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December 21, 2018 5 TO WATCH IN 2019

Mandell's Hartford soccer ambitions about more than just sports

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper Hartford Sports Group CEO and Chairman Bruce Mandell

Each year Hartford Business Journal spotlights five leaders who we predict will make headlines in the year ahead. Here is a look at our choices.

As co-founder of the Hartford Athletic, Bruce Mandell sees the Capital City's new pro soccer club scoring far more than wins and losses in 2019.

Mandell, chairman of Hartford Sports Group (HSG), which includes his co-partners Joseph Calafiore Jr. and Scott Schooley, says he is confident the Athletic will sellout many of its 16 home games and hawk droves of merchandise as one of the newest members of the division II United Soccer League (USL).

In addition to renovating Hartford's historic Dillon Stadium, Mandell says the franchise is as much about developing talent, spurring community involvement and boosting the local economy as it is about playing soccer.

“I think when you combine those two things, the goal is to make Hartford and the Greater Hartford area a better place to live, work and play,” he said.

However, before Mandell can deliver on his soccer ambitions a gray cloud must be lifted from the project.

In late November, the Hartford Courant reported that Mandell is the subject of a State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) investigation. The five-member commission is investigating whether Mandell violated a state law, which prohibits state contractors from donating to political parties, by contributing $13,500 to the Connecticut Republican Party and its gubernatorial candidate, Bob Stefanowski.

If SEEC determines the campaign contributions were illegal, the Courant reported, HSG could be prohibited from signing a contract to lease Dillon Stadium from the quasi-public Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), which is overseeing the $10 million, state-financed renovation of the city-owned facility.

Kevin Reynolds, an attorney for HSG, says the investor group self-reported the campaign contributions in early November to be transparent.

“We self-reported out of an abundance of caution and have asked the SEEC to expedite the process so that this matter does not impede the progress at Dillon Stadium,” Reynolds said.

In the meantime, Mandell is focusing on getting the startup franchise up and running for its inaugural season that starts in April. He said getting the minor-league ballclub off the ground has been a bigger time commitment than he anticipated, which forced him to hire additional help at Data-Mail Inc., the family owned direct-mail company he runs in Newington.

“Because this is a startup, it's hard to understand what type of dedication, commitment and time I'll need going forward,” Mandell said panning over his Data-Mail office.

As of mid-November, HSG hired more than half of its expected 25-member staff and signed more than half of its 20- to 23-man roster, including several international players. The investors, who will pump over $10 million into the franchise, interview and hire new talent as a team.

The Athletic's three-person coaching staff is also in place, led by head coach Jimmy Nielsen, who recently led USL's Oklahoma City Energy FC to three playoff appearances.

“It's one of the most exciting things about what we are doing — the staff and the opportunity for them to grow,” said Mandell, estimating the team's front-office employees range from ages 24 to 35.

And it hasn't been difficult luring young talent to Hartford, as expansion teams are often hotspots for individuals working in sports, Mandell says.

More than half of the Athletic's staff comes from out of state, hailing from Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis. Many already live in downtown Hartford, he says.

“They don't see the past here, they just see the present,” Mandell said. “I think this infusion of talent and youth is part of our mission here.”

High interest level

By year-end 2018, the Athletic will have launched ticket, merchandise and advertising sales.

As of November, more than 2,000 fans and corporations had made deposits on season tickets. One former Hartford native, now a West Coast entrepreneur, even placed an order for 100 season tickets and plans to donate them to local youths, Mandell said.

That's a great early indicator, he says, the team will be able to fill the 5,500-seat Dillon Stadium on game nights.

“The interest level is very high, and that has been true across the board from the public, to the key politicians, to the corporate sponsors,” Mandell said of the project, which is backed by state funding. That money is helping with the renovation of Dillon Stadium, which will feature an all-purpose artificial turf field.

The investor group intends to maximize the state-of-the-art field, which will feature an organic infill surface, by exploring opportunities to attract professional rugby and lacrosse teams to Dillon Stadium, Mandell said.

“We will definitely be having rugby and lacrosse at the stadium,” he said. “It's just a matter of when and what type of product we are going to bring.”

For now, HSG is completing the back end, managerial work as it approaches opening day in Hartford in mid-May. Mandell says he hopes the Athletic can mirror the success of the Hartford Yard Goats. He's also nostalgic about the potential of the Capital City becoming a sports hub.

“One exciting thing would be for [the Yard Goats and Athletic] to both have a game on a Saturday night and sell out both games with the lights on — seeing it off (Interstates) 91 and 84,” he said. “That's what's inspiring about something like this for Hartford.”

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