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April 1, 2024

Under new CEO, Hartford Athletic hopes revamped roster, coaching staff translate to more wins, attendance and revenues

HBJ PHOTO | HANNA SNYDER GAMBINI Nick Sakiewicz was named CEO of the Hartford Athletic professional soccer team in September.

The Hartford Athletic is kicking off its sixth season with new players, additions to its coaching staff, more corporate sponsors and stadium upgrades — all in an effort to boost the team’s showing on and off the field.

CEO Nick Sakiewicz joined the club about six months ago and has spent the majority of that time recruiting 18 new players that he hopes will boost the team’s record.

“When you only win four games (last season), your focus from day one is on fixing that,” Sakiewicz said.

The Athletic, which plays in the second tier of the United Soccer League, won its first game of the 2024 season on the road, and won its home opener at Trinity Health Stadium on March 23.

The team’s new coaching staff is led by Brendan Burke, who was named head coach and general manager in December.

Sakiewicz said it’s key to have the right balance of fresh young players and experienced veterans, both playing and coaching.

The team this season increased investment in player salaries by about 10% compared to what was spent in past years, Sakiewicz said. Without disclosing player salaries, he said the Athletic “is one of the lowest-spending clubs in the league.”

The new players will also provide the Athletic more of an identity, which was lacking, Sakiewicz said.

Aside from players, the team has about 20 full-time staff members, including coaches, stadium crew and organizational positions, Sakiewicz said.

Boosting attendance

Team owner Bruce Mandell said Sakiewicz has reached certain benchmarks earlier than anticipated, such as new recruits and a bump in sponsorships. He hopes that will translate into more wins that excite the fan base and increase attendance.

Ticket sales are the organization’s main revenue driver. In 2022, the team posted record attendance, averaging 5,145 fans per game, with the last five matches of that year sold out. The Athletic had a 10-18-6 record in 2022.

This season is trending to be on par with 2023, when the team’s 17 home games averaged 4,685 fans, which equals about 85% of Trinity Health Stadium’s 5,500-seat capacity, Sakiewicz said.

On the bright side, the team sold-out six home matches last year, a new record, despite losing 24 games.

Group and corporate ticket sales so far this season are “off the charts,” Sakiewicz said, with 120 groups signed up as of mid-March vs. about eight group packages sold at the same time last year.

The increase, Sakiewicz said, was driven by a greater focus on group ticket sales and increased investment in ticketing staff.

The renewal rate for season ticket packages stands at about 85% this season, but should be closer to 90% to 95% — or 1,500 season ticket packages sold, he said.

The renewal rate should increase if the team has a better season on the field, Sakiewicz said. The fan base is made up of both people looking for the fun stadium experience and “soccer purists” who seek out the competitive games.

The team has “underperformed on the field, but provided a strong enough kind of atmosphere and environment that our fans are still coming,” Sakiewicz said.

He’s hoping the new roster and coaching staff will lift attendance numbers, which helps drive sponsorships, another key revenue driver.

Path to profitability?

The Athletic inked a stadium naming-rights deal with Trinity Health Of New England in 2022, which allowed for several facility upgrades, including a new video board and refurbished viewing areas on the goal line.

The team gets support from founding partners Trinity Health Of New England, Stanley Black & Decker, Travelers Cos. and The Hartford, along with 55 other corporate sponsors and 50 business alliance partners.

There are 10 new sponsors this year, and 14 returning sponsors have renewed for multi-year contracts as opposed to one-year commitments signed in previous years, the team said.

Office technology provider LDI Connect is a new sponsor in 2024, Eversource has returned at a higher level of commitment, and financial services company Global Atlantic, which recently increased its presence in the Gold Building in downtown Hartford, has doubled its sponsorship, Mandell said.

Liberty Bank is sponsoring new viewing suites at the stadium that will “elevate the experience for fans and corporate and community use,” Mandell said.

Many sponsors provide “significant” commitments of $20,000 or more, Mandell said.

The team budgeted a 10% to 15% increase in revenue this year, “and all those dollars really go towards player salaries,” Mandell said.

He said the team has not yet become profitable, and still has “a long way to go to get there, probably two or three years. The way things are trending now, we have a chance, but we’re still in the investment phase.”

Mandell said even though the team is more seasoned, six years later “it still feels like a startup.”

“This is our sixth season,” he said, “but the first year we had no stadium, then two years, at least, of COVID, so it’s more like a stunted five.”

He believes the work done by Sakiewicz on adding new players, staffing and sponsors could lead to profitability sooner than expected, and this season could determine whether all the investment will pay off.

“This could be the year to really find that out,” Mandell said.

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