September 4, 2017

Successful sports teams will build Worcester's brand

In just over a month, the Worcester Railers will drop the puck on their first home game at the DCU Center in Worcester, becoming the city's third professional hockey team since 1994. The anticipation for the team's debut has been building since it was first announced in 2015. In the interim, the Railers have sold 1,500 season tickets and more corporate sponsorship dollars than any other ECHL franchise to date.

While their planning and preseason sales are off to a strong start, the energy from their debut will settle down and the Railers must crack the code to create a truly sustainable franchise. Their predecessors, the Sharks and the IceCats, had their best attendance in their first three years, slowly losing ticket sales until they left town. Led by Owner Cliff Rucker, the Railers believe the winning formula for sustainability is having strong and deep ties to the community, weaving a web of paid sponsors, partner organizations and some of their own branding efforts, including the opening a Railers-themed tavern next to the DCU Center.

On the baseball diamond, the Worcester Bravehearts have developed their own formula for franchise success in the city. The Futures Collegiate Baseball League team has set league records for season attendance, offering a family-friendly outing for a low price, while creating those community ties the Railers are to build. The Bravehearts rank seventh in attendance in the country, so the franchise by appears to be on solid footing.

Hopefully, both the Railers and the Bravehearts can deliver on their goal of long-term sustainability, boding well for the city and the region. Having these entertainment options raises the profile of the city and its brand, brings out more people and engages them in a community event, which can spur more spending. One-time events like high-profile concerts and sports tournaments turn Worcester into a destination, but having a season-long option like baseball all summer and hockey games throughout the winter gives fans a reason to keep coming over and over again.

Worcester is seeking to take its pursuit of sports franchises up a notch by enticing the Pawtucket Red Sox to move the Triple A minor league baseball team north of the border. Although this effort, if successful, would have a negative impact on the Bravehearts, city and business officials see the move of such a high-profile team as a way to prove Worcester and the region have reached a new level. The effort is still in the early stages, and Rhode Island and Pawtucket are crafting their best efforts to meet the team's demands for public funding to build a new stadium. If Worcester ultimately wants to have a competitive hand at the table, it will likely need to fund $30-$40 million of the cost of any new stadium, and it seems that most of that money would have to come mostly from state coffers. Do Worcester officials have the leverage to get the state to play ball?

It's too early to say whether such a move would be wise as publicly funded sports facilities have a very dicey ROI. But sports have great appeal, and pushing for more entertainment options in the city can only make it a more vibrant hub for the region. With no public investment at risk in our current franchises, supporting the Railers and the Bravehearts operations is clearly a smart play.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Worcester Bravehearts rank seventh out of nine regional teams in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. The Bravehearts rank seventh nationally and first regionally.


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