UConn football home Rentschler Field needs $63 million in repairs. Will the the state make the investment?

Opening day football action between UConn and Wagner at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., on Thursday August 29, 2019.

Opening day football action between UConn and Wagner at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., on Thursday August 29, 2019.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

Nearly two decades after opening as home for UConn’s upgraded football program, the state-owned sports stadium in East Hartford is in need of a reboot.

A study of Rentschler Field recommends a $63 million investment for necessary improvements that range from replacing a battered roof to overhauling an antiquated technological system designed long before wireless communication.

Results of the study were presented this week to the Capital Region Development Authority, the agency that operates the stadium. And it lands under the backdrop of management contracts expiring in June 2023 as the facility turns 20.

Also ending that month is UConn’s lease with the stadium. The program has not had a winning season since 2010 and attendance has steadily declined — reflecting tepid interest in the team from around the state.

UConn hired former NFL coach Jim Mora to lead the program as it rebuilds, but the first two home games have attracted an average of 13,611 through the turnstiles at the 38,000-seat stadium.

Meanwhile, capital improvements deemed vital for the future of the stadium will be funded through state money that will likely come through the state bond commission.

The next legislative session convenes in January, when lawmakers will decide if the investment is worthy of tax-payer funds.

If the state provides less money for repairs, the CRDA will prioritize the litany of needs and address the most vital repairs.

“We’ll obviously have to focus on the most critical things and work our way through the lesser items,” said Michael Freimuth, executive director of the CRDA. “These things go about 15 or 20 years, and they need a reboot. That’s the lifecycle.”

'Primary tenant'

Rentschler Field, constructed on land in East Hartford donated to the state by Pratt & Whitney’s then-parent company United Technologies, was built at a cost of $92 million. The stadium opened in 2003, as UConn was transitioning its football program from Division I-AA to Division I-A.

The stadium hosted concerts — Bruce Springsteen in 2003, the Rolling Stones in 2005, The Police in 2007 — and has been a frequent spot for U.S. men’s and women’s soccer games, along with the NCAA lacrosse Final Four in 2021 and 2022.

There have also been rugby matches, an outdoor hockey tournament in 2011, a now-defunct minor league football team in 2010, and a series of Major League Soccer and international matches. The stadium also hosts events in the suites and banquet rooms, and outside on stadium grounds.

“The events help operate the building,” Freimuth said. “It drove the budget in a positive way. It also showed that building had viability outside of UConn football. But obviously, it’s built for UConn football, it’s the primary tenant, it’s the priority of everyone. Nobody is going to go out there and tear up the field on a Friday night before a Saturday game. That’s who it’s for.”

UConn leases the field through the Office of Policy and Management, which owns the building. The school pays $172,000 in rent per game along with a $3 surcharge per ticket and is obligated to pay the first $250,000 of operating losses each year. The remainder of losses are covered by the state’s general fund.

The CRDA estimates UConn needs to draw 20,000 people or so each game for the stadium to break even. That’s 20,000 through the turnstiles and not simply the tickets distributed and sold, because so much revenue is based on parking fees, along with food and concession sales.

Actual attendance for the first two games  —  11,615 for Central Connecticut State, 15,607 for Syracuse — is up from last season but still short of the 20,000 threshold.

UConn’s athletic department has been operating at a $40 million-plus shortfall patched by institutional support and student fees. But school officials have pointed to the rents paid to the state for use of Rentschler Field and the XL Center in Hartford as a misleading portion of the budget — essentially, money moving from one state entity to another.

“Looking at the financial picture of our athletics program as a whole, I think there things we do that make it look much more precarious than it really is,” said Dan Toscano, UConn Board of Trustees chairman. “We may be the only program in the country, a state university that plays in a state-owned facility and has to pay rent for it. It’s sort of right pocket, left pocket. The unintended consequence is, it shows up in our financial statements and you have people saying, my God your’re running this huge deficit. I say, if we get funding from the state and we turn around and pay $5 million back to the state, not a dollar of the $5 million has actually changed hands. And yet, you’re creating a big hole.
“I find that whole thing somewhat odd. At some point we’ll try to sit down with OPM and the CRDA folks and the governor’s office and figure it out once and for all.”

The lease expiring also coincides with the CRDA’s “memorandum of understanding” through which the quasi-public agency runs the venue.

And the CRDA’s contract with Oak View Group — the arena management firm that owns Spectra, which runs the day-to-day operation of Rentschler — is also up in June 2023.

The timing of the contract helped fuel the CRDA’s desire to produce the study, which was conducted by Populous, a sports venue design and architectural firm that conducted the assessment for a cost of $330,000.

“As the future ownership/management structure of the Stadium is contemplated, a physical assessment of the building was critical to understand its needs moving forward in order to guide management and to make the most efficient use of State funds,” a summary of the report said. “To that end, CRDA commissioned a comprehensive building assessment to examine the Stadium’s condition after twenty years — with an eye towards the next twenty years with a specific focus on the next five years”

Freimuth said it was important for UConn, the CRDA, and Oak View to know what was ahead for the stadium well before engaging in negotiations. UConn officials have been part of the process and Mora did a walk-though of the stadium on June 8 with people from the CRDA, Spectra, and Gov. Ned Lamont's staff. 

"The question that all parties say is, what are we going to do about these issues,"  Freimuth said. "The corollary to that is, just what are these issues? What is important here? What are we really dealing with? That’s what this report tries to get at.

"It says, you’re all thinking about extending your agreements, extending, reworking, doing something with your agreements. You can’t do it in a vacuum. You need to understand what’s going on, both in the industry and in the practical reality of the physical wear and tear of the facility. That’s why we did the study."

Age, change in standards

The study suggests spending $12 million per year over five years to complete the improvements, starting with $24 million in the 2023-2 biennial budget.  

That will be the pitch the state lawmakers.

Populous identified the four most critical items that demand attention: roof replacement in the Tower Building and roof repairs in other outbuilding, technology upgrades "to make the building more compatible and user friendly for UConn, event producers and broadcasters, as well as safer, more efficient and more welcoming to patrons," an overall investment to repair aging elevators, concourse areas, walkways, stairwells, and mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) systems, and a replacement of the drainage and irrigation system under the playing surface and on the overall site.

According to Freimuth, the stadium's elevators are so old that it's difficult to find replacement parts. The roofs have simply run through their lifecycle and require work. There is cracking throughout the stadium's structure, causing water damage.

"We've been patching things," he said. "A roof is going to run 20 years. We’re at 20 years.. ... It’s just a normal lifecycle and 20 years is sort of where the depreciation catches up with reality. 
"You’re dealing with an exterior building. It’s in the elements 20 years. The sun alone caused fatigue in the fatigue in the plastic. I mean, the seat backs break on us every game."

The other critical piece is the technology upgrade, an element that could impact the stadium's ability to lure events. The playing surface was stripped and resodded in 2018, and remains attractive for football. lacrosse or soccer. The size of the stadium (38,000) is also a draw, the sweet spot for stadiums, Freimuth said, because it's not too big or not too small. 

Feedback is generally positive, whether it's from the NCAA or U.S. Soccer. And that includes UConn.

"The sense I get from the people I talk to at UConn who are knowledgeable about this stuff is, it’s actually a pretty decent facility," Toscano said. "Sort of well designed, well built. Yeah, probably on the margin people would say there’s some investment needed and some of it was highlighted in that report. … I think it’s set up the way it is, it’s located where it is. We are a tenant, it is run by the CRDA and I think we have a pretty healthy relationship with the folks at CRDA."

But the stadium's ability to absorb media demands and provide a smooth wireless experience for fans, media and teams is becoming an issue. There were TV issues during the UConn-Central Connecticut game. Broadcasting a game is far more challenging at Rentschler than a stadium with more modern technological backbone.

"The Stadium’s television cabling system is original to the building and is unreliable," the report says. "In addition to upgrading that system and replacing certain sound system components, Populous recommends repairs to defective bowl loudspeakers until such time as they can be replaced."

The wireless availability is of equal concern for fans using a smart phone to order food or watch replay and for teams, as the use of iPads and technology is common on the sidelines. None of these things was a practice when Dan Orlovsky was playing quarterback for UConn in 2003. 

The report also recommends repairs and upgrades to the network fiber optic systems and "outdated telephone system," along with replacing the cabling, connection and enclosures to meet "broadcast requirements and eliminate the need for broadcast trucks to run their own temporary cabling."

"The video production system is inadequate to meet the in-house production needs of a Division I sports stadium and should be upgraded," the report said.

Continuing to attract high-level soccer or NCAA lacrosse games will require a better experience for those televising events, Freimuth said.

"The industry standards are constantly churning and the expectations of a building technologically as well as just practically, from a fan and a broadcast perspective, has evolved dramatically," Freimuth said. "We've got 21 ticket windows, but your ticket is on your cell phone today. There is just normal churn of what’s expected in a building."

The technology issues also affect the stadium's security. The video surveillance system has been undated in an "ad hoc manner" and there are currently 18 of 35 cameras on site that are not functioning properly. The parking lot cameras, installed in 2016, do not have reliable wireless connectivity to the building network. There is also no active video recording system for surveillance and there are deficiencies to the intercom system and motion detectors. 

The other issues? Plumbing, electrical, and other "under the hood" issues that simply require repairs or updates. 

Those are mandatory for any public building. 

"My anxiety on this is, I don’t want to wake up five or 10 years and everybody is saying the building is busted,"  Freimuth said. "Or we can’t get an event. Or it’s no longer Division I standards, or NCAA standards. To me. It’s the right time."

What's next?

The legislative session will kick off in January and the CRDA will soon have an idea what's available to finance the work. Gov. Lamont has been vocal supporter of Mora and UConn football, but it is a challenging economic time to seek funds for a sports venue.

Freimuth and the CRDA are preparing for scenarios in which the state offers less funding. The priorities are the roof and the technology issues, so those will be top-of-the-list issues.

But the other problems won't go away. And the saga plays out as Mora attempts to resuscitate a program that was once a perennial bowl participant.

UConn's football program competes as an independent, cobbling together a schedule of opponents from both marquee Power Five conferences and from smaller leagues with lesser-know programs. There is an attempt to bring regional programs to East Hartford in an attempt to stoke rivalries but rebuilding the fan base may take time and filling the stadium will continue to be a challenge.

Mora's arrival has created a buzz around the program, but attendance is unlikely to significantly climb until the team starts winning games.

"I said a couple years ago that we’re impatiently patient," Toscano said. "These are problems that take a long time to solve and you’re on the path for quite a while until you know whether it works or not. We’re very mindful of that. But at the same time, the clock is ticking. Look at what’s happened to our fan base up until we hired Coach Mora. It was just on a steady, downward slide and the program was rapidly heading toward irrelevance. I think what Coach Mora’s hiring and his willingness to engage the community has shown is that people still want this, they just want it to be successful. I think the demand remains there."

The investment in Rentschler is closely tied to how the state views UConn football. 

UConn administrators have maintained they are committed to the program. Rentschler will seemingly be the home as long UConn competes at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

The school is opening an on-campus hockey arena in January, limiting the need to play game at the XL Center. The basketball teams play games in Hartford, but Gampel Pavilion is the campus home.

Football is different.

“Right now, it’s the only place that we have an option to play football,” Toscano said. “We can play basketball on our campus when you think about XL (Center) being part of the CRDA landscape, we have options for that. And come Jan. 14, we’ll have options for hockey as well. But when it comes to football, that is our sole venue.
“I think the state will decide how it moves forward and we’ll adapt to that. I don’t know what that is. I think ultimately that will a Governor and Speaker of the House discussion about what they want to do.”

Will the state deem the stadium worthy of a big fix?

"Let’s be smart about this," Freimuth said. "Let’s make the strategic investments now, in the systems, so we’re not chasing ourselves a lot harder five years from now."