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April 11, 2022

In fourth season, Hartford Athletic minor-league soccer franchise seeks out profitability

HBJ PHOTO | ROBERT STORACE Bruce Mandell, co-founder and board chair of the Hartford Athletic soccer club, stands in front of Trinity Health Stadium’s new scoreboard.

The road to owning a professional minor-league sports franchise isn’t always paved with gold bricks.

Just ask Bruce Mandell, the 58-year-old co-founder and board chair of the Hartford Athletic soccer club, which is part of the 27-team United Soccer League.

The four-year-old Hartford-based franchise saw its 2020 season tripped up by COVID-19, and it has not yet turned a profit. But that could be changing.

Earlier this month, the Hartford Athletic signed a multiyear naming-rights agreement with Trinity Health of New England.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but Mandell told the Hartford Business Journal in 2020 a naming-rights pact was critical to the long-term financial success of the organization.

IEG, a global consultancy that specializes in calculating sponsorship opportunities, in 2020 valued Dillon Stadium’s naming rights at $432,000 a year.

Mandell said the Trinity Health deal will help put the team on a path toward profitability, but only if more fans come to watch the product on the field, which officially became Trinity Health Stadium on March 17.

“The agreement with Trinity Health is critical on our way to break even and to build a sustainable model,” Mandell said during a wide-ranging interview with the Hartford Business Journal in late March. “We understand that if we are not sustainable, we can’t do the great things for this community that we want to do.”

Filling seats

Trinity Health Stadium — a $14 million facility that was rehabbed in 2019 largely by state taxpayer funding — is located on Huyshope Avenue just outside of downtown. It seats about 5,500 people with total standing-room capacity a little north of 6,000.

To achieve financial sustainability, Mandell said, the team needs to draw 4,000 to 5,000 fans a game. Last year the team averaged 4,818 fans during its 16-game home schedule for a total attendance of 77,087. That was a significant rebound from a COVID-19-blemished 2020 season, but behind the team’s 2019 average attendance of 4,989 fans per game.

This year, Mandell said, he wants to average 5,000 fans per home game. There will be no COVID restrictions for this season’s 18-game regular season home schedule (there could be additional post-season games).

The team’s first home match took place April 2 vs. Atlanta United. The Athletic lost 2 to 1. Ticket prices range from $15 to $40 each, Mandell said.

“That’s our challenge,” Mandell said, “... to get our brand out there and to get people to come. Once people come to a game here they love it and they want to come back.”

Sponsorship roster

The naming-rights deal was a feather in Hartford Athletic’s cap, Mandell said, because of the strength of the Trinity Health brand.

Trinity Health of New England owns St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford and other hospitals and facilities in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Trinity now has its name on the stadium, its logo on players’ jerseys and about seven signs throughout the facility including above the press box and atop the scoreboard. It also occupies a field suite that holds 12 people.

The agreement was an impetus for other corporate sponsors to want to do business with the club, Mandell said.

He declined to discuss the team’s specific financials, but said sponsorship revenues are up more than 20% this year over 2021. He said there are multiple sponsors that invest more than six figures with the team.

The club has four founding partners: Trinity Health, The Hartford, Travelers Cos., and Stanley Black & Decker. It also has about 60 corporate sponsors including iHeartMedia, AARP Connecticut, Channel 8, Bank of America, PepsiCo, Corona Extra, Robinson+Cole and Walgreens.

In addition, there are 10 new corporate sponsors this year, including Liberty Bank, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and Avelo Airlines.

There are several value propositions for becoming a sponsor, Mandell said.

“One, it’s supporting something positive in the community so that their employees can feel proud to be here in the Hartford area. It’s a great tool for the retention of employees,” he said. “Second, is the community element in building your business and giving back to your community. You have a captive audience [during home games] and I think people really get a connection between the team and the sponsor. It’s a very positive connection.”

Several companies were in negotiations for the naming rights, Mandell said.

Trinity Health ultimately beat out about four other businesses, including financial services companies.

Dr. Reggy Eadie, president and CEO of Trinity Health, said teaming up with the Hartford Athletic was not a tough decision.

He said the “team had the courage to identify and fulfill a community need,” by launching operations and helping revive a desolate, unused stadium.

Eadie also said Trinity Health’s approach is “to heal the mind, body and spirit” and “I believe that soccer addresses at least two, if not three, of those components.”

In addition, Eadie said, the healthcare system is looking forward to having many of its front-line physicians enjoy an outing at the stadium, in the company’s suite.

“It allows us the opportunity to have colleagues enjoy the stadium, soccer fans or not,” he said.

Bullish outlook

This year, Mandell said, the team is going all out promotion-wise to lure more fans to the stadium, which has a new scoreboard and is hosting a craft beer garden that will feature brews from seven Connecticut-owned breweries.

There will be new food and drink options, including two new food trucks: Wooster Street Pizza will offer stuffed fried dough and pizza; Rasta Rant will feature Caribbean-infused, plant-based meals.

New promotions, he said, include the Avelo Airlines “crossbar challenge,” in which the team selects individuals to come to the field during halftime to try to hit the crossbar from 20 yards out. If they do, they win a flight courtesy of the airline, which has significant operations at Tweed New Haven airport.

Mandell is also an optimist.

He predicts his team will win a championship in the next few years.

The team, which plays in the USL’s Eastern Conference, has had a losing record in two out of its first three seasons, but did go 11-3-2 in 2020, and made the quarterfinals in the playoffs that year.

“We will have a winning record this year,” Mandell predicted. “And, we will build toward the playoffs. We will make the playoffs this year and will go on a run to try to win that championship this year. We have a team that can do it.”

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