With expansion news coming hot and heavy recently, we, Brian Cook and Richard Rainwater, are taking a look at each of the new teams gearing up to begin play in the USL. We will be covering the teams already announced to join the league and will be looking at how the teams can be successful, what struggles they face, and what we think the outcomes will be.
It’s the Expansion Ramble! And we’re glad you’re here to join us on our journey to the Northeast. The land of clam chowder, historic cities, and stunning ocean views looks to add another champion to its ranks of sporting glory.
Nestled between the bright lights of New York City and the rich sports history of Boston, Hartford, Connecticut is a city that can be easy to overlook. Once the city of American icons like Samuel Colt, Mark Twain, and Albert Pope, the state capital of Connecticut was the epicenter of their region and one of the richest cities in the nation. These days, however, population loss and poverty have struck hard and the city itself has battled for survival.
Will the Beautiful Game help make this city beautiful once again? Only time will tell…
What will make this team successful? –
Hartford is a town with a ravenous appetite for sports. The city supported an NHL team, the Hartford Whalers, for nearly twenty seasons despite being one of the smallest markets to host a major-league team. They have also hosted the Boston Celtics, and were even considered as a viable location for the New England Patriots at one time. This history bodes well for Athletic, who will be counting on the city to rally behind them in their inaugural campaign.
The team has secured Dillon Stadium, which holds great historical significance to the city and long-term residents. The field that once hosted The Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, and an original NASL team has literally crumbled over the years as city officials tried to lure a variety of tenants. Now, one of the centerpieces of Hartford’s golden years will be given a new lease on life, and should be bigger and better than before. For a city full of people looking for their own redemption, Hartford residents will see the project as a sign of better times coming. Athletic could have an important keystone from the beginning, which will help them continue to grow.
Finally, while they are close to the Boston and New York markets, this proximity may actually serve Hartford well. Currently, Hartford residents only have minor league baseball and hockey teams that play within city limits. Fans in the city limits are therefore drawn to teams that play in New York or Boston, and don’t have a genuine local connection to those franchises. With Athletic, citizens have the
Connecticut is one of the states that you sometimes have to be reminded is still around. For many, sports surround our mind and if a city or state doesn’t have a major sports team then it’s often forgotten (sorry Delaware). For
Outside of the Connecticut Suns of the WNBA, Connecticut doesn’t truly have a major sports team. Enter Hartford Athletic. The USL Championship club can be a success by allowing themselves in the market to own themselves as Connecticut’s professional soccer team. Be prideful of their city, their state, and their heritage and to be the organically based Connecticut team and not be a corporate entity.
What will make this team struggle? –
Sometimes sports can help galvanize a struggling city and become a catalyst for change. Sometimes, however, those problems can make it difficult to get the team off of the ground. The city has suffered population loss, large numbers of residents in poverty, and almost filed for bankruptcy in 2017. While local and state governments are committed to rebuilding the city, there is still much work to be done. As work on Dillon Stadium progresses, Hartford Athletic will be nervously monitoring the city’s situation, as they are relying on city bonds to help fund the project.
Hartford, despite its history in American sports, is still a fairly small market in the New England region. Not only do they have to compete with the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB franchises in Boston, but they also have the New York area to compete with as well. If you just look at their soccer competition, they have to face off against the New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls, New York City FC, and New York Cosmos for attention. Though USL Championship has gotten an increase in exposure over the past couple of years, it’s still not a major player in the American sports landscape. If the team isn’t successful out of the gate, or suffers from PR mishaps, it’s possible that they get lost in the shadow of their established soccer neighbors and struggle to bring fans to the stadium or their television screens.
The ownership group faces legal trouble surrounding campaign contributions that may have been made illegally. The lead investor, Bruce Mendell, gave $10,000 to the state Republican party, along with his wife’s $10,000 contribution and an identical one from their college freshman daughter. These payments are being investigated as potentially violating campaign finance laws and could prevent the team from signing a lease for Dillon Stadium. With the season only a month and a half away, this uncertainty could derail Athletic’s efforts to hit the field in 2019, and beyond, as a suitable stadium may not be able to be secured.
Finally, fans excited for the team to resurrect the city’s sports history need to remember how much the city has changed over the past twenty years. Many long-term fans of the Whalers no longer call Hartford home, and ownership can’t count on that level of support out of the gate. With changed demographics, new problems in the city, and people that may need an introduction to the sport, Athletic will have to do most things right for a while before they can fully know what their support will look like.
Have you ever seen a car which, if it were new would have looked nice but someone thought they’d “paint it themselves” to save money? Hartford Athletic through some fault of their own has begun to seem like 2019’s Penn FC (more on that shortly).
Like many of the new USL teams, the fact they are in a state with little to no other professional teams is something that will always be a negative and positive. Hartford will have it’s run of the soccer slate by being the state’s only professional team. That being said, they will be the state’s only professional team. With no instate competition for eyeballs, you run the risk of seeing management for the team being complacent.
The other aspect is the negative news attention that has already occured. Ownership for Hartford Athletic have been linked into a whirlwind news cycle on possible illegal campaign contributions they made and whether it was linked to the team getting to play in their new home.
What do you think is more likely with this team: MLS Expansion, Successful Championship Side, Future League One Superstars, or Soon-to-be ghost of American soccer past?
Hartford is a big enough market that the team should comfortably find a home in the Championship. The fans there do follow New England sports but will find a local team an attractive option over long trips to Foxborough or New York. However, legal problems and construction delays at Dillon Stadium could derail the team before they even get started. If the
In all honesty, as was stated before, Hartford could surprise me. I think they have every reason and every chance to succeed but I can see them going the way of Penn FC where they hang around in USL Championship for a few years and eventually upper management choose to cut their losses and play in a more affordable league. Hartford should be an interesting team to watch in 2019 and should get off to a fast start.
If you liked this article, you’ll love the rest of the series. Check out our takes on Austin, Birmingham, Chicago, and El Paso, and drop us a line with your comments on how you think these teams will fare.
Follow us @BGNWritten on Twitter, and check us out at uslnews.com for all the latest coverage of the wild world of the USL Championship. Don’t like to read while you’re driving? Check out all the great podcasts the Beautiful Game Network has to offer on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.