red Wings are the longest running team in the history of minor league sports and remain community-owned under the auspices of Rochester Community Baseball, which continues to be traded as an over-the-counter stock.
Silver’s so-called “72-day Miracle” in Rochester has inspired numerous imitators but few equals. Virtually all efforts to finance minor league sports franchises through public stock offerings have ended in abject failure. The Chicago Hustle of the Women’s Professional Basketball League and the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League tried (and failed) to dig out of accumulated debts through the issuance of stock. The New York Express soccer team tried to fund their 1986 start-up with a massive $5.3 million offering - few were interested and the team folded before finishing their first season.
Hartford Sports & Entertainment Group formed in early 1993 for the purpose of bringing professional basketball to downtown Hartford, Connecticut. Like the New York Express, Hartford Sports formed with the intent to fund operations with the proceeds of a public stock sale. On May 26th, 1993, Hartford Sports struck a deal with Albany-based sports investor Joseph O’Hara to lease his Capital Region (NY) Pontiacs franchise in the Continental Basketball Association and relocate it to the Hartford Civic Center for the 1993-94 season. The three-year agreement allowed Hartford Sports to lease and operate O’Hara’s CBA club for a fee of $100,000 per season. At the time, the CBA was the Official Developmental League of the NBA. Dozens of CBA players made the jump to the NBA each year,typically on short-term 10-day contracts. Overlooked players such as Michael Adams and John Starks broke out as NBA All-Stars after first gaining notice in the CBA.
The Hellcats debuted at the Civic Center on November 20th, 1993 against the Columbus (OH) Horizon before a CBA record crowd of 11,762. Two weeks later, 10,346 packed the Civic Center to watch the Hellcats play an exhibition against Magic Johnson’s All-Stars. General Manager Rich Coffey told The New York Times that the Hellcats sold 2,384 season tickets and inked $300,000 in corporate sponsorship for the 1993-94 season.
Despite a losing record of 18-38 in 1993-94, the Hellcats announced an average attendance of 5,003 per game which ranked second in the 16-team CBA. In pre-season interviews, Hartford Sports President Michael Kerski pegged the team’s breakeven attendance at 4,000 paid customers per game. But the notion of a “breakeven attendance figure” is often more about spin rather than substance, meant to assure local media and sponsors that the owners have a clear-eyed business plan. A breakeven calculation based on ticket sales would quickly fall by the wayside if the team underperformed in other key areas, such as expense controls or corporate sponsorship. The Hellcats posted an operating loss of $590,386 for the 1993-94 season.
There was another problem. Without deep-pocketed ownership to backstop the team’s finances, Hartford Sports relied on the success of the public stock sale to generate working capital. Hartford Sports offered 100,000 shares valued at $10.00 each. Investors had to make a minimum purchase of $2,500 for one investment unit of 250 shares. Ultimately, Hartford signed on over 150 shareholders, but most were small businessmen and private individuals who purchased only the $2,500 minimum stake. The corporation managed to raise only $410,000 from the planned $1 million offering.
In the spring of 1994, Hartford Sports partnered with the Connecticut Development Authority (CDA), the financing arm of Connecticut Department of Economic Development, to obtain a $1.25 million loan package to provide more working capital. The CDA provided a $250,000 direct loan from the Connecticut Growth Fund and guaranteed an additional $1 million loan from Shawmut Bank. Several Hartford Sports board members and Hellcats General Manager Rich Coffey, the CBA’s Executive-of-the-Year for 1993-94, expressed concerns about the additional debt burden and terms and parted ways with the organization.
The loan contained several challenging provisions. The CDA wanted the asset value of the franchise as collateral against the debt it had guaranteed. Hartford Sports was required to purchase the Hellcats outright from Joseph O’Hara rather than renew their lease option. In addition, Hartford Sports agreed to purchase an inactive Arena Football League franchise – the Cincinnati Rockers – and move it to the Civic Center in the spring of 1995. Finally, the lease required Hartford Sports to radically modify their lease with the state-run Hartford Civic Center. The Hellcats paid a flat rental fee of $4,000 per game during the 1993-94 season. For the 1994-95 campaign, Hartford Sports agreed to pay the greater amount of $8,100 per game or $4,000 + 15% of the game day box office receipts. Although the Hellcats rent would more than double, Hartford Sports still would not receive any share of Civic Center concessions or parking revenue.
On June 22, 1994, Hartford Sports announced the purchase of both clubs, paying $700,000 to take ownership of the Hellcats and $200,000 to acquire the Arena Football franchise, which would now be known as the Connecticut Coyotes. After paying the two franchise fees, some overhanging debt from the Hellcats first season, and legal fees associated with the loan process, Hartford Sports was left with a new $1.25M debt obligation…and less than $100,000 of new working capital heading into their second Continental Basketball Association season.
The dominoes fell quickly for Hartford Sports & Entertainment after that. Hartford Sports went most of the summer without a General Manager for the Hellcats and Coyotes properties until Casey Kahler arrived in mid-August of 1994. The corporation issued a prospectus in mid-October that projected necessary sales of 5,000 Hellcats and 10,000 Coyotes tickets per game to meet its debt and payables obligations. During the offseason, Hellcats season ticket sales fell from 2,400 to 1,800 for the club’s second season. Hartford Sports missed its very first interest payment on the loan package in November 1994. Shawmut Bank notified the team it was in default on the $1 million loan on December 14th, 1994.
On the court, the Hellcats assembled a rogues gallery of basketball curios during their brief run in the CBA. There was the 7′ 5″ center Chuck Nevitt, one of the four tallest player in NBA history. And Bo Kimble, who led 11th-seeded Loyola-Marymount’s improbable and inspiring run to the Elite Eight in 1990 after the death of his teammate and friend Hank Gathers. During their final days, the Hellcats traded for the controversial former Georgetown star and 1988 U.S. Olympian Charles Smith. Smith joined the Hellcats in December 1994, several months after his release from a two-year prison term for killing two Boston University students in a March 1991 hit-and-run incident. Smith had been with the Boston Celtics at the time, playing on a 10-day contract after a call-up from the CBA.
On January 20th, 1995 the CDA took over the operation of the Connecticut Coyotes franchise from Hartford Sports, seeking to sell the team as a hedge against the now toxic loan. The Hellcats staggered on through January 1995, “flat broke” in the words of Hartford Sports board member Tom Drohan. The team charged fans to shoot baskets on the Civic Center floor following home games in order to generate meal money for upcoming road trips. A late January road trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan was funded by drawing down on a letter of credit posted with the CBA league office – a rarely used last resort measure.
The Hellcats gave up the ghost on January 30th, 1995, cancelling a scheduled home game against the Mexico City Aztecas and folding in midseason. Connecticut Development Authority spokesman Joe Cohen provided a damning epitaph in a press interview:
“I don’t think it’s so much an example of Hartford not being able to support a CBA basketball franchise as it is a reflection of weak management that took what was a strong concept and ran it into the ground from a business standpoint.”
Brian Foley, a health care entrepeneur from Avon, Connecticut, agreed with Cohen’s assessment. He stepped forward in February 1995 with an offer to purchase the shuttered Hellcats franchise from the CBA for $750,000. The league initially balked, which meant the club could not be resuscitated in time to play out the 1994-95 schedule. Foley eventually purchased the former Hellcats franchise in May of 1995 for an estimated $450,000. Foley re-branded the club as the Connecticut Pride and entered it in the CBA for the 1995-96 season.
Meanwhile, the CDA-managed Connecticut Coyotes debuted at the Civic Center on May 13, 1995, losing to the Orlando Predators 45-43 in front of an announced crowd of 7,643. The Arena Football team flopped on the turf and at the box office. Under coach Rick Buffington, the Coyotes finished 1-11, losing all six of their home games in Hartford. The Coyotes average attendance of 7,853 for six games ranked 11th in the 13-team AFL. In October 1995, the CDA unloaded the Coyotes to Benjamin Morris and Scott Gerard, both of Connecticut, for $750,000.
“This is my first venture of this type, but it’s somewhat similar to what I do,” Morris told The Hartford Courant. “I usually buy undeveloped or rundown real estate properties, and I see a lot of parallels.”
Morris brought in Larry Kuharich, who coached the Tampa Bay Storm to the 1993 Arena Bowl title, to replace Buffington. Kuharich signed the young quarterback Aaron Garcia to lead the team on the field. Garcia, in his second AFL season, had a strong campaign throwing for 31 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions. But overall, the product was the same. The Coyotes finished 2-12, dropping their two-year cumulative record to a woeful 3-23 with only two wins for the home crowds in Hartford. Attendance figures remained near the bottom of the league in 1996 with a purported average of 7,850 per game.
In September 1996, Morris negotiated to sell his Arena Football franchise to ITT-Cablevision, owners of Madison Square Garden. The Arena Football League blocked the sale, wishing to sell their own New York City expansion team to ITT-Cablevision. Morris took legal action against the league. In October 1996, the parties reached an undisclosed settlement, the net result of which was that Morris sold or returned the Coyotes back to the league, who dissolved the franchise during the first week of November. The league subsequently sold an expansion franchise to ITT-Cablevision which began play at the Madison Square Garden in 1997 as the New York Cityhawks.
Brian Foley operated the Connecticut Pride, formed out of the ashes of the Hellcats, in the CBA until the end of the 1998-99 season, when CBA owners sold the entire league to Isaiah Thomas for $10 million. Foley lost an estimated $2 million in the CBA during his four years of ownership. Thomas fared worse, running the entire league into the ground in less than two years. The CBA shut down in 2001 and the Pride followed shortly thereafter.
The New York Cityhawks fared poorly in Manhattan. After two seasons at the Garden, the club’s owner relocated the team to Hartford, giving the city it’s second helping of Arena Football. The renamed New England Sea Wolves fared no better than the Coyotes before them, lasting only two years at the Civic Center (1999-2000) before leaving town for Toronto.