There are approximately 30,000 UConn alumni living in Fairfield County. That’s a significant constituency. An appreciable amount has significant disposal income. Many have measurable influence.
That would include Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, who was a UConn freshman in 1974 and later worked in the university’s sports information office for the late Joe Soltys.
Over the years, alumnae like Finch have braved long winter trips to Hartford and Storrs to watch men’s and women’s basketball games. They have likely wondered on the way home when the day would come when UConn would come out and play in its neighborhood.
That day arrived Monday. Actually, two of them did.
UConn and Harbor Yard Sports & Entertainment confirmed Webster Bank Arena will host its first pair of Huskies’ regular-season basketball games this season.
The UConn women, the defending national champion, will host Temple, one of its new American Athletic Conference rivals, in Bridgeport on Jan. 11 at noon.
The UConn men will host a non-conference game against Eastern Washington at Webster Bank Arena Dec. 28 at 1 p.m.
This will be the first time in Geno Auriemma’s tenure that UConn will host a regular-season home game in any other place but Storrs or Hartford.
It will the first time since 1987, when the UConn men played at the New Haven Coliseum, that program has traveled south.
The agreement is just for one season, but there is every reason to believe more games could follow in the future.
“There are no long-term plans at this point, but we are pleased with the relationship we’ve developed with the people here,” said Warde Manuel, UConn’s athletic director. “We’ll see where it all goes in the future, in terms of how many games we might play here. But this is something I personally wanted to do.
“I like to say that we represent the entire state. It’s important for us to connect [with the alumni]. It’s important for us to come down here [to Fairfield County] and connect with our fans, our alumni and our donors. And that includes those who live near New York City, which is barely over an hour away from here now that the train [Metro-North] is running again.
“I consider this a win-win for us. I’ve heard since I arrived, ‘why don’t you bring some games down here to Webster Bank Arena. Well, we’re here now.”
UConn men’s coach Kevin Ollie seemed very happy with Monday’s news. His wife, Stephanie, is from Bridgeport and attended Kolbe-Cathedral High. Her parents still live there, although her father recently passed away.
“I really have a true connection to the Bridgeport area,” Ollie said. “My ties to Bridgeport are very long and when it was announced [that UConn would in the city] I had a lot of ticket requests. A lot of uncles and aunties [called]. So I thank Howard Saffan [the president of Harbor Yard Sports and Entertainment] for offering his suite to me.”
Former UConn great Chris Smith played high school basketball in the city and now coaches boys basketball at Kolbe-Cathedral.
This plan has been in the works for nearly two years. UConn has long been interested in accommodating its Fairfield County boosters by scheduling games near them, but had been unable to do so because of a constrictive contract with the XL Center, which prohibited off-campus home games in any other venue, the Huskies were able to act. That contract expired after last season.
Contractually obligated this year to stage 17 men’s and women’s home games in Hartford by a new deal with XL Center management, UConn identified games scheduled during Christmas break that could not be played in Hartford. So they explored the opportunity to move them to Bridgeport.
“Our students will be off-campus during that time,” Manuel said. “I think approximately a quarter of all of our students are from Fairfield County. We want this to a tremendous atmosphere to bring our teams into to showcase their talents. It should be a wonderful time.”
Manuel said how UConn pursues Bridgeport bookings in the future will depend how future schedules flow.
“We could be looking at one game, maybe two, perhaps four,” Manuel said. “It will all depend on how things line up at XL and Gampel.”
Webster Bank Arena has hosted many UConn women NCAA Tournament games in the past. The Huskies have played 10 tournament games there including the Bridgeport regional semifinals and final last season.
UConn used wins over Maryland and Kentucky – before sellout crowds of 8,594 – to advance to the Final Four where they eventually won an NCAA record-tying eighth national championship.