he Connecticut Lottery Corp. is zeroing in on downtown Hartford’s XL Center as the spot for a major sports betting venue that can boost the renovation of the aging arena.
The lottery, which will control the location of 15 sports betting venues in Connecticut under the new sports and online gambling law, said it expects to first look to smaller locations in the Hartford area to offer sports gambling sooner to the betting public. Legislative leaders say the first betting could begin as early as the start of the NFL season on Sept. 9, reports the Hartford Courant.
The chairman of the lottery’s board and former executive at ESPN and NBCSports Rob Simmelkjaer said sports betting at the XL Center would be part of a larger venue. Gambling would be combined with dining, bars, and other entertainment options, possibly including esports, video-based gaming in which participants compete against one another.
Simmelkjaer said: “That’s going to be a plan that is going to involve significant investment, development, possibly construction, so it’s going to be a bit of a longer-term play. Therefore, we may look to have some short-term locations so we can get to market quickly.”
Simmelkjaer also added that if the XL Center becomes one of Connecticut’s larger sports betting venues, it isn’t likely to become a fully built venue until the start of the 2022 NFL season, at the earliest. But portions could be phased in before that.
Last week, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law a sweeping expansion of legalized gambling in Connecticut. In addition to creating sports betting venues in 15 locations, the law allows the lottery to run online gambling and the state’s tribal casinos to operate sports betting and online gambling.
While legislators this spring debated the largest expansion of legalized gambling in Connecticut in decades, Simmelkjaer and Connecticut Lottery CEO Greg Smith in recent weeks were touring both the XL Center and smaller, Hartford-area sites that could be ramped up more swiftly.
Those other sites are now operated by Sportech, which is licensed to offer off-track betting in Connecticut. Sportech could be sublicensed to accommodate sports betting.
Locations include Winners on Brainard Road in Hartford, Shea’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar in Manchester, Bobby V’s near Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, and there could be others, Simmelkjaer said.
Simmelkjaer commented that the focus on placing one of the state’s two larger sports betting sites at the XL Center came from the governor. “The governor has made it clear that he is looking to do something big there and wants to find a way to have sports betting help the development of that location, a part of a development progress plan for the XL Center,” he said.
The future of the 46-year-old arena has been debated for more than a decade. The Capital Region Development Authority, which oversees the XL Center, downsized a $250 million renovation of the arena to about $100 million, focusing on premium seating and more amenities in the lower half of the arena to boost profitability.
Opponents have argued the state should not be in the business of running a money-losing arena and pouring more state taxpayer-back dollars into it. Some have said the arena should be razed and redeveloped.
While the shape, size, and cost of adding a sports betting component to the XL Center is still unclear, CRDA executive director Michael Freimuth said there are alternatives for adding a sports betting venue at the XL Center.
Freimuth said options include lower-level suites, the exhibition hall, “back of house” areas already targeted for conversion into space for fans and other visitors, and the atrium off Trumbull Street. The atrium is owned by Northland Investment Corp. and CRDA has been unable for years to reach an agreement to acquire the space.
“So it has been viewed upon as complementary and been viewed as something we’d like to have in the facility,” Freimuth said.
Simmelkjaer said the financing of sports betting at the XL Center could include private investors, and the company that is chosen to run the locations to run the lottery-controlled sites might also help with financing.
The lottery drew proposals from 15 operators and four have been chosen to submit detailed plans within two weeks of Lamont signing the gambling expansion into law, Simmelkjaer said.
The addition of sports betting at the XL Center also could potentially help shake loose $65 million in state capital improvement funds for arena renovations. The legislature approved borrowing the funds, but the State Bond Commission, chaired by Lamont, has yet to release them.
CRDA has already received $40 million in funds borrowed by the state, about half of which has been spent on repairs, partly for a push a few years ago to seek a private investor to take over the arena. The initiative drew little interest.
Legislative leaders, including Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, who supports renovations at the XL Center have said a sports betting venue at the arena could help pay for some of the costs of renovating the XL Center.
“I am confident we will see a path forward,” Ritter said. “It would be odd to be thinking about putting a large facility in something that you were going to knock down.”
As part of a larger venue, sports betting make sense for a renovated XL Center and would benefit not only the city but the region, attracting more visitors to the city and infusing new life into the arena, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said.
“Unless we want to see a rusting hulk of steel and concrete in the center of the capital city for decades to come, or we’re prepared to put hundreds of millions of dollars to demolish and subsidize redevelopment of the area, it’s time and long past time to make the investment necessary to upgrade this facility and make it competitive again,” Bronin said.