The Hartford Whalers last game. (Courant File Photos)

The Hartford Whalers last game. (Courant File Photos) (March 14, 2014)

The news arrived to readers of The Courant on the morning of March 8, 1877, seven weeks before the start of the second National League baseball season.

Hartford, a charter member, was deemed unacceptable as a major league market. The city's "base ball" team, founded by Morgan G. Bulkeley three years earlier, would be moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., and would be known as the "Hartford club of Brooklyn."

The blurb in The Courant stated that the team would retain the prestige of its old name while "acquiring the prestige which comes from locating in a large city."

So there it was, 120 years before Peter Karmanos uprooted the Whalers from Connecticut's capital city. Hartford's first audition as a major league sports market was over after one season when the Dark Blues left for New York City.

Thus began the city's sports identity crisis.

From big league baseball during the gilded age to UConn basketball in the 21st century, Hartford's life as a sports market has been defined as much by what it's not than what it is. Nestled between Boston and New York, the market has continually been told it does not measure up to its large neighbors as a sports market.

Professional sports franchises in traditional (basketball, football) and non-traditional (arena football, indoor soccer) sports came and left, before and after the rise of UConn athletics as a national brand that has become a state identity. Minor league teams have failed, major league teams have flirted with the market, and facility proposals have stalled as city leaders struggle to craft a plan, decade after decade.

Is Hartford a big league town? Or a minor league community? Or has it evolved into New England's largest college sports market?

The questions that reach back to the Dark Blues' defection to Brooklyn and connect to the New England Patriots' decision to walk away from Adriaen's Landing still hover over the city today.

"We're more unique than, I think, any other place in the United States," said Jay Sloves of the Farmington-based marketing firm Elkinson & Sloves Inc, which has marketed and promoted sports events and teams in the Hartford market for more than 30 years. "To have that many high-level brand major league teams — football, basketball, baseball — within an hour and a half, two hours … It's unique."

And challenging.

Sports fans in Greater Hartford have always had choices and varied interests, and the more recent proliferation of TV options makes drawing fans to the city even more difficult.

But one thing is clear: Hartford-area pro fans thirst for a professional team to call their own. UConn athletics have risen to fill the void, but imagine a major league team representing Central Connecticut?

At No. 30, the Hartford-New Haven TV market is the largest in the country without a major league franchise. But some view that relatively small market size as a critical factor selling sports to consumers.

"The size of a given market probably matters more than proximity to other markets, in my view," said Peter Gold of Gold, Orluk & Partners, an Avon sports, event and cause marketing firm. "The biggest challenge for having success with teams and sporting events in Connecticut is our relatively small market size. Both New York and Boston are top 10 markets by population. Large markets are simply an easier sell and as a result more profitable from a ticket and advertising sales standpoint.

"That is not to say proximity is not a factor at all. If one hopes to bring NHL hockey back to Connecticut, for instance, one obstacle to success, tied to both size and proximity, is the influence of New York and Boston NHL brands — bleeding off the fan base."

So the bottom line question: Could Hartford support a franchise given its inability in the past?

"Of course," said Howard Baldwin, who brought professional hockey to the city in the mid-1970s. "It's a major league city. For years, those fans went to New York or Boston ... and they still do. So all that talk about whether they'll support a major league team? Well, they're supporting major league teams right now. They just support them in New York and Boston. It just takes the right leaders to make it happen."

Where To Play?

In the 1870s, that leader was Bulkeley, future Connecticut governor and the first National League president. Bulkeley's Dark Blues were a member of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1874 and 1875 before joining the National League as a charter member in 1876.