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August 6, 2018

How Hartford Athletic plans to build CT's next sports brand

Hartford Athletic home opener Photo | Contributed Hartford Athletic's co-owners (from left): Joe Calafiore, Bruce Mandell, and Scott Schooley stand with United Soccer League President Jake Edwards. (Above photo) A recently released rendering of a redeveloped Dillon Stadium.
Rendering | JCJ Architects
HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper The Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) will oversee major renovations at the rundown Dillon Stadium beginning in August.

In temporary offices overlooking Dillon Stadium, Hartford Athletic's soccer brass is beginning a nine-month sprint to build Connecticut's lone unaffiliated sports franchise.

Since its July 11 introduction to the United Soccer League, the Division II pro soccer team has rearranged a Colt Armory apartment into offices for about a half-dozen employees with a clear view of the overgrown greenery canvassing historic Dillon Stadium.

Hartford Sports Group (HSG) CEO and Chairman Bruce Mandell said he's confident his investor group, including co-partners Joseph Calafiore Jr. and Scott Schooley, will turn a profit by 2021.

HSG is sinking up to $10 million in the franchise and is focusing on numerous revenue streams to make the project solvent: ticket sales for at least 16 home games; corporate sponsorships; stadium naming rights; merchandise; and concession sales.

More than 1,000 fans have already committed to season tickets at the soon-to-be 6,000-seat Dillon Stadium, which will undergo a major renovation before opening day April 2019. The Capital Region Development Authority will oversee the facility's upcoming renovations, to be financed through a $10 million commitment from the state Bond Commission for an all-purpose artificial turf field and other upgrades to nearby Colt Park.

Meantime, HSG aims to procure $1 million in corporate sponsorships by its first home game.

“This is going to be a success,” said Mandell, who is pairing experience running his family's Newington-based direct mail company, Data-Mail Inc., with his love for soccer. “Operationally, I don't want to lose.”

Unlike the Hartford Yard Goats, the Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, and the Hartford Wolf Pack, the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers, HSG is operating as an independent franchise.

Mandell's group has discussed partnerships to swap players with Major League Soccer's New England Revolution, New York City FC or New York Red Bulls, but will not entertain a direct relationship. Mandell said he and his partners want to retain full ownership rights, which will allow them to collect a larger cut of revenues from sponsorships, concessions and ticket and merchandise sales.

“We want to own Hartford's team and we don't want to give up any of that control,” Mandell said.

“We can have relationships with anyone we want,” he said, adding the Revolution have provided crucial advice on navigating the pro soccer landscape in New England.

HSG's operational independence also allows more flexibility to build its roughly 27-player roster from soccer's massive national and international talent pool, Mandell said.

Building a brand

For Mandell and his HSG partners — Calafiore Jr., a Hartford building contractor and Schooley, a Hartford investment-fund manager — operating a soccer team in Hartford is about sustainable, long-term development in the region.

The group is rapidly hiring a staff that will reach up to 24 employees by November as the team establishes its ticket pricing, lures local and national corporate sponsors and negotiates the stadium naming rights to potentially the highest bidder.

Sponsorship spots on uniforms and signage and stadium naming rights garner between $1.5 million to $2.5 million for most USL clubs, league officials said.

Over the next few months the Athletic will begin coaxing corporate sponsors for hundreds of signs around Dillon Stadium. Mandell has set a $1 million sponsorship goal by opening day in April.

The team is also working to identify unique sales strategies to sell food and beverages to fans who may not leave their seats during two continuous 45-minute halves.

Merchandising is also a key component to the team's revenue strategy.

Mandell says the team is currently refining the Athletic's logo and brand under a blue and green color scheme established and honed by the Hartford Whalers and Yard Goats. He's hoping team shirts, scarves and other memorabilia become as popular as Yard Goats-branded gear.

“Once we establish our brand and logo, we are going to be selling a ton of merchandise over the next month,” he said.

TV exposure is also vital to the USL, which has grown from 11 teams at its inception in 2011 to 33 teams in 2018.

The Athletic this fall will learn its schedule, including how many games will air on USL's media partner, ESPN. While ESPN will air Athletic games occasionally in local and national markets, all USL matches air on the over-the-top subscription service ESPN+ and online streaming service ESPN3.

The Athletic will also seek local broadcast partners to further the team's exposure.

“We have free rein to cut any deal we want,” Mandell said. “As it grows over the next three to 10 years, we are really trying to broaden our media dollars.”

The investment group has committed to paying USL a one-time, $7 million franchise fee in addition to an unspecified yearly participation fee. Mandell's group will also pay $300,000 per year for overhead expenses and $25,000 annually to a community fund.

In return, the Athletic will receive USL's continued support across all business platforms.

USL President Jake Edwards said the Tampa, Fla., league will help the team gauge TV deals, merchandise partnerships, stadium agreements, sponsorship evaluations, web development, digital support and recruiting.

Team officials will soon travel to Florida to learn the league's best practices.

Edwards said HSG pitched all the right ingredients that have made the USL the nation's fastest-growing league over the last eight years, including a regional appetite for pro soccer, a growing business community, committed ownership, civic engagement and stadium opportunities.

Hartford was the fifth-highest rated national TV market for ESPN during the 2014 World Cup and 13th for the 2018 World Cup on FOX.

Plus, Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford has drawn, on average, more than 29,000 fans for six U.S. men's soccer team games it held between 2005 to 2017.

“As we look at Hartford we feel that it strengthens our footprint in the Northeast,” Edwards said. “We feel good about them and their plan for the team.”

Help wanted

HSG is gearing up to sign 26 to 28 players to USL's standard one-year deals, with 18 players active on gameday. USL salaries are higher than minor league baseball deals, typically ranging from $30,000 to $50,000.

The Athletic is allowed to sign seven international players and have already engaged in conversations with national and European players, and others in South America, Central America, Africa, Australia, Asia and the Caribbean region. The team will host open and invitation-based tryouts in October.

But first the Athletic must hire a head coach and technical director from a pool of 40 applicants. Team officials say the two positions, leading player recruitment and coaching and training, could meld into a single lead post. The top five candidates will be interviewed in the next month before a hiring soon after.

Under construction

CRDA, Mandell says, will lead in August a “complete knockdown” of Dillon Stadium, the host of countless high school football and pro soccer games, and rock concerts by The Beach Boys, Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones.

The field, in the shadows of the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy, will be moved east toward Huyshope Avenue to create room for seats closer to the playing field. Artificial turf will be installed to spur community use, and longevity.

According to CRDA renovation plans, the field will be ready by April, but a harsh winter, rising fuel costs or tariffs on steel, among other factors, could alter that timeline, CRDA Executive Director Michael Freimuth said.

USL will place the Athletic on the road to start its 30-game season in March, which could extend into November with a playoff berth.

Mandell's group has met with the Yard Goats' front office several times and plans to continue leveraging their insight on how to build a winning business model in the Capital City.

After all, the collaboration fits the Athletic's community-first narrative.

“It's exciting from a cultural and economic standpoint,” Mandell said of the team attracting a diverse fanbase. “The more success we have as a business the more we will be able to create for the Hartford region.”

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