CBIA BizCast: Hartford Athletic Scores for the Community
Whether or not the Whalers ever take the ice again, Hartford is growing as a sports city.
A big part of that growth is thanks to the Hartford Athletic soccer club.
Hartford Athletic chair Bruce Mandell started the team in 2015 with partners Joe Calafiorie and Scott Schooley.
They wanted to create something for the community and help the city economically.
“I’m from Newington, Connecticut and I love this area, I’ve lived here my whole life,” Mandell says.
“I’ve always been involved in the community, and I wanted to do something really big for Hartford and wanted to bring people together and have a spot in Hartford to do that.”
Building a Stadium
Their idea was to rebuild Dillon Stadium as a place that could help bring the community together.
“It was the one spot in my youth where I just saw people of every color, nationality come together,” Mandell said.
“It made a really big impact on me. And I just felt that that’s the kind of space that I wanted to bring back, with my partners, to life.”
For Mandell, who is also the CEO of Newington-based Data-Mail, running a sports team was a brand new challenge.
“We’ve always been in that business in order to kind of have a good life, make some money, and then use those dollars to fund the community,” he said. “And we’ve done it, we’ve walked the walk on that.”
Mandell and his partners worked with the state, city, and the Greater Hartford Foundation to build the $14 million, 5,500 seat stadium.
“Everything that’s built there, we don’t own that the city does,” he said. “And then we added community use with it.
“So it was kind of one of these homeruns and everybody got behind it.”
Athletic began playing in the United Soccer League in 2019, and quickly developed a diverse following in the community.
“Whether it’s, you know, parents with their kids, or whether it’s soccer fans, or whether it’s people coming out to have a great time, we got to get our niche, and our fans have been unbelievable,” Mandell said.
One thing that Mandell wasn’t expecting was the reaction from soccer supporter groups.
“That just popped up organically, like we’re not involved with them,” he said. “And they’re out there banging drums for 90 minutes, win, lose, or draw.”
Mandell credits that fan support to the atmosphere at games.
Athletic games are mostly on Saturday evenings, providing families with an affordable night out.
There is also a variety of food trucks and a beer garden.
They even debuted a new mascot this year, aptly named Dillon.
“It seems small right, a mascot, but it adds to that atmosphere,” Mandell said.
“And then that mascot can go around and go to the hospitals, it can go to schools. It’s a big marketing piece, but it’s also a very positive kind of interaction.”
For the more than 1,000 season ticket holders, the club offers incentives like preferred parking and interactions with coaches and players.
Mandell said their main goal is to provide the best fan experience possible, especially when people have so many options.
“We’ve added some containers, and we’ve added some different types of tents to make it really kind of cool down there and fun near the field,” he said.
“I think that’s a growth area, and I’m hoping that the business community will grab on to that, in terms of sponsorship.”
But Mandell said that in order to be sustainable long-term, they need a bigger stadium.
“We want to get better,” he said. “We want more premium seating.
“We’ll have to figure out what that deal looks like and how we can also give back to the community because that’s always part of the package.”
Giving back to the community has been a priority for Mandell since day one with Athletic.
“My parents taught me very early, that’s why you try to compete and earn, so that you can get to a point where you can help others,” he said.
In 2020, Athletic established the Green and Blue Foundation.
This year, the foundation raised more than $750,000 to give back to the community in different ways.
That includes providing free tickets to kids from underserved communities, providing scholarships and funding to youth soccer players, hiring events, and a youth soccer academy.
“You know, that feels good to kind of utilize the Hartford Athletic brand to support these community elements that really need help,” Mandell said.
Growing the Game
As he looks to the future, Mandell said he’s looking to continue to grow the game in Connecticut.
And one of his goals is to bringing a professional women’s team to the state.
“It’s going to be women driven, women run kind of organization,” he said. “I’m so excited to do that as a father of two daughters.
“So we’re gonna shoot for it. I don’t know when, things have to work along the way. But that’s coming.
”I think Connecticut’s going to really grab on to pro pro women’s soccer.”
He said they are committed to putting a winning team on the field and helping the community off the field.
“We’re in for the long haul,” Mandell said. “We know it’s hard, but that fan base is what really gives you the strength to want to invest more.
“I think it helps economically, it helps socially helps culturally, maybe it keeps a couple people around, maybe it helps some of our sponsors hire, maybe it helps them to retain, maybe just has a positive overall impact on on the business, and just making this a better place to, you know, live and work and play.”
Mandell said he knows they’ve made some mistakes along the way with the club.
But he said they are still young and there has been a “tremendous amount of learning” as well.
“I say that if I ever wrote a book, it would be like so many mistakes,” he said.
“But the end of it is going to be a championship stadium, and an amazing community kind of asset that will be here for multi-generations.”
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