December 10, 2018

No room for error

Worcester can support five sports franchises. They just have to be smart about it.

With the Pawtucket Red Sox moving their home in 2021 to a new $101-million stadium in Worcester's Canal District, the four other sports franchises calling the city home will have to adapt the a new 800-pound gorilla on the scene, particular the city's other baseball team, the Worcester Bravehearts.

The arrival of the Triple A Worcester Red Sox should help to grow the size and reach of the Worcester sports market. The other organizations – Worcester Railers men's hockey team, Massachusetts Pirates arena football team and Worcester Blades women's hockey team as well as the Bravehearts all draw ticket sales from a fairly tight radius around the city. The new Red Sox franchise should be able to attract fans from a much wider radius, which means the new kid in town won't cannibalize the very same fanbase supporting the other teams. Plus, the hockey teams have the advantage of playing their games in baseball's off season.

The Worcester Red Sox are projecting in the range of 7,000 fans per game and have already lined up $3.1 million in corporate sponsorship revenue. The other sports teams operate on smaller budgets and don't need that kind of support to make ends meet. The Bravehearts have been a real success story since their inception in 2014. They are one of the most popular collegiate future baseball teams in the country, averaging about 2,300 fans per game. The Blades will play their games in the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center in the Canal District, so the overhead at the much smaller facility means averaging 500 fans per game would be a win for them. The Railers get more than 4,000, so there is obviously an appetite for hockey in the city. Running a small sports franchise is no different than running a small business. You need to market the product effectively, keep an eagle eye on spending, attract sponsors and set the right ticket pricing so a healthy number of fans will attend their games. Getting that mix right for a team on a tight budget is no small feat.

Small sports operations have a hard time getting established and making ends meet over the long run, and Worcester has not been an easy place to make it. The city has seen minor league hockey teams come through here before – first the Worcester IceCats in the mid-90s, and later the renamed Worcester Sharks. They started with attendance in the 6,000 fans per game range, but their numbers eventually dipped to below 4,000 by the time the Sharks left in 2015.

The Railers appear to be doing things a little differently. They've been able to drum up what appears to be a more sustainable excitement for minor league hockey by engaging the community at a higher level than their predecessors did. That engagement starts at the top, as owner Cliff Rucker has set the tone and is active in the city, with its nonprofit community, as an investor and developer, and through the depth of the team's community engagement. The Bravehearts' success has likewise been driven by owner and city native John Creedon and his team who have been producing great summer entertainment at family-friendly prices.

The Worcester Red Sox would do well to heed this same lesson. While they will start with a spanking new stadium and a tremendous level of excitement, the 10-person ownership group would be wise to select someone with equity in the organization who's going to roll up their sleeves and dig into the Greater Worcester community for the long run.

Minor league sports can provide solid entertainment at a fair price. But can Central Massachusetts generate a sufficient fan and sponsorship base for five teams? We are rooting for them, but all five will have to be careful in how they navigate the waters and set themselves up for success.


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