The Connecticut Hammerheads held an introductory press conference at their new home, Fairfield University, with media, league officials, and local and university leadership in attendance. Major League Lacrosse has focused a great deal of energy on community relations and building relationships in the areas where they have franchises. The Hammerheads are a new franchise, bringing pro field lacrosse back to Connecticut for the first time since the Bridgeport Barrage departed for Philadelphia in 2003.
Ian Frenette serves as President of the Hammerheads, and spoke about the unique opportunities that come with a new franchise.
“To be here today, to introduce a brand new brand, a brand new team, in a new market for us, is a really exciting opportunity. When you look at sports, and a lot of us in the room who operate the league and on the Fairfield side have worked in sports for a long time, it’s not often that you get to create a brand new brand or team,” Frenette said.
He also underscored the importance of growing within the community, a common theme on the day.
“If we’re going to build an organization that is successful it’s all about the community. It’s one thing to put players on the field and put coaches in place, and have an impact on the field in wins and losses. But from our perspective, you can’t build a professional sports franchise without the support of the people around you,” Frenette added.
MLL Commissioner Sandy Brown addressed the room next, and highlighted the rich history of quality lacrosse in the state of Connecticut.
“There are 31,000 participants in the sport of lacrosse in Connecticut. You would not be surprised to know there are a number of MLL all-stars that hail from this state as well. There are, since 2001, 61 Division 1 All-Americans that come from the state of Connecticut. All of these great success stories in the MLL and in the NCAA have come from youth programs in the state of Connecticut, and it’s something that this town in particular can be very proud of,” Brown said.
Like Frenette, Brown stressed the importance of partnering with a local community to grow the franchise.
“A critical component, for any professional franchise, is the passion of its fanbase. And we believe the CT Hammerheads are going to provide fans young and old the opportunity to see the very best the sport of lacrosse has to offer, and the MLL has demonstrated for the last 20 years. And we pride ourselves on being ingrained in the communities in which we reside,” Brown said.
Brown also acknowledged how important a high quality fan experience is for building a successful franchise.
“We realize the competition for our fan’s consumer dollar is significant. So it’s in our interest to provide the best fan experience possible from the time our fans leave the driveway to the time they return home. So again, I’d offer my gratitude to Fairfield University, to the town of Fairfield, and the state of Connecticut for welcoming us, and we look forward to being here for a very long time, and we want to bring an experience to remember to our new Hammerheads fans,” Brown said.
Fairfield University leadership was on hand. Including University President Mark Remec and Athletic Director Paul Schlickmann.
“Speaking with Governor Lamont, he always talks about the need to attract enterprise to Connecticut. I think it’s fair to say that bringing the Hammerheads to CT is not a small win, because it embodies the promise of what Fairfield and all of us here in this state are looking forward to,” Remec said.
Schlickmann spoke about the namesake of the venue where the Hammerheads will play, Rafferty Stadium. Larry Rafferty is a Fairfield alum who had a college basketball career, and “an incredibly successful businessman who bled Fairfield. He was all-in about Stags athletics,” said Schlickmann.
Rafferty passed away this year, but Schlickmann recalled that when Rafferty Stadium was being built, part of Rafferty’s hope for the venue was that it would attract a team like the Hammerheads.
“Part of their vision and part of why they built this was certainly to enhance our infrastructure and give Fairfield a great recruitable asset, but also to enhance our programs. And they had a vision that went beyond that. That was to build a venue that could do just this. Ian [Frenette] referred to the brand. And having [the Fairfield brand] associated with [Hammerheads brand] is pretty neat. They were fortuitous in that the building of that venue could eventually lead to something like this,” Schlickmann said.
Following the press conference, media and those in attendance were invited out to Rafferty Stadium where local youth lacrosse club CT Wolves were allowed to play a quick game with Lucas, the Fairfield Stags mascot, and Hammerheads player Landon Kramer.
Head Coach Bill Warder was available via conference call, and talked about the natural rivalries that can be built on the geography of MLL franchises like New York and Boston.
“The obvious ones, we are right in between Long Island and Boston. Those will be two really natural rivalries, so I think whether it’s the battle of Long Island sound or whatever it may be, the Lizards have always put a good product and a good team on the field. We’re excited to play them. The last game I coached in last year was against Boston, and Boston put on an amazing show and venue and we’re looking forward to playing them as well,” Warder said.
Frenette was made available for questions as well, and offered more insight about the local connection. Part of that means having some local players on the roster. “ Coach Warder is focused on that and that’s really his role. I try not to get too involved in the player movement scenario. You want local players. Our league operates that way, and I think you’ll see that more so now with Philly coming into play,” Frenette said, adding, “from a brand perspective, we always want local players. Especially if they’re at the top of the food chain in the talent pool. I don’t think we’d make choices of locals over talent, I want to be clear about that. It is still about the product on the field and performance. We are going to have an open tryout, and you’ll have local players attend that,” Frenette added.
Frenette said he has also been in touch with youth organizations at all ages in the area.
“We reached out to CONNY, a lot of high school programs. What’s unique about this market is that everyone involved at the high school level is also involved at the club level and equally as involved in the local youth programs. I haven’t seen that everywhere I’ve been. And it’s refreshing. The conversations I’ve had have been great,” Frenette said.
Commissioner Brown also took time to answer questions about the atmosphere of the day and other topics.
“We have a great partner in the University and the town, and that’s a key component. This level of enthusiasm makes it all worthwhile. These kids are our current fans, our future fans, and our future players. The quality of the play and the quality of what’s happening in the state of CT, it’s only going to grow. This experience is just going to foster that,” said Brown as the CT Wolves players ran on the Rafferty Stadium field.
I asked Commissioner Brown about choosing Fairfield as a venue, and whether or not the considered returning to another market like Ohio or Charlotte instead of building a new franchise.
“We looked at the opportunity to be able to create a new market and create a new groundswell for the sport, and do it in a place that we know where they haven’t had the ability to sample pro lacrosse in a long time. As you know we had a franchise in Bridgeport from 2001 to 2003. But the sport has changed a lot in 20 years. The demographics have changed a lot. And there’s a great demand for it. I think the quality of the youth programs here throughout Fairfield county, it’s some of the biggest programs in the country. I think we’re fulfilling a need. We’re always looking at new markets. We’re coming back to one where we were 20 years ago. In terms of Columbus and Charlotte, yes we’re going to take a look at those again, absolutely. We know both those markets, we had a lot of support. They’re certainly on the radar screen,” said Brown.
Here more from the Connecticut Hammerheads press conference in episode 70 Part 1 (34:33) of the Pro Lacrosse Talk podcast.