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Soccer Fun Zone Co-owner Michael O’Brien stands on Aug. 15, 2022 on the mini-field inside Soccer Fun Zone, which opened in July 2022 on the eighth level of Stamford Town Center mall, in downtown Stamford, Conn.
Romario Vasquez, of Stamford, practices at the new Soccer Fun Zone on the eighth level of Stamford Town Center mall, in downtown Stamford, Conn., on Aug. 15, 2022.
Brothers Stephen and Pedro Alvarez practice at at the new Soccer Fun Zone on the eighth level of Stamford Town Center mall, in downtown Stamford, Conn., on Aug. 15, 2022.
Soccer Fun Zone is located on the eight level of Stamford Town Center, in downtown Stamford, Conn.
New York Comedy Club is planning to open in December 2022 or January 2023 an establishment in this space formerly occupied by Plan B Burger Bar in the restaurant plaza at Stamford Town Center in Stamford, Conn.
General manager Kathleen Cofranesco and owner Todd Hittle at D1 Training stand in the fitness facility at The SoNo Collection in Norwalk on Nov. 3, 2021, in Norwalk, Conn.
Senior Manager Megan Salisbury stands by the bowling lanes in the new Pinstripes at The SoNo Collection in Norwalk on Dec. 11, 2019.
STAMFORD — Michael O’Brien has been playing or coaching soccer for most of his life. But the turf that he treads today at his new business differs from other pitches: It is situated inside a downtown shopping mall.
The Soccer Fun Zone that O’Brien co-owns opened last month at Stamford Town Center, re-purposing a storefront that had stood vacant since the closing in 2018 of an FYE store.
Soccer Fun Zone’s arrival highlights a growing trend at Stamford Town Center and other malls across Connecticut and beyond. Many spaces that were occupied by stores are being filled by sports and fitness establishments, entertainment centers, food halls and other types of hubs, as landlords look to diversify their tenant rosters in the wake of the retail upheaval of recent years.
“We liked the direction that Stamford Town Center wanted to go in. We want to reinvent the mall,” O’Brien said in an interview this week at Soccer Fun Zone. “What malls need is foot traffic. And that is a way that any mall can create foot traffic — with sport.”
O’Brien was looking for a place where he could create a facility that would appeal to soccer players of all ages and abilities. The 43-year-old has coached for nearly 20 years, including a stint in the youth system of the English Premier League’s Everton, which is based in Liverpool. During his playing career, he won the FA Youth Cup with Everton, where he turned professional before moving on to lower-league clubs Torquay United and Chester City.
After O’Brien and his business partners found out about Stamford Town Center through a real estate broker, they leased the approximately 9,000-square-foot box on the mall’s seventh level that had been occupied by FYE.
Across 11 stations, visitors to Soccer Fun Zone can work on their shooting, passing and dribbling skills. Some stop by for a casual kickabout with friends, while other groups are teams that use the facility for training sessions. They all practice against a backdrop laden with images of stars such as Karim Benzema, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lionel Messi, Alex Morgan, Neymar, Christian Pulisic and Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as previous generations’ legends. Meanwhile, televisions around the entrance broadcast games from the top leagues and tournaments.
On the facility’s upper level, there is a mini field. Other amenities include a banquet room for events such as birthday parties and a to-be-installed bar.
“There are machines that keep a record of your score, your accuracy and then we can send the data back out to the customers,” O’Brien said. “If a team comes to rent the facility, they will have a record of who the best player is on each game. The next time they come, the kids will try to beat their last score… But if you want to just come and have fun, you can just have fun.”
In a second phase, O’Brien said he would like to convert a little-used section of an upper level of the mall’s parking garage into several playing fields to support a new youth club that would be based at Soccer Fun Zone.
“Once we start our own soccer club, we’re going to need somewhere for them to train,” O’Brien said. “This makes sense.”
Soccer Fun Zone is the latest arrival among an eclectic mix of newcomers to the mall in the past couple of years. A Dance Space opened last fall on the fifth level and houses The Ballet School of Stamford. It took over a storefront that had been occupied by retail tenants in recent years such as Ann Taylor.
“We feel they (the mall’s management) are really looking at what is the future of a mall,” Marti Etter, co-founder and executive director of The Ballet School, said shortly after the opening. “What we believe is that we can help (the mall) and they can help us. That synergy is what makes everything work.”
On the same floor as A Dance Floor is a Fun Palace play center, which occupies a storefront that once housed tenants such as Foot Locker.
On the fourth floor, a J. Luppino Fitness & Co. center opened at the beginning of 2021. It succeeded an Apple store, which had occupied the space for 14 years until closing in February 2020.
“We’re really hitting our stride, welcoming a host of exciting new tenants that each enhance the mall in their own unique way,” said Stamford Town Center General Manager Dan Stolzenbach. “We’re really focused on high-quality stores that deliver exceptional service, and I think we’ve made great progress over the past few months. I think customers will be very pleased as we head into the holidays.”
Other malls have also recruited sports and fitness-focused tenants. At The SoNo Collection in Norwalk, which at nearly three years old is the newest mall in Connecticut, a D1 Training fitness center opened last fall. At Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, an LA Fitness center has operated for a number of years.
“A great offering like D1 Training is a fantastic example of a great way to spend time here at The SoNo Collection and pull in a different type of activity to our shopping center, “ The SoNo Collection Senior General Manager Matt Seebeck said in an interview.
The diversification of the tenant roster at Stamford Town Center and other malls is set to continue in the coming months.
Scheduled to open as soon as mid-2023, a food hall will take all of the approximately 78,000-square-foot box at Stamford Town Center that housed a Saks Off 5th department store from mid-2015 until the end of last year.
This fall, the first phase of a multi-purpose hub known as The Living Room — which will feature a lounge, cafe, theater and gaming — is set to open on the fifth floor. Once fully built out, it will occupy about 30,000 square feet, covering the full footprint of former Gap and Uniqlo stores.
Also on the fifth level, a Fun Palace II is set to open soon, complementing the existing Fun Palace.
In the mall’s outdoor restaurant plaza, at 230 Tresser Blvd., New York Comedy Club plans to open its latest establishment in December or January, bringing the city its first full-time comedy club in more than 30 years. The spot was formerly occupied by a Plan B Burger Bar.
“When we were thinking about opening a full-service comedy club in Connecticut, we were looking at other cities and towns throughout the state, but everyone we talked to was very bullish on Stamford,” New York Comedy Club co-owner Emilio Savone said in a recent interview. “For us, this was a no-brainer.”
At the same time, restaurants continue to figure prominently in malls’ lineups, with a number of new dining establishments set to open in the coming months at malls such as Stamford Town Center and The SoNo Collection. Some of those tenants combine dining and games — such as Pinstripes at The SoNo Collection, where there are bowling lanes and bocce courts.
“We really feel like we found a great home here in Norwalk. We’ve gotten a lot of support from residents here in Norwalk and the surrounding towns who are choosing to spend time here,” Seebeck said. “We appreciate each time they visit, and we look forward to wowing them each time they return with new experiences.”
firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @paulschott
Paul Schott is a business reporter with Hearst Connecticut Media Group, writing about the issues affecting small- and medium-sized businesses and large corporations based in Connecticut. He previously covered education for Greenwich Time and general assignments for the Westport News. Paul welcomes readers’ ideas and suggestions and strives to cultivate a robust dialogue with Hearst Connecticut Media’s audience.
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