MLS In The Nutmeg State: Why an MLS Club Would Thrive In ConnecticutDecember 27, 2010
MLS In The Nutmeg State: Why an MLS Club Would Thrive In Connecticut
Major League Soccer is expanding faster than any other league in the United States. At only 15 years old, MLS is quickly coming up behind the four main leagues: NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL. Many would argue that it has surpassed NHL in a majority of the markets, same for the NBA and some MLB markets. The NFL is the biggest challenge, but MLS can easily become the #2.
Expansion clubs are becoming a trend in the league. 2009 saw the entrance of the instantly successful, instantly popular Seattle Sounders FC. 2010 welcomed Philadelphia Union. While not as successful, the Chester, PA-based club enjoyed great attendance at the new PPL Park. 2011 will welcome Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps FC. In 2012, Montreal Impact will join the league. There is also talks of another New York team bearing a familiar name, New York Cosmos, for 2013.
MLS is hitting the main target points of most professional sports areas. The league is now based in 18 cities: New York, Columbus, Los Angeles, Toronto, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Houston, San Jose, Denver, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Montreal, Portland, Chicago, Vancouver, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C.
Commissioner Don Garber loves the expansion, but he is missing several great opportunities. Florida did not welcome teams in Miami or Tampa Bay in the 90s, but times have changed. St. Louis would love a club as well.
However, I seem to be the only one remembering a state that would welcome a club in a heartbeat: Connecticut.
Little old Connecticut. The third smallest state. My beloved home. Connecticut is in a peculiar situation when it comes to loyalties in sports. See, we do not have our own teams. We support the Connecticut Huskies athletic programs with a professional passion and our only pro team is the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. The only time I have been to the Sun's arena was to watch my old high school's girls basketball team play in the state championship.
Connecticut has felt the cold chill of loneliness ever since that fateful day. 13 days before my fifth birthday in 1997, Connecticut said goodbye to its beloved Hartford Whalers. The NHL team, which had been a center of culture in Connecticut since 1972, moved to Raleigh to become the Carolina Hurricanes. Whalers merchandise continues to be a hot buy.
We are the college basketball capital of the northeast, and one of the basketball hot spots nationally, however, Connecticut also loves its soccer. It is the perfect place for a new MLS franchise.
This slideshow gives several reasons as to why Connecticut would be a great spot for an MLS team as the league looks to expand its popularity.
Connecticut Loves Soccer
This picture shows members of the American Outlaws (who have a chapter based in Hartford) at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT during the match between the United States and the Czech Republic during the US Soccer Send Off Series. The game drew about 36,000 fans, the most at any soccer game in Connecticut history. The Rent holds 40,000.
What makes this number most impressive is that Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, and a few other American stars were not part of the roster for the game. People still turned up knowing this.
Soccer is not popular only when the US comes to East Hartford. It is the most played sport in Connecticut. Many youth players become involved in premier soccer at an early age. For many, Oakwood Soccer Club, based in Glastonbury (though they own fields in Manchester, Simsbury, Portland, New Britain, and Berlin), is a step towards a brighter career.
Recent members of Oakwood include New England Revolution midfielder Pat Phalen and former Bolton and Toronto player (current free agent) Johann Smith. It also best several star collegiate players, including University of Hartford's Pat Boucher, who has played with the US Youth National Teams. Statewide, high school games are a main attraction. I played four years as a member of the Portland High School team and you could bank on a big crowd for almost every game, day or night.
The University of Connecticut may be known mostly for basketball and now for football, but soccer is quite the attraction as well. At the tiny Morrone Stadium, about six to eight thousand fans check in every matchday to watch the Connecticut Huskies mens soccer team, currently ranked #13 in the nation. The UConn Goal Patrol, the team's student supporter's group (of which I am proud to be a part of), was recently voted by Soccer America as the best collegiate soccer student section in the nation. The success of the team has provided a lot of popularity and attendance continues to rise. It also helps when the team has MLS talent. Several players now play in MLS and would probably love to come back to where they have support.
I have noticed that a lot of Nutmegers have grown fond of foreign teams. Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, and international jerseys are a common find in the state. With the popularity the game is drawing, an MLS team would have no problem grabbing support, especially when fans hear names such as Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, and potentially Nikolas Anelka will be playing in Connecticut. Then, consider that many MLS teams host an international power over the summer. People would crave the chance to attend a match.
Desire For The Return of a Professional Sports Franchise
It has been a long time since the tune of "Brass Bananza" sounded the entrance of the beloved Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League.
The Whalers were and are a treasured franchise in Connecticut. Tailgaters at Rentschler Field decorate their area with Whalers' flags and one group even have a large blow-up puck. Shirt sales for legends Kevin Dineen, Ron Francis, and others as well as hat, sweatshirt, jersey, and memorabilia sales still bring in a lot of money. The only problem is, there is no more Whalers.
Connecticut has one "professional" sports team, the Connecticut Sun of the WNBA. The problem: no one watches.
To us, the pro teams are the Connecticut Huskies basketball and football teams. The basketball teams have no problem drawing huge crowds and the football team grabs 40,000 a game.
Having a professional team would be great for this state.
Things have not been the same, even with the success of the college teams at UConn, since the Whalers left. We would love a hockey team to move here and become the Hartford Whalers, but with the love of soccer, an MLS franchise would be incredible. Fans would pour into the stadium as they do when the USA arrives and would celebrate their local club and the beautiful game.
That I have no doubt of.
Current MLS Stars Would Capture Audiences
MLS is becoming a hot spot for international stars looking for a new challenge. While the league has stars of its own make, including Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, David Ferreira, Chris Wondolowski, and Edson Buddle among others, the international stars have made their way onto the scene and into the hearts of fans. David Beckham, Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Rafael Marquez, Blaise Nkufo, Freddy Ljunberg, among others have all found success in MLS and have drawn crowds wherever they go.
With a team in Hartford, not only would they have a chance at some great DPs (more on that later), the visits by big stars will give fans even more reasons to come to the games. Fans were mystified when Petr Cech, Chelsea's goalkeeper, came to Rentschler this past May with the Czech Republic.
Imagine the situation if a David Beckham or Thierry Henry were to come.
For many new MLS clubs, finding a stadium is difficult. Many need to build there own.
Connecticut has Rentschler Field.
Currently used only on Saturdays in September, October, and November (only 11 times at most) for the UConn football team and Hartford Colonials of the UFL, Rentschler Field is often silent during the MLS season. To add about twenty more events to the calendar a year would be great for the stadium and business in the area.
With the 40,000 seat stadium and the passion for soccer in the state, an East Hartford-based club would have no problem competing for the best attendance with Seattle Sounders FC. Around the stadium, there is also many railings and open areas where standing room could be made available, increasing the total number of possible fans per game.
An important thing with professional sports teams is television coverage.
ESPN is based in Bristol, Conn., making it an easy set up for an MLS Primetime match at Rentschler.
Comcast Sports New England and Sportsnet New York are two local sports stations available to the Connecticut area which could provide coverage for fans who can not make the game. Many fans enjoy watching FSC and GolTV to watch international matches, but these programs must be paid for while CSN and SNY are local and available on basic cable.
SNY has recently been covering UConn soccer and would likely welcome a professional club to cover, as they do not work with New York Red Bulls.
Appeal To Talented Former Huskies
The University of Connecticut boasts one of the elite soccer programs in the country. Overshadowed by basketball and football, the popular soccer team has a lot of talent in MLS. Several former players including O'Brian White (2007 Hermann Trophy winner), Toni Stahl, Julius James, and many others give the club a big delegation in the league, much like the basketball team in the NBA.
Many of these players are young and haven't broken into teams yet. O'Brian White has been gradually working his way up the todem, and recently left Toronto FC, who drafted him, in the expansion draft to Vancouver, who then traded him to Seattle Sounders FC. His tim up top might be hard to come by with Fredy Monero and Nate Jaqua. If a team was to be founded in Connecticut, he would surely at least a move.
Connecticut loves its former players. Much talk at the UConn games revolves around the current status of pro players. The fans would make the players feel right at home in a state which gave them so much love during their time in Storrs.
Josh Ford and Greg King, two UConn seniors entering the 2011 MLS Superdraft seem like two guys who would love to play in Connecticut. Also junior Tony Cascio is a seemingly top five projection in 2012. He seems like a guy who feels comfortable in Connecticut.
Obviously, a team can not be made of all players from one school, but if former Huskies were to grace a Connecticut team, they would be happy and fans would be happy.
Stars Want to Move to MLS, Fans Like Stars
Whatever club international stars go to, it is a win-win for the club and MLS. The club gets attendance, jersey sales, attention, and a better chance at a title. For MLS, they get a piece of the extra money.
Connecticut has no problem getting fans to watch even when stars are not overwhelming the field.
Add in some prospective MLS players of the future and and MLS team in Connecticut would thrive.
While the fans would love to see homegrown or former UConn players, stars from some of the world's biggest leagues would help.
David Beckham's move to the US came as a shock, but now players are early on declaring their intent to one day play in Major League Soccer.
Two stars of the world's best teams have recently added their names to the list.
Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka and AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic have both declared their intent to play in MLS at the end of their current contracts. Anelka would like to move in 2012 and Ibrahimovic has a four year deal with Milan.
Imagine one of these strikers being named as the first big signing of the club. How many season tickets get sold?
If Connecticut citizens will put about 20,000 fans in per game for a Hartford Colonials game and almost always sell out UConn football, filling the Rent for soccer, one of our most loved sports, with the help of a big star would be simple.
It has been a long time since Connecticut had a big professional sports team.
As a state that is looking for a return to the scene, Major League Soccer has a perfect location for an expansion club.
Rentschler Field, the excellent fan base, the desire for a new team, and other minor logistical facts make Connecticut a great location for a new team.
A Connecticut team could instantly compete to be the highest gating club.
MLS would be missing a huge opportunity if Connecticut does not see a club any time soon.