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  • Hartford Courant

    Red ink at CT sports stadium prompts need for $25M upgrades to boost revenue. Who will pay for them?

    By Kenneth R. Gosselin, Hartford Courant,

    26 days ago
    https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1cYwGW_0tPL1zmd00
    Bruce Mandell, a partner in the Hartford Sports Group, which owns the Hartford Athletic professional soccer team, stands on a new amenity at Trinity Health Stadium in Hartford, a VIP deck. Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant/Hartford Courant/TNS

    A $14 million, mostly taxpayer-funded renovation of Hartford’s Dillon Stadium in 2019 for the Hartford Athletic may now need nearly twice that investment for upgrades the professional soccer team sees as critical for the franchise to at least break-even, if not turn a profit.

    At least $25 million in improvements may be needed in the next few years to bring more revenue to the 5,500-seat, outdoor venue near downtown to reverse annual operating losses of over $1 million, the team’s owners say.

    Upgrades to the venue — renamed Trinity Health Stadium in 2022 after its naming rights sponsor — could include the addition of upscale suites across the top of the west stand on either side of the press box. On the stadium’s east side, the stand could be expanded with more rows to accommodate more than a thousand additional spectators.

    But chief among the improvements that are needed are massive awnings that would shield the stands from rain.

    “We’re in the Northeast,” Bruce Mandell, chief executive of the team’s owner, Hartford Sports Group , said during a recent tour of the stadium. “And when it rains, people don’t come. We don’t sell tickets. So, that’s like losing a full game, and that kills you.”

    Mandell, a businessman who is president of Newington-based Data-Mail, Inc. , one of the country’s largest direct marketing companies, said the Athletic already have played two games this season in the rain. That isn’t a problem for players, but attendance typically takes a nosedive from an average attendance of 4,500 a game to about 1,000, Mandell said.

    “You can imagine the math, right?” Mandell said.

    Not only do ticket sales and parking revenue plummet, but fewer fans mean deep cuts into sales of food and drink as well as team merchandise, key components of revenue for the team and venue, Mandell said. The stadium is city-owned, but the sports group must cover costs to operate and maintain.

    Mandell said the plans are in the earliest stages and the $25 million is an initial estimate.

    The team plans an in-depth economic analysis of any expansion, but argues events at the stadium boost the local economy. Those include both the Athletic games and a broad range of community events, spanning youth sports and charitable events to graduations. Trinity Health Stadium hosted 100 community events at the stadium in 2023 and it is expected to exceed that number in 2024.

    The sports group already has informally talked to state and local officials. Those discussions soon are expected to get more serious, with the state being a prime potential source for funding.

    A push for funding comes at a time when state dollars also are being set aside for potential renovations to the aging XL Center arena in downtown Hartford. Those renovations have been debated for more than a decade and may yet again be downsized .

    In the case of the XL Center, Gov. Ned Lamont has insisted that a private investor contribute to the renovation price tag to relieve some of the burden on taxpayers.

    “For the Lamont administration, the key criteria is a public-private partnership,” Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, said. “Whether it be the XL Center … or even the Bridgeport soccer stadium, I think there’s an appetite to do it, if the developers are putting in skin in the game. What that number is, I don’t know.”

    The economic development ripple effect is central to the argument for Trinity Health Stadium, Ritter said, but equally crucial is how much private money is brought to the table.

    “For the Hartford Athletic, that’s going to be the big question,” Ritter said.

    ‘Long-term stability’

    The plans for improvements are grounded in the uncomfortable question that Mandell frames as “sustainability,” or the team’s long-term future in Hartford.

    “It’s not sustainable to continue to lose over a million dollars a year,” Mandell said. “Real sustainability is to get to a break-even where we can grow economically for the community.”

    Operating expenses for the team and the stadium run between $8 and $9 million annually, according to Mandell, with Mandell and his partners paying for the $1 million shortfall. His partners are Joseph A. Calafiore, president of Hartford-based Alca Construction Co .; and Scott Schooley, president and founder of Woodside Capital Management, a private investment company and fund manager.

    The expenses cover a staff of about 50, including the players on the Athletic, according to the team.

    Mandell said the sports group has invested $2 million in improvements this year, all aimed at boosting revenue.

    Those include new ground-level, premium suites behind the goal on the south side of the field, which start at $1,400 for a minimum of 10 people. There is a new VIP deck called “The Perch” next to the press box and a new ribbon LED display board. A bunker bar under the south side of west stands is now under construction.

    The team is showing improvement this year after a disappointing season in 2023. In 2024, the Athletic won three of their first five matches.

    Attendance is growing, up 13% so far in 2024 compared with this time last year. The team now has 1,000 season ticketholders, a number the team hopes to increase by 50% in the next two or three years. The team also aims to increase its ‘turnstile” attendance — those who have tickets and then attend games — by 25%, further driving sales of concessions and merchandise.

    The roster of founding corporate sponsors include some big names locally, including Liberty Bank , The Hartford Financial Services Group , Travelers Cos. and Stanley Black & Decker .

    Matches are now reaching a broader audience in broadcasts, primarily on MyTV9 and ESPN+. Veteran sports broadcaster Joe D’Ambrosio is now calling the play-by-play at the stadium.

    Hartford Mayor Arunan Arulampalam said potential upgrades to Trinity Health Stadium deserve a close look.

    “Trinity Health Stadium brings people together, boosts local businesses, and provides a space for our youth to dream big and stay active,” Arulampalam said, in an email, “Making the necessary investments in stadium improvements will build on the appeal of the Hartford Athletic and continue to draw residents from around the state to our Capital City. Our neighborhoods are deserving of investment, and that means working towards strong financial standing for the stadium with long-term stability.”

    Threads of contr0versy

    Since 1935, Dillon Stadium has hosted everything from professional football and soccer to concerts by legends such as the Grateful Dead, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones. The stadium was last used by Hartford high schools.

    But by the late 2000s, it was crumbling and an eyesore, sections of it no longer safe to use.

    A first attempt at renovation in 2014 failed when an investment group awarded $12 million for the project was found guilty of embezzling some of the money.

    Three years later, the project was resurrected. This time, Mandell and the Hartford Sports Group were selected for the job. But the project again faced troubles, as issues with the existing structure forced nearly a complete rebuilding of the stadium. Those circumstances pushed the renovation cost well above the $10 million in state funds earmarked for the project.

    The Hartford Sports Group put in about $2.8 million, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving made a grant of $1.2 million for the field.

    The project also was scaled back but with the potential for the addition of several thousand seats in the future.

    Threads of controversy still linger.

    The Hartford Sports Group’s selection is still being challenged as improper in the courts in a pending case pursued by a competitor who wanted the project. Hartford-based Civic Mind LLC, founded by entrepreneur Thomas “TJ” Clynch, claims the bid process favored the sports group by the city of Hartford and the Capital Region Development Authority.

    The 2022 civil lawsuit seeks, among other things, monetary damage and an injunction to stop any further development at the stadium. An injunction has not been issued.

    Kenneth R. Gosselin can be reached at kgosselin@courant.com

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