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November 10, 2014

Will sponsors follow Rock Cats to Hartford?

PHOTO | HBJ File Corporations support the New Britain Rock Cats with everything from advertisements on its outfield walls to in-game events and promotions. Meanwhile, Stanley Black & Decker is the team's presenting sponsor.
PHOTO | HBJ File Josh Solomon, owner of the Rock Cats, said gaining corporate support for the team’s move to Hartford is among its many priorities, and team officials are starting to lay the groundwork now to have robust support starting in 2016.
Oz Griebel, president and CEO, MetroHartford Alliance
Rendering | HBJ File This rendering shows the new Rock Cats stadium in Hartford as the anchor of a larger Downtown North redevelopment, which hinges on the ability of the minor league baseball team to be financially successful over the long term.

Stanley Black & Decker is a major corporate sponsor of Walt Disney World, English Premier League soccer, NASCAR, Professional Bull Riding, Montreal Canadiens hockey, and 40 percent of all Major League Baseball games.

But the tool manufacturer sponsors only one minor league sports franchise — the team in its hometown — the New Britain Rock Cats.

As the Rock Cats abandon New Britain for a new $60 million stadium in downtown Hartford, city and business officials are concerned Stanley and the team's dozens of other sponsors won't follow it to the Capital City.

Concerns are so high that the Hartford city council included in its approval of the stadium a provision requiring team owner Josh Solomon to start looking for corporate partnerships right away, even though the move won't take place until 2016.

So far, business leaders say, Rock Cats officials have been slow in their corporate recruitment efforts in what is already a competitive sponsorship environment.

“The problem with the Rock Cats is the organization is moving 10 miles,” said Oz Griebel, president and CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance. “You have a lot of hurt feelings from New Britain that need to be addressed even as the team looks for new partners in Hartford.”

Corporate support is expected to play a significant role in the Rock Cats' Hartford success. A city-commissioned study said the team should bring in about $1 million annually in advertising and sponsorships as part of $2.2 million in corporate support for the stadium development that also includes naming rights and the purchase of luxury suites.

That $2.2 million accounts for 27 percent of the total revenue Hartford expects the team to generate. Rock Cats officials, including Solomon, have declined to comment on the accuracy of these projections, only to say they did not provide that information to the city.

“Moving to Hartford — more specifically to the Capital City at the cross section of I-84 and I-91 — will allow us to expand our fan base and expand the exposure it will provide for our sponsors in a state-of-the-art facility,” said Solomon, adding that he is bullish about the team's prospects of generating corporate support. “We are wanting to fully engage the business community and the Greater Hartford area.”

The team has not done much corporate outreach so far, Solomon said, because it wanted to wait until the stadium deal was approved by the city council; that happened Oct. 14.

Even after the approval, the team has a lot of priorities, including making sure the stadium design and construction happens as scheduled, Solomon said, so resources to line up corporate support will be limited.

Solomon, though, said he is confident the team will get all the corporate support it needs and more.

“We have gotten great feedback from the business community, both in coming into the Hartford market and our existing sponsors that we have in New Britain,” Solomon said.

Stanley is currently the Rock Cats' marquee sponsor. Solomon and Stanley declined to provide financial details or the length of the sponsorship deal, but Solomon said the tool maker has a long-term relationship with the team and would continue it for at least one more year.

However, a source with knowledge of the stadium development said Stanley likely will not continue its sponsorship once the team moves to Hartford.

Stanley officials declined to comment for this story.

“Stanley has been with us for a very long time, and they are an outstanding sponsor,” Solomon said. “We hope to continue that relationship after our move to Hartford.”

The Rock Cats could find a Hartford corporation willing to make up for the potential loss of Stanley's support. The Hartford Financial Services Group and Aetna are supporters of the minor league hockey Hartford Wolf Pack. Travelers has been the title sponsor of the state's PGA tournament since 2007. Northeast Utilities began its sponsorship of the Hartford Marathon this year.

But the amount of corporate dollars for sports, arts and entertainment is not infinite, Griebel said. The Rock Cats face sponsorship competition not only from hockey, college basketball and football, but arts, entertainment and other nonprofit organizations, which stand to lose revenue if corporations choose to redirect their sponsorship spending rather than expand it.

“There is always that possibility that companies redirect their support,” said Elizabeth Ray, chief development officer for the Bushnell, which gets about 13 percent of its revenues from corporate support. “Just like with the Travelers Championship or when there was talk of the Hartford Whalers coming back, a major movement in the market can cause a shift in support.”

Ray said the Bushnell doesn't so much see a dip in corporate support when new organizations enter the market as much as when the economy starts to sour. During the Great Recession, for example, the Bushnell saw corporate support move away from the arts and toward health and human services.

The Bushnell has recovered some of that lost money, but it isn't easy to find new sources of business support. The entertainment venue has companies like The Hartford Financial Services Group, Microsoft, Stanley, and Travelers all contributing more than $100,000 annually. Other companies like Hoffman Auto Group, United Technologies Corp., Walgreens, and Webster Bank give the Bushnell $50,000-$99,999 annually.

“We are now at a point of rebuilding and looking for money, but — as you know — we are in a non-growth market,” Ray said.

Solomon said he doesn't view the Wolf Pack, the Bushnell, or any other organization that draws corporate support as a competitor. He said a minor league baseball club brings something new and different to the region that will reach young professionals, families, and corporations in a way that sponsors will want to support.

“One of the nice things about minor league baseball is the breadth of entertainment it provides,” Solomon said.

When engaging corporate sponsorship, the key is finding an aspect of the operation that the company wants its brand to be a part of, said Chris Lawrence, general manager of the Wolf Pack. That includes everything from arena naming rights to signage to in-game elements to seating sections and ticket offerings.

“We haven't had to compete with another minor league franchise, so we don't know what impact [the Rock Cats] will have, but it really won't change our approach to dealing with potential sponsors,” Lawrence said. “We are always trying to get new business and cultivate new relationships.”

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