December 10, 2018
Focus: The Business of Sports

Worcester's sports franchises have two years to prepare for the Pawtucket Red Sox

Photo | Edd Cote
Dave Peterson, GM of the Worcester Bravehearts.

The Worcester Bravehearts baseball team is the oldest operating sports franchise in the city, at just four years old.

Joined by the Worcester Railers men's hockey team in 2017, the Massachusetts Pirates arena football team in 2018, the Worcester Blades women's hockey team in 2019, and the Worcester 78s basketball team in 2017, the five franchises are trying to carve out a niche in a Central Massachusetts market previously unable to support the Worcester Sharks or Worcester IceCats hockey teams for even a dozen years each.

And in two years, it will be a whole new ballgame.

The Triple A minor league Pawtucket Red Sox, moving to Worcester for the 2021 season into a new $101-million ballpark to anchor an overall $240-million mixed-use development, will be by far the biggest name.

"We're reaching a point of saturation," said Railers President Mike Myers, who noted the market isn't saturated yet. "When you're all fighting for the same entertainment dollar, you want to make sure there's enough families going to games that you're not stretching everybody thin."

The Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox are already a household name with WooSox merchandise flying off the shelves at places like Guertin Graphics in the Canal District. The WooSox appear to be gobbling up corporate sponsorships. The team, that doesn't even have an official name for its Worcester franchise, has 19 corporate sponsors including long-time Worcester companies names like Polar Beverages, Fallon Health, Hanover Insurance Group, UniBank, Table Talk Pies and the Mercantile Center.

The city's new baseball team is commanding $3.1 million in corporate dollars each year for the first five years of Triple-A baseball in Worcester, according to the team's deal with the city signed in August. If that figure isn't reached, a private sector entity not publicly named will purchase tickets equal in value to that deficit.

"That's a big chunk," said Victor Matheson, a sports economist and professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. "There's only so much money that local businesses can come up with."

The more obvious battleground will be the fight for ticket sales, he said.

Bravehearts reposition brand

The Worcester Bravehearts, a collegiate summer league team, appear to be bracing for the impact of the Red Sox threatening to take away their fans and sponsorship dollars. As the only other baseball franchise in town, the Bravehearts' business is the most directly impacted by the powerful Red Sox brand.

Bravehearts General Manager Dave Peterson told WBJ the organization is repositioning itself as a thought leader when it comes to the sports industry.

"Not just baseball," Peterson said. "We want to help people that come through our organization find jobs and internships wherever that might be."

He pointed to success stories of Bravehearts interns finding jobs working for the Baltimore Orioles of Major League Baseball, the NFL' Washington Redskins and Major League Soccer's New England Revolution.

The Bravehearts boast a 2018 attendance ranking sixth out of 175 summer collegiate league teams, according to Ballpark Digest.

That average attendance of 2,356 represents a 6-percent bump from 2017. Attendance also increased 6-percent in 2017 and about the same in 2016. Attendance increased for the 2015 season at a sharp 22 percent after the inaugural year in 2014.

By comparison, the Pawtucket Red Sox averaged just under 6,000 per game last year, but attendance is expected to pick up to about 7,000 in the new Worcester ballpark.

Peterson and the Bravehearts have been active of late, beginning new programs like a sports management conference to be held in January at Worcester State University held with the Massachusetts Pirates and Worcester Blades.

Community programming and a working relationship with the Red Sox would ensure the Braveheart's longevity in Worcester, Peterson said.

The team is already forging stronger ties to the community, including a Bravehearts-Railers collaboration on a literacy program in Worcester schools, awarding free game tickets if a child reads at least 10 books in a month.

"We'd look forward to working with the Red Sox on similar activities," Peterson said.

Asked if he was worried about sponsors relocating their advertising money to the Red Sox's Polar Park in the Canal District, Peterson said it was too early to tell.

"Ask me in two years," he said. "Our challenge is to continue to come up with unique, memorable ideas for sponsors so they feel the value in investing in the Worcester Bravehearts."

Despite that optimism, Matheson doesn't see the Bravehearts lasting more than a few years after 2021.

In addition to being the same sport, both play during the summer months and will inevitably play on the same days.

The Red Sox will be playing about 70 games at Polar Park in a 10,000-seat stadium they hope to fill, drawing up to 700,000 fans per year.

Hanover Insurance Park at Fitton Field – where the Bravehearts play their 28 homes games – can fit 3,000 fans.

"That takes a lot of people off the market," Matheson said.

Pirates, Blades optimistic

The Pirates indoor arena football team is coming into the team's second season at the DCU Center next April. The sport, said owner Jawad Yatim, is unlike any other in Worcester.

"In my opinion, it's the most exciting in the city," he said.

His optimism for longevity in Worcester is bolstered by a TV deal with NESN – the channel carrying Boston Red Sox games – set to expire after the end of the next season.

"It's great that other teams are coming to Worcester, but I'm just looking forward to the Pirates' season," he said.

For about two years, the Worcester Blades women's hockey team struggled to find a permanent home in the Boston area until August, when it signed a deal to relocate to the Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center in the Canal District.

Attendance is usually hard to come by for women's hockey, as the team averages about 300 fans per game, same General Manager Derek Alfama.

Sponsorship has been slow to unravel, but Alfama said the excitement around sports in Worcester and a close relationship with the Railers position the team well for the future.

"There's plenty of room for everybody," he said.

The Worcester 78s basketball team was not contacted for this story.

Railers bookend WooSox

The Railers seem to be the team best capable of coexisting with the city's shiny new baseball team, Matheson said.

Owner Cliff Rucker has been a central figure in the city's remaking, investing more than $25 million in Worcester properties, including the $18-million Fidelity Bank Worcester Ice Center, where the Railers practice.

Matheson said the Railers Tavern next to the DCU Center has been a popular restaurant for sporting events and before and after DCU Center events.

Of all the teams questioned about collaborations with the Red Sox, the Railers seem to be the most involved, said Myers, the Railers president.

"We've had a lot of discussions on a cordial basis," he said. "They've been great to work with so far."

The teams have collaborated on several small events so far. Red Sox officials even took in a Railers game last fall with city officials as Worcester still was convincing the team to leave Pawtucket.

The Red Sox brand, Myers said, elevates the city's status as a sports town.

"A rising tide raises all ships," he said.

Another reason for the Railers' rosy outlook for their place in Worcester's sports community is the fact hockey and baseball seasons bookend one another. The Railers begin play in the fall and finish in the spring, while the Red Sox begin play in the spring and finish in late summer.

"There's no question that the impact on our business, from the competitive standpoint, is lessened with the fact that their opposite seasons," Myers said.

WooSox hope to grow the market

Dan Rea, general manager of Worcester's incoming minor league baseball team, said the Railers have already been a close partner as the team looks to establish itself as a top brand in town.

The Red Sox have reached out to several teams in the city, some more than others, Rea said.

Of the four teams contacted for this story, only the Pirates said they had not had talks with anyone in the Red Sox organization.

Though the Red Sox and its affiliates are ingrained into Massachusetts culture as much as Dunkin' coffee and potholes, Rea called the organization the new kids in town.

As such, the team wants to help promote other organizations, including the Bravehearts.

There's probably something to learn from the Bravehearts' community-based business model, Rea added.

Like the MLB's Boston Red Sox, Rea said the tentatively named Worcester Red Sox are hoping to draw fans from all over New England, not just Worcester, thus expanding the size of the sports market for all the city's teams.

Worcester is centrally located with major highways passing through, allowing the team to pull from the entire region.

Rea said the team's confidence in Worcester's ability to sustain a variety of sports franchises was reflected in its very decision to come to Worcester.

"We studied everything from the city itself to its ability to be a home base to a greater region," he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated there were four sports franchises in Worcester. The city has five currently, including the Worcester 78s basketball team, the Worcester Railers hockey club, The Massachusetts Pirates arena football team, the Worcester Bravehearts collegiate baseball team and the Worcester Blades women's hockey team.


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