PAWTUCKET – Every two years, Smith & Street’s SportsBusiness Journal releases its annual rankings of the top minor-league markets in the country.
According to the publication’s 2013 findings that were unveiled earlier this week, the Providence/Pawtucket market weighed in at a solid 12th out of the 229 markets that were scrutinized and taken under advisement. Two cities that are home to International League clubs finished 1-2 in this year’s compellation with Toledo, Ohio grabbing top honors followed by Rochester, N.Y., which boasts four minor-league operations.
“We combine the total attendance from all the teams in the market and index that total attendance number and changes in the attendance over a five-year period against economic factors over the same five-year span,” explained SBJ Research Director David Broughton, who researched and wrote the article. “We get the unemployment rate, the total amount of wealth in the market and total population.
“If a market’s population goes up, your attendance would go up a specific amount, too,” Broughton continued. “It’s the same with the other economic indicators. If your unemployment goes down, then there’s hopefully more money to spend on sports and your attendance would go up.”
While finishing ahead of notable markets such as Portland, Me. (13th), Hartford-New Britain (38th), Lehigh Valley, Pa. (65th), Norfolk, Va. (76th), Louisville (157th) and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (159th) may help place where Providence/Pawtucket was slotted in a better light, the survey’s results are actually quite revealing.
When SBJ last performed this biennial exercise in 2011, the market where the only games in town are the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Providence Bruins was held in much higher stature. Right after Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa. and San Bernardino County, Calif. came the appearance of a familiar face – Providence/Pawtucket.
Two years later, SBJ decreed Hershey-Harrisburg as the third-most successful minor-league market in the country with San Bernardino County coming in at one spot behind.
Surely there has to be a sound and logical reason why the Providence/Pawtucket market went from bronze status to outside the top 10, no? From SBJ’s perspective, did the Ocean State’s connections to minor-league sports really lose that much luster to drop nine spots between ranking periods?
“Looking at the census data, Providence/Pawtucket’s population over five years was basically flat. But in the last three years, the total attendance between the two teams has gone down 7.2 percent. That’s definitely a negative when you start weighing (the main statistics),” states Broughton.
Pawtucket’s paid attendance figure in 2008 was franchise-best 643,049. The numbers have gone down in each of the subsequent seasons as last season’s total of 531,473 was the franchise’s lowest since McCoy Stadium underwent renovations prior to the 1999 season.
With the Providence Bruins, the AHL club drew 244,276 fans to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in 2007-08. In 2011-12, the P-Bruins had 297,037 fans pass through the turnstiles. Providence actually saw its attendance increase during the five years SBJ took under advisement.
“Going into the (compilation of SBJ’s 2013 survey), I was really curious going into this one more than any of the previous efforts to see how economics were going to really play a major part in the rankings,” said Broughton. “The good news is that Providence/Pawtucket led all markets in attendance with 4.5 million. That’s a top-three market. When you index that against being one of the biggest in terms of population – according to minor-league baseball, Pawtucket draws all the way up to Worcester, so it’s a big market – that sort of works against the market’s ranking.
“It’s also got one of wealthiest markets. Only a handful have more money in minor-league sports than Providence/Pawtucket,” added Broughton. “They’ve got some pretty big bars to hit.”
SportsBusiness Journal has been conducting this particular survey since 2005. One thing that’s been a constant is recognizing Providence/Pawtucket as one entity rather than separately.
“There’s definitely a lot of geographic crossover as far as season-ticket base, but the market boundaries are set by (minor-league baseball and hockey),” says Broughton.
The figures calibrated by SBJ have no bearing on the on-field product. In fact, Broughton lauded the stability the PawSox and P-Bruins have brought to the state. The PawSox have been a Rhode Island treasure since late owner Ben Mondor rescued the sagging franchise in 1977, while the P-Bruins have been a wintertime treat since 1992.
“It’s all how the fan responds in the face of or despite economic conditions,” said Broughton. “You look at Toledo, which was ranked number one this year. Their economy is terrible, they continue to lose population and money within the market, but somehow (the International League’s Mud Hens and ECHL’s Walleye) have seen increases in attendance over the last five years.”
Asked to weigh in on the ranking, PawSox President Mike Tamburro feels wholeheartedly that “the fans are just as great today if not better than they were in 2011. We all know what type of economic times we are going through, but we’re starting to see good signs that growth is coming back.
“I don’t want to make excuses. Our fans have been there for us year-in and year-out,” expressed Tamburro. “We’re just going to work hard to put on the best show we possibly can for our fans, and I think they appreciate it by coming out and showing support.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03