Business owners' passion for soccer, Hartford fuels Dillon Stadium quest

BY Gregory Seay

Photo | Bill Morgan
Photo | Bill Morgan
Bruce Mandell (center) and co-partners Joseph Calafiore Jr. (left) and Scott Schooley (right) are making their best pitch to bring professional soccer to Hartford. They also propose to revitalize the city's Dillon Stadium, a South End landmark.
Despite growing up in Newington and West Hartford, Bruce Mandell says Hartford was always where he and his family came for exciting sights, sounds — and sports.

"My childhood experiences were in Hartford, going to The Bushnell,'' said the Connecticut businessman proposing a multimillion-dollar facelift to the city's Dillon Stadium in tandem with bringing a professional soccer team to the region. "Obviously, going to the Whalers was a big part of it, too."

In high school, at West Hartford's Kingswood-Oxford School, he captained the soccer and basketball teams, and played on the golf team, he said.

Now, Mandell, a Woodbridge resident who tabled his law career to run his family's Newington direct-mail company, Data-Mail Inc., is combining — along with his two partners — his passion for sports, particularly soccer, and nose for business to bring pro soccer to Hartford for the first time.

And it's not just his and Hartford Sports Group's (HSG) dream. The United Soccer League, sanctioned as a Division II pro league after dominant Major League Soccer, is eager to add Hartford as one of its newest pitch sites on its annual schedule, as early as spring 2019, USL officials said.

Both Mandell and USL appear a big step closer to realizing their visions. In December, the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), as arms-length adviser to the city in reviewing proposals from Mandell and two other groups to rehabilitate Dillon Stadium for soccer and other activities, urged that the city negotiate a Dillon lease with Mandell's Hartford Sports Group.

Mandell and his HSG partners — Hartford building contractor Joseph Calafiore Jr. and Hartford investment-fund operator Scott Schooley — are digging into their pockets to bring a pro-soccer franchise to the city. Mandell said they are committing $7 million to own and operate the club.

HSG and the city are negotiating a stadium lease that, Mandell said, will include rent and revenue-sharing opportunities for the city.

Schooley, a lawyer and president of Woodside Capital Partners in downtown Hartford, said revamping Dillon and bringing pro soccer to the city is personal and less about making money.

He said he rejected an offer to join the former Dillon Stadium development group whose pro-soccer and stadium-makeover efforts collapsed after it was made public that one of its principals — James C. Duckett Jr. — had a checkered legal history. Duckett was eventually charged, convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for defrauding the city out of more than $1 million in his effort to redevelop Dillon.

His business partner, Mitch Anderson, also plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, and one count of conducting illegal monetary transactions.

The city retained CRDA to vet the latest Dillon Stadium bidders to help avoid a repeat scenario.

"I never woke up one day and said I want to own a pro soccer team,'' Schooley said. "It's less about me and more about doing something for my adopted hometown.''

Mandell said Hartford, Connecticut and New England are such big draws for soccer, partly because so many of their residents either grew up playing or hail from nations where "futbol'' is the sport of choice.

Mandell also insists that it's more than a money-making opportunity, but a chance to give back to the community he and his family have called home for decades.

"It's become important to me,'' he said, "that we bring pro soccer to Hartford. Hartford is very important to us. It's where we live. That's really what drove us to start thinking about bringing a pro team to Hartford.''

Puzzle piece

USL President Jake Edwards said the Tampa, Fla., league begun eight years ago with 11 teams now has 35 teams — with three more starting play this spring. He said Hartford offers the right demographics to be a successful franchise.

The Capital City not only is home to a variety of town-league and amateur soccer clubs and players, it also ranks among the top five TV markets for soccer viewing, based on Nielsen ratings, Edwards said. According to the USL, Hartford was the fifth-highest rated market for ESPN during the 2014 World Cup, behind Los Angeles and San Diego, Calif., which were tied for fourth. Bristol's ESPN is the USL's broadcast partner.

Mandell's investor group is committed to paying USL a one-time $5 million fee, plus an unspecified annual "participation fee,'' once a franchise is formally granted, Edwards said.

In return, the USL pledges, Edwards said, to assist HSG with everything from recruiting players and day-to-day operations to marketing/promotions, ticket sales, etc. USL attendance averaged 6,000 fans last season. A renovated Dillon would seat some 7,500, team and league officials said.

Under proposed Dillon lease terms with the city, HSG would commit to paying the $125,000 in rent annually. However, the city, through CRDA, is asking the state to commit bonding up to $10 million for upgrades to Dillon and nearby Colt Park. Dillon opened in 1935 on land gifted to the city from descendants of legendary Hartford gunmaker Samuel Colt.

USL's Edwards said he sees nothing to prevent Hartford from joining two approved new franchises, Memphis, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, in spring 2019 play. USL plans 40 teams by 2021, officials say.

"Everything is ready to go,'' said Edwards, who spent 12 years as a pro on Britain's pitch. "The final piece of the puzzle is the stadium.''

Youth magnet

For Calafiore, whose family's Alca Construction Co. Inc. in Hartford built or refurbished housing in and around the city, soccer had a major influence on him and his family.

Calafiore said his father formed Hartford's Italian-American Stars, an athletic club in the South End that sponsored a soccer team. In 1967, the Stars won a national amateur soccer championship — a match held at Dillon Stadium.

"Soccer among the Hartford ethnic groups was big back then,'' Calafiore said.

Calafiore said nowadays "it's sad to drive by [Dillon] and see what it's become from my memories as a kid.''

With a pro soccer team playing at Dillon, Hartford has an opportunity to pick up another "piece that it needs,'' he said, as with the rebirth of housing and commercial development downtown, to overcome its struggles with finances and image.

"I think it would be great for Hartford,'' Calafiore said.

Schooley came to Hartford in 1991 from Boston, to open a law firm's satellite office and later settled his family in the West End.

He recognized very early "the absolutely high level of interest in soccer in Hartford." His two sons, now grown, participated in the longstanding Hartford Soccer Club Inc. youth program, he said, playing with and against kids from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Jamaican, Peruvian, Somalian and Bosnian youths.

"For my children, it was an absolutely wonderful experience,'' he said.

A soccer stadium within walking distance of Hartford's large immigrant community in the South End, many of whom are fans, would be an asset for the region, said Margaret "Maggie" Girard, treasurer and a past president of the Hartford Soccer Club. The nonprofit annually hosts, she said, about 300 boys and girls, in ages from 5 to 19, on some eight to 10 teams.

Girard, an AT&T attorney in Rocky Hill, said overwhelming local and regional appeal for the Hartford Yard Goats minor-league baseball team that began play last year in their new downtown ballpark is a barometer for pro-soccer's success as a leisure attraction.

Introduced years ago to local youth soccer by her offspring, Girard, who has publicly supported HSG's efforts, said having pro soccer players in Hartford would provide role models and mentors to young players through soccer camps and skills workshops.

Moreover, the city's insistence that a revamped Dillon have an artificial surface to allow year-round soccer and other sports and community activities, is a plus, Girard said.

"That's the sport they play all the time,'' she said of local youth-soccer players. "To have a venue in the city where they live, that would be huge.''