Eight years after teasing local fans with the idea of relocating the New England Patriots to Hartford, owner Robert Kraft remains the major hurdle to bringing another kind of football to the area — a Major League Soccer expansion team based at Rentschler Field.
When the Northland AEG partnership was selected to manage the Hartford Civic Center and Rentschler Field, much of the talk publicly centered on finding a replacement hockey team for the displaced Hartford Whalers.
But Northland AEG was privately looking at pro soccer, a plan that was rebuffed by MLS officials, said Northland Chairman and CEO Larry Gottesdiener.
"What was communicated to me is that Hartford fell under the territorial rights of the New England Revolution and their owner, Kraft, would have to release us to make us available," Gottesdiener said. "That was a couple months ago and, to my knowledge, we have not been released."
Founding Father's Influence
As a founding owner of the 11-year-old pro-soccer league, Kraft has the personal clout to sway a decision. The league's board of governors — which does not include Kraft — would make the final decision on the Revolution's territorial rights and would debate the merits of adding any expansion team if Kraft gave his OK, said William Kuhns, director of communications for MLS.
Major League Soccer employs a different ownership structure than other pro sports leagues, which have individual owners of teams. While teams have investors and operators, the league itself controls many more aspects of what teams can — and cannot — do.
Stacey James, spokesman for the Patriots downplayed Kraft's MLS clout, saying "if it's determined that something is best for the league, I'm sure that would be supported."
"The Krafts are very interested in helping the league become more established to grow," he said. Robert Kraft was unavailable for comment.
James agreed with Kuhns that Kraft would be consulted on a decision, but was unsure if the Revolution could fully block a league initiative.
"If it's a deterrent that would hurt the team but help the league, then it would eventually help the team," said James. "If it would be for the betterment of the league, I don't believe the Krafts would stop it."
Major League Soccer has captivated headlines in recent weeks with the arrival of British superstar David Beckham. The league has a stated goal to add three more teams by 2010. Rentschler Field would seem to be a fit for the league, which has been building soccer-specific stadiums with seating between 20,000 and 30,000. Rentschler has 40,000 seats.
But the strength of the New England Revolution fan base – and its owner's clout – has for the moment derailed Northland's latest attempt to land a local pro sports team.
Northland's failure to land an MLS team has not been the only setback for Gottesdiener's pro sports quest.
Gottesdiener said he's made overtures to Craig Leopold, owner of the NHL's Nashville Predators, a team in the process of being sold.
"Leopold told us he was going in a different direction to sell it to local ownership in Nashville that would keep the team there," said Gottesdiener. "We respect that but we're going to continue our efforts."
Earlier this year, relocation rumors also swirled around the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, which were considering relocation to Hartford or Kansas City, Missouri. In the end, the Penguins stayed put.
"We see Hartford as an excellent opportunity for a sports team and we want to make that happen," Gottensdier said.