Like many other sports teams, Hartford Athletic had to suspend its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday, July 17, the Connecticut-based professional soccer team officially kicked off its 2020 season. As part of the United Soccer League (USL), Hartford Athletic is the first sports team to reopen in Connecticut—and among the first in the country to resume play in its home stadium.
Hartford Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Julio Concepción and Director of Small Business Development Shannon Mumley caught a Hartford Athletic game Monday, July 20. “I’m so proud of Hartford Athletic for reopening. We were both impressed with the safety measures put in place,” noted Shannon. “I’m excited Hartford can host sports events in the city in a safe way and looking forward to another game!”
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Hartford Athletic CEO Jim Burda about how the team creates vibrancy in the city of Hartford—both on and off the field—and launching the 2020 season during the pandemic.
NAN PRICE: Tell us about what it’s like to lead a sports team during the COVID-19 pandemic.
JIM BURDA: Great question. This is the fourth sports league I’ve been involved with in an executive position. I’ve been so impressed with how incredibly diligent the USL Championship league office has been in navigating this process and whether it makes sense to have a safe return to play. If not initially for their efforts, the league wouldn’t be in a position to reopen.
More importantly, now that I’m a resident in the Hartford area, I feel fortunate that we’re in the state of Connecticut. It’s not just about the state’s leadership and how the safety protocols and nonstop communication are handled—I’ve noticed the respect residents have for each other with regard to safety in terms of social distancing and wearing a mask. There’s a lot of support here compared to some of the other states where I’ve been. The diligence from the league and the citizens of Connecticut has enabled us to be in this position of reopening.
NAN: What kind of practices are in place to ensure safety?
JIM: From the very beginning in March, we took everything very seriously. We decided to suspend the season a day before the NBA announcement. Our Operations & Merchandise Manager Morgan Kuehnle researched and worked very closely with our local officials and Hartford Athletic Chairman Bruce Mandell to really understand what we were up against. Because of how seriously we were trying to get ahead of what was going on in the community with the pandemic, we were asked to be part of the task force to explore the potential safe return to play.
A lot of the reopening process has been set by Hartford Athletic, actually. I like how the phrase “putting the dimmer switch on” was used to describe California, which started to reel back their reopening in certain areas. One thing we’ve done well is to slowly continue to turn up our dimmer in conjunction with our local officials.
For example, we initially returned to contactless practice at Dillon Stadium with five people or fewer. Players were very spread out and couldn’t pass a ball back and forth. After a few weeks of observing that and without incident, we expanded and went up to 10 players.
In the next stage of safety, we worked with our title partner, Trinity Health of New England, to provide weekly COVID-19 testing for all our athletes, coaching staff, and technical staff. If anyone were to test positively, we would immediately go to contact tracing and quarantining. Even if they’ve tested negatively, they still take all the sanitizing measures and wearing a mask very seriously up until they get on the field. And, on the field, there’s no one else in near proximity except for the referees, who are also regularly tested. That’s how we are able to safely play a contact sport, because, within a matter of days, no one on the field has tested positively for the virus.
Everything was done in conjunction with the league and local and state health officials, taking those baby steps and continuing to closely observe to ensure safety moving forward. That’s what’s brought us to this point, taking it one cautious step at a time with a lot of research and a lot of observation before, during, and after.
NAN: Let’s shift gears to talk about the many ways Hartford Athletic is involved with the community.
JIM: Hartford Athletic has always been a very community-oriented team. That’s what drew me to want to come here to Hartford and work with the team. I know from my experience in the NBA and other leagues that our focus as a professional sports organization isn’t just the 20 home games we’re going to play in Hartford. It’s looking at how can we make an impact helping those in need as well as in economic development, 365 days a year.
I came on board as CEO just a couple of weeks before the planned opening night in March. The suspension of play enabled us to take that time and formalize our five community support pillars: diversity and inclusion; health and wellness; veterans, military, and first responders support; youth and family education; and economic development. We’re also looking to continually have an impact and partner with others, including the MetroHartford Alliance, which we know is very much on the forefront of supporting many of those key areas.
With those five support pillars, the programming we put in place brings about partners to amplify and measure our impact. So, instead of just having one event, we want to ensure our efforts build and become sustainable in different ways.
A perfect example is, in the late summer/early fall we’re launching our Shop For A Cause initiative, which is committed to raising money for an important cause and supporting our local businesses. On a designated weekend, all participating businesses will donate a portion of their proceeds to a local organization, such as Foodshare.
Right now, about 250 businesses have agreed to be a part of it. It’s a great way for us to bring attention to every type of business in Hartford, whether it’s women-owned, veteran-owned, or minority-owned, so people understand who’s in our community and who’s trying to move ahead safely and positively for economic development here.
Another program we’re putting in place is our Veterans And Diversity Hiring Expo, which we’ll be hosting this fall. The event is free to those who are underemployed, seeking new career opportunities, or directly impacted in their careers by COVID-19. We’ve already signed up about 30 companies looking to provide opportunities for veterans, minorities, women, and those with disabilities. We’ll also collaborate with our partners to provide career resources.
In light of the significant and heightened Black Lives Matter movement, programs like this and more that emphasize Black and minority pathways are a crucial, ongoing effort by our globally diverse organization.
When you have an organization like ours that can be relatively high-profile in the state of Connecticut, from a professional support standpoint, we feel it’s important to amplify the messaging about who’s out there, who’s trying to support the community, and who we want to support.
Hartford Athletic is the first sports team to reopen in Connecticut—and among the first in the country to resume play in its home stadium
Hartford Athletic CEO Jim Burda
Hartford Athletic takes COVID-19 safety measures seriously. Players wear masks until they get on the field.