Women's Pro Soccer to Windsor

Jeff Kassouf of Equalizer Soccer reported on our work to bring a National Women’s Soccer League franchise to Connecticut.

Hartford-area group makes push for ‘New England’ NWSL expansion team

 
A conceptual rendering of the stadium. (Design not final. Rendering courtesy Stantec.)

A conceptual rendering of the stadium. (Design not final. Rendering courtesy Stantec.)

 

United States women’s national team World Cup and Olympic winner Kristine Lilly, and Mohegan Sun Sports, are part of a group aiming to bring a National Women’s Soccer League team to the Hartford area for the 2020 season. The team, which would use “New England” in the name in an aim to capture the attention of the entire region, would be owned by local real estate investor Mark Greenberg.

Thom Meredith, ‘the backstage star of American soccer’ for decades, is also involved in the group, which has been working toward being granted an expansion franchise since mid-2018. Greenberg would be the sole equity holder in the team, based on current plans.

Greenberg already owns the piece of land intended to be the stadium site in Windsor, Connecticut, about 10 miles north of downtown Hartford and a few minutes south of Bradley International Airport. The mixed-use space is already partially developed with a retail mall and office space, and 11 softball fields which will host Fastpitch Nation youth tournaments throughout the year. The unique plan calls for the 7,000-seat NWSL stadium (with room for future expansion) to be built around the existing buildings on the north and east sides, creating a space where weekday retail would convert to stadium amenities on game days.

Now, the group says, it is waiting on the league. They attended the NWSL Championship in Portland, Oregon, in October (joined by a Connecticut state official) and have met with the league and U.S. Soccer several times since. They are seeking a go-ahead of their bid at the NWSL Board of Governors meeting in May. The Hartford group has been waiting to break ground on the stadium site until getting the green light from the NWSL. The delays mean that they would need to play at least the first half of their 2020 season at Veterans Memorial Stadium in New Britain, should they successful in being awarded a team.

“One of the challenges is, in real estate, you either have a deal or you don’t have a deal in a month or two,” Greenberg told The Equalizer. “It’s semi-frustrating that we’ve been having these conversations with the NWSL for at least a year now, and we have a strong indication that we are going to get the franchise. We don’t have in our hands a preliminary letter [awarding us the team]. Yeah, I find it a little frustrating, frankly. We’re trying to get going and every moment that goes by without a letter of award from NWSL, it gets a little more difficult to accomplish that.”

Reached by phone on Thursday, NWSL president Amanda Duffy said she could not speak to specific expansion bids due to confidentiality, but that Hartford — and Windsor, Connecticut — have always been areas known to support women’s soccer.

 
The site before construction, with retail space and a lot of open land.

The site before construction, with retail space and a lot of open land.

 

T.J. Clynch, who works on social innovation in the Hartford area and helped unite the group, would serve as CEO of the proposed New England team. Lilly would be president, taking charge of all soccer-related decisions. Meredith would have a yet-to-be-defined operational role, given his extensive background in running teams, tournaments and events at the international level.

The Day Hill Road site in Windsor was once an indoor motocross facility which has since been mostly demolished after the roof collapsed in 2011. The Equalizer visited the location last week and can confirm that the specific location of the proposed stadium is cleared out. The location is connected to Hartford public transit and adjacent to a $50 million, 1.5 million-square-foot Amazon distribution center.

Part of using “New England” in the name is the hope to draw fans from a two-hour radius dubbed, “The Knowledge Corridor” (up and down Interstate-91, from New Haven, Connecticut, to north-central Massachusetts). The team is operating under the title “New England Soccer Club” but is waiting to draw up the team name and identity until approval from the league. They would not be seeking territorial rights to the Boston metro area (just everything else in New England around it) and Clynch says they would welcome a Boston team down the line. The Boston Breakers ceased operations before the 2018 season, having played in all three U.S. women’s professional leagues.

It’s unclear whether any public money would be used to develop the stadium and the 120-acre land. The State of Connecticut initially contributed $10 million in bonds to renovate the downtown Dillon Stadium, where USL Championship (second-division men’s) team Hartford Athletic will play, eventually. That project has been marred by construction delays and has gone over budget. When completed, the 5,500-seat Dillon Stadium will meet the minimum capacity required for a top-flight women’s team (same standards as second-division men’s teams), should the Hartford Athletic pursue the NWSL.

Greenberg’s estimated total assets are worth approximately $100 million and his net worth just shy of $80 million, per documents. The minimum required net worth for the primary investor (at least 35 percent) of a top-flight U.S. women’s pro team is $15 million.

Greenberg was previously the Republican candidate for the state’s congressional 5th district in 2014, an unsuccessful bid. He also ran for Connecticut state comptroller in 2018.

The NWSL expansion fee is expected to be somewhere between $1 million and $2 million. Expansion is a never-ending topic for the NWSL, but it hasn’t happened (without being part of contraction or relocation) since the Orlando Pride joined the league in 2016. Since then, the NWSL lost FC Kansas City and the Boston Breakers; Utah Royals FC effectively (but not officially, due to legalities) replaced FC Kansas City. Sources within the league continue to stress that stabilizing the current franchises — even some of the supposedly stronger MLS-backed ones — remains a priority over pure expansion, meaning further relocation of teams is a possibility. Ten stable, thriving teams is the short-term goal.

Clynch, who works on social innovation in the Hartford area, said that the group wants $50,000 added to their expansion fee which would be donated to the NWSL Players Association. Much of the group’s detailed plans are about community engagement, aiming to buck the trend of empty political promises about job creation and revenue from sports teams.

The NWSL has recently leaned more heavily into the idea of having ownership groups with pre-established professional teams, particularly in MLS or USL. Utah Royals FC, the league’s newest team, shares ownership with Real Salt Lake of MLS. Even previously independent Reign FC recently moved to Tacoma and took on minority ownership from MLS and USL (a group which also owns the minor-league baseball team there).

There are a handful of serious expansion candidates for the coming years. Los Angeles FC has been the potential expansion bid most often discussed in public – including this month by Mia Hamm – along with FC Barcelona’s desire to either partner with LAFC or create a team in California. (Barcelona was long thought, by some within the NWSL, to be posturing.)

This Hartford bid would not have that MLS or USL backing, but in some ways, it would mimic the idea of a turn-key start to a franchise. The difference is that the existing sports franchise owner (Mohegan Sun) would not have an ownership stake in the soccer team, at least based on the current plan. In the proposed setup, Mohegan Sun Sports – which owns and operates the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun and the National Lacrosse League’s New England Black Wolves in Uncasville, about an hour southeast of Hartford – would handle most front-office operations, such as tickets and marketing.

Amber Cox, the vice president of Mohegan Sun Sports and Entertainment, is the former chief marketing officer of the Houston Dash and Dynamo. Her initial conversation with Clynch revolved around how the Sun and prospective soccer team would avoid scheduling conflicts, before the two realized there was a much greater opportunity. Mohegan Sun Sports has access to a six-figure number of fans they can market the soccer team to, Cox says. Their front office also features two other executives with experience in MLS or the NWSL, and the group feels there could be significant crossover with the WNBA crowd. Cox said the Sun and Black Wolves draw fans from throughout the region, including many Sun fans from Hartford.

“We feel like we have one of the best crowds in the WNBA, consistently,” Cox said. “These are consumers of women’s sports and these are people who understand the importance of these leagues beyond the win-loss columns.”

Hartford previously attempted to secure an NWSL team at the inception of the league in 2013, but Clynch says they were told then that their market was too close to Boston. Clynch was part of a different group which looked at creating a Women’s Professional Soccer team in Hartford before that league folded.

TJ ClynchComment