Coliseum’s closing leaves Ninjas, Yale searching

With the closing of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the future of New Haven’s professional sports — and even Yale athletics — is uncertain.

Of the two professional sports teams that called the Coliseum home, one — the United Hockey League’s New Haven Knights –has already disbanded. The other — arena football’s New Haven Ninjas — is currently homeless.

The Knights were in financial trouble before the Coliseum closed, and the UHL suspended the team’s operations in June. But the Ninjas are hoping to find a new home before the start of the 2003 season next spring.

“The ownership is very strong,” Todd Degree, the community relations manager for the Ninjas, said. “If it was a situation where the Ninjas did not play this coming season, it would be a strategic decision, [such as] they didn’t want to rush a move, or an offer wasn’t in their best interest.”

So far, Providence, R.I., Bridgeport, and cities in Massachusetts and Maine have all expressed some interest in taking in the Ninjas. Bridgeport is an enticing offer because it boasts one of the two new arenas in the state. The Arena at Harbor Yard opened last year, as did the Mohegan Sun Arena in Montville. Both venues have over 10,000 seats.

Professional sports have always struggled to find their niche in New Haven, and the lack of interest in the Knights and Ninjas was a large factor in deciding to raze the Coliseum.

But Yale sports will also be affected by the Coliseum’s closing.

In addition to housing two professional teams last season, the Coliseum hosted the men’s hockey team’s game against Boston College, and the men’s basketball team’s second-round National Invitation Tournament game against Tennessee Tech.

Without the Coliseum, Yale squads like the men’s basketball and hockey teams will have a difficult time showcasing their talents in front of larger New Haven crowds.

“It will cut down on the opportunity to have other people in the community watch us play,” men’s basketball head coach James Jones said. “It cuts down on our opportunity to build a larger fan base.”

The Coliseum, which closed its doors for good on Aug. 31, had a seating capacity of over 10,000. Neither Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater, holding 2,500, nor Ingalls Rink, capacity 3,400, can accommodate anywhere near the same amount of spectators.

Jones led last year’s squad to an Ivy League championship and an NIT bid, generating interest in Yale basketball not seen in decades. As a result, the University won a bid to host its second-round NIT game, and over 9,000 fans packed the Coliseum to see the Bulldogs play.

Without the Coliseum, however, it will be virtually impossible for Yale to host another game of that magnitude.

In addition, the lack of a larger venue poses a problem for upcoming regular season basketball games. National powerhouse Wake Forest is scheduled to make the trip to New Haven during the 2003-2004 season, and the tickets are sure to be a hot commodity.

“I’m sure that the college basketball fan in southern New England is going to say, ‘Hey, Wake Forest is playing Yale,’ but there’s no way they’re going to get a ticket,” Yale Athletics Director Tom Beckett said. “That game would be a natural to take to the Coliseum, but we don’t have that anymore, and I think that’s very unfortunate.”

The men’s hockey team will also miss the opportunity to draw larger crowds.

Two years ago, the Elis faced Notre Dame at the Coliseum, and last year Boston College came to the venue. Head coach Tim Taylor said that he, for one, would miss the Coliseum and he even approached the Athletics Department about trying to save the arena.

“Certainly if Yale and the city and the state combined their resources and put money into the building and fixed it up, it would have been a great community outreach effort on the part of Yale,” Taylor said.

Yale and the New Haven community also have the somewhat embarrassing task of trying to find another venue for the 2004 Women’s Frozen Four. Officials from the Yale Athletics Department, the Coliseum and the ECAC Hockey League put together a joint bid to bring the national tournament to New Haven.

Wayne Dean, the associate athletics director working on the project, said Yale wants to remain involved and they are looking into moving the tournament to Providence or Bridgeport.

“If it works for the tournament, Yale will stay involved if the NCAA committee wants us to,” Dean said. “We worked a long time for the bid and we’re very disappointed. It was a great community endeavor.”

The Bulldogs could also look into moving important Yale games to arenas such as the one in Bridgeport, but that would take the teams away from their primary fan base.

Instead, Beckett said the Athletics Department will focus on selling out the Lee Amphitheater and Ingalls Rink, both of which have two of the most distinctive atmospheres in the Ivy League. But if the men’s basketball and hockey teams continue to attract big-name opponents, the lack of a larger venue could become increasingly frustrating.

“I think it clearly creates a challenge for us,” Beckett said. “How do we respond? What is the right thing to do? Do we go to places like Bridgeport or Hartford for the big games or do we play in front of a packed house and turn people away?”

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