Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Soccernomics: A Tale of Two Sports in New Jersey

The New York Times had a fascinating article on a tale of two stadiums in New Jersey over the weekend.  One, a $34 million dollar stadium built for minor league baseball 13 years ago is a complete flop.  No one goes to the games.  The other, the new Red Bulls Arena is a big success (though, truth be told, the Red Bulls should not have to work had to sell it out, which they still do).

This has a lot of resonance in Portland, given its own struggle with the baseball vs. soccer question.  The Newark experience suggests Portland got it right:

Given the large soccer constituency in the city’s Portuguese and Latino strongholds, did Newark get its demographics crossed and build the wrong field of commercial dreams? Did the city bet on the wrong sport?

A Yankees fan who said his priest’s salary was better preserved by spending a few dollars at a minor league game than paying a small fortune at Yankee Stadium, Kwiatkowski, 54, who has a Roman Catholic parish in Glen Rock, N.J., has attended Bears games because he once lived in Newark’s Ironbound district and hoped that a successful team could contribute to the city’s revitalization.

“I was within walking distance, right over there,” he said, lifting his chin in the direction of the outfield fence.

Within the hour, a multitude of fans “over there,” in the Ironbound, would stream from restaurants on Ferry Street and across a nearby bridge to help pack another area sports facility, the 17-month-old Red Bull Arena, in the neighboring town of Harrison.

While Major League Soccer was growing in Harrison, minor league baseball appeared to be dying in Newark, along with the expensive dream of restoring a slice of its vintage past.


Although the Newark-Harrison story is an extreme and somewhat unusual case, it reflects an urban cultural shift on which soccer hopes to capitalize as an emergent and faster-paced sport in 21st-century America. Still enormously popular in many markets, baseball has lost traction with young people, especially African-Americans, with a 26 percent decline in youth participation between 2000 and 2009, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

“In terms of drawing people, the soccer stadium in Harrison has been a success,” said Rick Cerone, a former Yankees catcher and the Bears’ original owner, who grew up in Newark and lobbied county and city politicians for the return of the Bears, a popular Yankees farm team more than half a century ago.

He acknowledged that misjudgments might have been made about the Newark of then and now.

“Probably the best thing to do would have been a soccer stadium or maybe coordinate one stadium that could have been used for both,” Cerone said. “But, you know, it’s easy to look back.”

The demographics are entirely different here than in Newark, of course, but one only had to attend a typical Portland Beavers game and see the emptiness of a 20,000 seat stadium with less than 2,000 other spectators to understand what a perfect fit MLS has been.

[NB: Ironically, I was clued into this interesting article by Jack Bog who was using it as evidence to criticize Milwaukie for proposing to develop a minor league baseball stadium.  Ironic because he is a vitriolic critic of, well, just about everything, but especially about the re-purposing of Civic Stadium for MLS.  Surely he sees the irony: The Timbers are a runaway success, filling the stadium and breathing new life into what was a dying city asset?  I doubt it, he seems to be almost entirely irony free...]


The Oriole Way said...

To be fair, the Newark Bears are an independent minor league team. The players they employ were either not good enough to be drafted into the affiliated professional leagues or had washed out of those same leagues. MLS is the best spectator version that America has to offer. Plus, the Timbers play 22 home events across 8 months. The combined attendance across a full season will be higher for soccer, but not quite as dramatically so as the per game comparisons.

If a city is choosing between AAA baseball and MLS soccer, the right choice is probably soccer. It's far less clear that an MLB team would be the same debacle (though Portland's ability to support an MLB team is certainly questionable).

Patrick Emerson said...

I am back from a weekend in smoky Bend and see at Jack Bog's Blog, that he tried to respond but couldn't. I do moderate comments after 24 hours have passed but this one is not in the list of comments to be moderated. I don't know what happened. So, in fairness here it is from his blog:

The Newark story and the Portland story are not that similar. Newark had no stadium and no team, and it had to choose either baseball or soccer. Apparently, it chose wrong. Portland already had a working stadium, with both baseball and soccer, and no one suggested that it get rid of soccer, which has been quite successful here even when it was the "minor" league variety. The only decision to be made in Portland was whether to get rid of baseball. We believed, and consistently argued, that the civic stadium could have been improved for soccer without sacrificing baseball.

We knew that baseball was not much of a crowd attraction -- indeed, two summers ago we painstaking posted the announced attendance every night, and photos of the real attendance (which was much lower) on several nights. But we thought that given the fact that the city was still nearly $30 million in debt from renovating the stadium for baseball, baseball should have allowed to stay alongside soccer.

Soccer team owner Merritt Paulson (who by the way appears to have retired from public life now that he got the taxpayers' money) didn't want baseball on his soccer field, ever again, and the city gave him his way. He dropped baseball like a hot potato, and now he has a pretty nice deal. As long as the somewhat sketchy "major" soccer league in which the team plays survives, he'll do well. We never suggested that he wouldn't.

Patrick Emerson said...

By the way, in his post he accuses me of snark and I suppose that is true though I think that is me matching the tone of his blog. Nevertheless, I love his blog and read it regularly to keep abreast of local government comings and goings even though I find the tenor of the blog too critical without constructive commentary.

Anyway, I am not sure limiting attendance and atmosphere by not improving the stadium for the benefit of the 1,500 or so fans that turn out for baseball would have been a good idea.