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Baseball vs. soccer: Portland got it right

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

 

BY PATRICK EMERSON

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.

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...

Patrick Emerson is an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University and author of the Oregon Economics Blog.
 

Comments   

 
Brian
-1 #1 Soccer vs Baseball in PDXBrian 2011-08-24 11:15:00
Comparing Newark to Portland is like comparing "apples to bowling balls". There are five major league baseball teams within a two hour drive of Newark. 2010 MLB attendance was 74 million, while major league soccer was 4 million.

MLS is now fourth ranked in attendance behind MLB, NFL & NBA for attendance. The growth had little to due with african american attendance. The United State's growing hispanic population accounts for much of the increase in attendance at MLS stadiums.

Census data released so far has shown the number of Hispanics in this country is rising fast. Data in almost every state show a higher Hispanic population than expected, with projections for the U.S. Hispanic population to be around 55 million, or 17 percent. In 2009, 33 percent of MLS fans were Hispanic, more than twice that of any other league. (The NBA is second with 16.) That same year, 40 percent of fans that attended an MLS game were Hispanic. Those numbers alone are overwhelming evidence as to just how influential the Hispanic fan base is for MLS and its growth.

Portland will not be able to support a Major League Baseball team until the region is home to at least ten (10) companies that have annual sales in excess of $1 billion annually. We need corporate sponsorship to purchase luxury suites and invest money in entertaining clients in a major league setting. One step to make this a reality is to lower our nation leading income tax (capital gains) of 10.9% and reduce the onerous government obstacles to growing a business in Oregon.

MLS should do well in Portland. Let's see how attendance numbers look in five years when the novelty wears off. Columbus once had among the highest attendance in the MLS, and now struggles to draw 4,000. PDX is one of the largest metro regions in the country without MLBl NFL or NHL.
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Jack Bogdanski
0 #2 Potland's choice was quite differentJack Bogdanski 2011-08-24 17:47:36
Civic Stadium could have been renovated for "major league" soccer without losing minor league baseball. Not that baseball was doing well here -- it wasn't, as my blog painstakingly chronicled, tracking the lousy (and grossly inflated) attendance figures every night through the Beavers' 2009 season.

Unlike Newark, Portland already had soccer and wasn't going to lose it. No one ever suggested that it should. The question was whether to get rid of baseball. I would have preferred that we didn't, but Merritt Paulson insisted, and the City Council gave him what he wanted. Including having the taxpayers eat more than $20 million of debt still hanging over from the last stadium renovation -- for baseball.

As I have always said, soccer will do well in Portland, so long as there's a league to play it in. But of course, that is far from guaranteed.
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edgar
+1 #3 Newark socceredgar 2011-08-25 11:10:49
In Newark the white population is all Portuguese. They care very little about baseball and alot about soccer. In the Ironbound section during the world cup when Portugal made it to the Semifinals the whole area celebrated on the streets. When the Giants won the Super Bowl vs Pats no one really cared. The other demographics of Newark non white hispanics also really only care for soccer and the black population only cares for the NFL and NBA. Baseball never had a chance really.
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Ian
+1 #4 Soccer v. baseball : a no-brainerIan 2011-08-25 18:12:25
The whole stereotype of "soccer will never make it in the US" is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past. A whole generation of young players is growing up watching MLS games live and English Premier League and Spanish La Liga on Fox Soccer/Gol TV. It is, after all, the beautiful game, the only sport that matters.
Baseball is on the slow but steady path to decline, just like boxing from half a century ago.
That makes it an easy choice. Football all the way! Vamos Barcelona!
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Harold Nelson
0 #5 Bogdanski consistently ignores something regarding Civic StadiumHarold Nelson 2011-08-25 19:59:59
Facts.

The Beavers were on the inevitable path to the same destination of all incarnations of the Beavers prior. Out of town. His own blog covered the attendance woes for baseball at Civic Stadium. It was an awful arena to watch minor league baseball in with poor sight lines and no feeling of intimacy. This is how it would have played out.

With Vancouver and Montreal (would have received the 2011 spot Portland got) moving to MLS the Timbers would have been left with no teams to play West of the Mississippi. Flying 25 players and staff to each away date (15-18 flights hotels) to Tampa Bay, Orlando, Puerto Rico, Carolina, Edmonton, Fort Lauderdale, and Atlanta would have been cost prohibitive. That means the team would have folded or dropped to the 4th level of soccer in this country since the 3rd division is all situated on the East Coast as well. They would play the likes of the feared Kitsap Pumas, Tacoma Tide, and Abbotsford Mariners. When those teams have played here in the past for US Open Cup matches hundreds of people showed up to watch 5-0 drubbings. Don't those names just make you want to rush out and buy a ticket? With soccer being the decidedly 2nd priority to AAA baseball the attention would turn there awfully fast.

With the Beavers lease nearly up and attendance not picking up a smart owner would start looking around for a city who had built or were building a minor league baseball stadium with all the amenities successful AAA clubs enjoy. Wonderful sight lines, and intimate environment, steady attendance, and preferably in a city near the parent club would look awfully nice to an AAA owner in a 20,000 seat stadium consistently playing to paying crowds in the hundreds. Just ask a guy like Joe Buzas. Any sane person would understand why the owner would move the AAA team with these sort of conditions. Along with it the soccer club would fold.

In all reality this was the scenario that would have played out. As far as MLS and baseball coexisting in the same stadium: It's possible there could have been some sort of portable stands designed for the East side of the field. They would have been markedly less profitable since they would have to be bleachers and required many, many hours of labor to assemble, reassemble, rinse and repeat depending on who played that night. There would have been dirt piles in for the pitchers mound and bases. Those dugouts would have also remained forcing the field to be pushed even further to the East side to maintain the ability to see the field from the West. Due to this valuable sponsorships wouldn't be available and the team would struggle financially with the salaries involved with MLS. This all would have cost far more than the $31 million dollar remodel cost to a city owned facility.

One last thing. Since Bogdanski, as he typically does, referenced his view that the league is on shaky financial grounds I would like to point out how false that assertion is. Attendance is on the up and up just about everywhere and it is now the 4th highest attended league in the US. USSF and MLS are intrinsically linked so if ESPN wants to keep showing USMNT and USWNT games they will have to televise MLS as well. It's a package deal. On top of that MLS just inked a new TV deal with NBC who will be televising MLS games on NBC and Versus. Another thing to point out is values of the franchises. The LA Galaxy are worth over $100 million dollars as are the Sounders and Red Bulls. I wouldn't be surprised if Toronto, Portland, and Philidelphia aren't far behind. Pretty good R.O.I. for an owner who paid between $10-$35 million for the franchise. There are a few struggling teams but as proven by Kansas City this very year that with the right owner even one of the worst franchises in the league can turn things around very rapidly. I suppose in his mind this all puts the league on shaky grounds, but to the rest of us all we see are dollar signs and continued growth, but it's not really a surprise Bogdanski is talking about something he literally has no idea what he's talking about.
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ihate soccer
-1 #6 i hate soccerihate soccer 2011-09-05 19:01:19
beavers crowds in the hundreds??? yeah i guess you mean like 9800 or 8800 and even 16000 oops!
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