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January 31, 2022 On The Record | Q&A

XL Center GM Weiss reflects on ownership change, pandemic, sports betting and future of Hartford events

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Ben Weiss oversees several key Greater Hartford venues, including the XL Center and Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford. He also runs the Hartford Wolf Pack minor league hockey team.

Ben Weiss — general manager of the Hartford Wolf Pack, XL Center and Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford — has been places.

He started with his current employer — Spectra, now known as Oak View Group after a recent acquisition — 20 years ago, first in Philadelphia working at the Wells Fargo Center, which is home to the NHL’s Flyers and NBA’s 76ers.

He had stops managing arenas in Trenton, New Jersey, and Amherst, Massachusetts, before heading to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was put in charge of a floundering AAA baseball team and stadium. He said he helped restructure the money-losing Memphis Redbirds, which was facing significant financial and attendance issues, before the team was acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013.

“The bank effectively repossessed the team and stadium and hired us to right-size and correct the organization,” Weiss said during a recent virtual interview from his office inside the 16,000-seat XL Center. “It was kind of a turnaround story,”

He was named Triple-A Baseball Pacific Coast League Executive of the Year in 2012 for his work there.

After a stint in Tallahassee, Florida, Weiss arrived in Hartford in 2017 to be closer to family (his wife is from Northampton, Massachusetts). First as assistant general manager and now as GM, Weiss is in charge of arguably two of the most important event venues in Greater Hartford, overseeing everything from marketing, booking, operations and engineering to advertising and ticket sales, PR and event production.

And the job hasn’t been easy, especially since the pandemic upended the events industry, forcing the XL Center in 2020 to temporarily close for months. The omicron variant has thrown another wrench into the business, forcing event cancellations, but there’s hope things will pick up this spring with some big acts. A year ago, fans weren’t even allowed in the building, so progress has been made.

There has been at least one silver lining: Pratt & Whitney Stadium, the often underutilized and money-losing home of UConn football, may be in the midst of its busiest fiscal year ever in terms of bookings thanks to demand for outdoor events.

Weiss spoke to HBJ during a wide-ranging interview about the future of the events and sports industry in Hartford, sports betting and the potential impact of his company’s recent ownership change.

In November, Philadelphia-based Spectra was acquired by Oak View Group of Los Angeles for an undisclosed sum, creating a powerhouse in the U.S. event venue management industry.

Oak View Group runs the 10,000-seat Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport and is involved in venue development and financing. It oversees six venues it owns and developed, according to the Sports Business Journal, including Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena and Long Island’s UBS Arena, home to the NHL’s New York Islanders franchise.

In 2018, Oak View Group landed a more than $100 million investment from private-equity firm Silver Lake.

The XL Center, which is owned by the city of Hartford and operated by the Capital Region Development Authority, is in need of a major renovation, but state lawmakers have been unwilling to foot the full bill. Gov. Ned Lamont has said he’d like to bring in a private partner to help with any large-scale project.

It’s too early to tell if Oak View Group might be that white knight.

Here’s what the 44-year-old Weiss had to say:

Will Oak View Group’s purchase of Spectra impact the XL Center and Pratt & Whitney Stadium?

I think there will be some impact. Oak View Group has a tremendous relationship in the live event and concert space.

Not that we didn’t with Spectra, but we were part of a larger organization. Now that we are with Oak View Group we are just solely in the venue management and live sports and entertainment space.

I’m hopeful that means the opportunity to bring in more content, including more concerts and shows.

Could Oak View Group be a potential investor in an XL Center renovation?

I think anything is possible. One of the exciting things about Oak View is some of the equity stakes they are taking in assets they are either affiliated with or managing.

I certainly don’t want to speak for the leadership team at the corporate level, but from my seat I want everyone to know we are here and there might be an opportunity.

Who do you view as the XL Center’s main competition for attracting shows and events?

Mohegan Sun is our chief competitor from a concert standpoint. The casinos (including Foxwoods) have the financial ability to attract acts that we don’t have. They can offer acts larger financial incentives to come to their facility and it’s tough to compete with that.

They view shows as loss leaders. They use the acts to get folks to come to their property to have dinner, gamble and stay overnight at their hotels.

It’s tough to compete with them but our competitive advantage is our size. We are the biggest indoor facility in the state and some acts don’t want to play at the casino.

How has the pandemic affected operations at the XL Center and Pratt & Whitney Stadium?

It’s impacted us for sure. For the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, we saw a drop in non-sporting activity during the fall. By now, normally we would have had two or three concerts but we’ve only had one.

We had a gymnastics event cancel on us as a result of the pandemic. We’ve had four Wolf Pack games get postponed, two UConn hockey games get postponed and two UConn basketball games get postponed.

I will say we have had some good business on the family show side. We did “Disney on Ice” in early January, which was a success. It lagged behind historic years in terms of attendance but still did well.

Our group sales business has also been lagging. We depend on high school, youth and other groups for large sales, but they aren’t congregating and doing group activities like they have in the past.

How has the omicron variant affected operations?

Omicron has had us take a step backward, so maybe we don’t achieve the budget we predicted for the fiscal year, but we still have six months to go and the spring is looking like there is some decent activity starting to pop up on the calendar.

I think there is optimism in the industry of getting some of these shows back on the road. I am optimistic about late 2022 and early 2023.

What’s changed from this time last year to today in terms of business at both venues?

The biggest difference right now is that we are able to have fans in the building. If you look back a year ago, the Wolf Pack were playing hockey at the XL Center with no fans. We were also playing only a limited schedule. We had no UConn sports, zero family shows and concerts.

We’ve taken a giant leap forward in terms of normalcy, but obviously the emergence of these variants has created challenges.

I also have a full staff now with 35 full-time employees. A year ago we were down to 10 people.

We had to rebuild this organization because it was devastating in terms of the layoffs we had here and the institutional knowledge that we lost. Out of about 25 people who got laid off only about five came back.

Are there any big shows this year that are unique?

We will be hosting “Stars on Ice,” in April, which is a post-Olympic skating event. That event has historically done really good business for us.

We have Journey coming in with Toto in May and then it gets slow here at XL, but we ramp up activity at Pratt & Whitney Stadium with the Division I, II and III NCAA Lacrosse National Championships. We are expecting 25,000 people a day or more for that Memorial Day weekend.

Pratt & Whitney Stadium has taken criticism over the years for its lack of use beyond UConn football. How’s that facility holding up?

What’s interesting is that we may have one of the best years in the history of the building in terms of the number of large-scale events.

We had two U.S. Soccer games in July to kick off the fiscal year — one was borderline a sell out. We had an event called “Jurassic Quest,” which historically had been an indoor event, but it used the Pratt & Whitney Stadium parking lot for a drive-through event that was popular. We also did an outdoor holiday “Magic of Lights” show.

We had never done that type of stuff before. The outdoor content has been great and we view it as a new business opportunity going forward.

We also had UConn football games. We’ve probably done 15 to 20 additional shows over what our historic baseline has been because people want to do stuff outdoors.

The Capital Region Development Authority is in negotiations with the CT Lottery to open a sports betting facility in the XL Center. What impact would a sportsbook have on the venue?

That’s a huge additional asset. We are hopeful that we are going to manage the facility. It will likely be open on days when there are no events at the arena, so it’s another opportunity for downtown Hartford to be alive.

How important is a large-scale renovation to the future of the XL Center?

I think the XL Center is critical in terms of bringing in non-9-to-5 activity to the city. And I think a renovation is important.

We are at that critical point. We need to improve our offering to our customers, whether that be on the premium seats side, in terms of suites, clubs or food and beverage options, or getting more restrooms in here and expanding the concourse to make it more comfortable when you come into the building.

There are daily challenges here, things we fight constantly just from plumbing and electrical issues. It’s time for the building to be renovated.

How much investment does the building need to remain competitive?

I don’t have a price tag but I think it can be done in phases.

You could throw out a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars if you wanted to do it in one fell swoop, but it’s more realistic to do it in parts. Moving forward with the sports betting facility is a good start.

You are also in charge of Hartford Wolf Pack business operations. How is the team faring from an attendance and business perspective?

We are about 20% down in attendance compared to pre-pandemic years. It’s tied to group sales. But we can make that up. We aren’t even halfway through our home schedule yet so we are remaining optimistic.

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