GAME OVER: PawSox Attendance Fell By Nearly 40 Percent in the Past 13 Years

Saturday, September 08, 2018


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Lawn sign blaming Raimondo for the loss of the team

The PawSox attendance has been in decline for the past few years, but the end of the year numbers for the 2018 season show a massive decline over the past decade-plus.

Since 2005, the PawSox went from first in the league to now near the bottom for attendance.  Overall, from 2005 to the 2018 season, the PawSox average pregame attendance fell 37 percent. The decline was five times larger than the league attendance decline. Overall, International league attendance fell 7.5 percent.

While the political blame game has taken hold in Rhode Island, with dueling political signs being seen around Rhode Island blaming Governor Gina Raimondo and Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello, the fact is that attendance numbers paint a dismal picture for the future of minor league baseball, especially in Rhode Island.

Steady Decline

In 2005, the PawSox led the International League with an average per game attendance of 9,561.

Five years later (2010), the PawSox attendance had dropped significantly. Instead of first in the league, the PawSox fell to fourth in the league with average per game attendance of 8,343.

The steady decline continued.

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In the Oak Hill section of Pawtucket, this homeowner blames Mattiello

In February 2015, the PawSox new ownership group had announced that they were leaving Pawtucket — the team would move to Providence and fund their own stadium. PawSox officials told Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien that staying at McCoy or in Pawtucket was not even under consideration.

In 2015, the PawSox averaged just 6,572 per game and in ten years had dropped from best to ninth.

By 2018, the PawSox average per game attendance was just 5,982 and there are questions about the validity of those numbers.

As the political debate continued, the public continued to shun the team rather than rally around the franchise.   

Questions in Worcester

Dr. Robert Baumann, chair of the Department of Economics and Accounting at the College of the Holy Cross has questioned the proposed Worcester deal. In a recent opinion piece first published in the Telegram, he wrote, “In addition, consider an investment in professional baseball that won’t begin to pay off until the stadium’s projected 2021 opening. According to Minor League Baseball, per game attendance at International League games this year is currently about 4.9 percent lower compared to last year and 7.9 percent lower compared to ten years ago.”

“This trend is even more pronounced in Major League Baseball, where average attendance has fallen even faster but at least has the cushion of lucrative television deals. Usually, new stadiums come with a “honeymoon” period of about three years where attendance spikes above its long-run trend. I expect the same to happen here, but what happens after the honeymoon is over? Are we confident that baseball will be popular enough to repay these loans throughout their term?” Bauman added.

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A GoLocal review found the PawSox over-inflating attendance

PawSox Reported Attendance is Questionable

In May 2018, GoLocal reported:

The Pawtucket Red Sox are inflating their attendance by as much as 300 percent. A GoLocal review of the reported attendance versus the actual number of paid in-stadium fans raises questions about the financial viability of the proposed financing scheme now being considered by the Rhode Island General Assembly.

The PawSox reported attendance to the International League was 2,328 for Tuesday night's game, and when pressed by GoLocal on the attendance number they were told by a PawSox spokesperson that the turnstile count was 1,444, but according to photos taken at McCoy, the attendance was approximately 400. PawSox officials refused to explain how the team's turnstile number could be 1,000 fans higher -- or more than 300 percent.

“At the Senate Finance Committee hearing held at URI, the team/city consultants testified that a new stadium would bring an average of 8,100 attendees to each game. That's the number bond payments are based on,” said former Pawtucket City Council President Henry Kinch.

“April-June until kids get out of school and evenings warm up, attendance is small. Always was and always will be. It should be noted that Apex location is on the water which will lower temperature even more.  If 8,100 is not met, the payback mechanisms will no doubt change, and once again the state could be on deck to pay,” added Kinch. “Also, the city's state aid is the first backup payment mechanism. My city certainly cannot afford to lose that money.”


Related Slideshow: Who Lost the PawSox? August 2018

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Owners' Error

Starting from nearly day one, the new ownership group of the Pawtucket Red Sox -- a collection of some of America’s most wealthy businessmen -- saw their investment in the team as a “gift” to Rhode Islanders and that their vision of a mega-stadium in Providence was a windfall.

The ownership group’s early strategy was to demand more than $140 million in subsidies and tax breaks and that led to strong public backlash.

The ownership group -- with a collective net worth of $6 to $8 billion, later blamed the late Jim Skeffington for the misstep, but the collection of owners all thought that for a small investment in the PawSox -- $2 million to $3 million per owner, reportedly, the windfall potential was tremendous -- and all financed by taxpayers.

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Raimondo’s Flip Flop

As the Providence proposal took on water Governor Gina Raimondo reversed field and went from supporter to opponent on the financing structure.

Raimondo, who had once chided critics about complaining about the move from Pawtucket to Providence, flipped on the ownership group and ultimately opposed the Providence financing deal. The implications were two-fold.

First, it raised questions with owners about who to negotiate with and how to negotiate with Rhode Island’s government in good faith. Second, it did tremendous damage to her already strained relationship with Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello. Her change left him the last official holding the political hot potato.

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Lucchino’s Demands

After Jim Skeffington’s death, former Boston Red Sox top executive Larry Lucchino took over the ownership effort to site a new stadium.

Lucchino, who had built stadiums in Baltimore and San Diego for major league franchises, had a formula. While his ownership group in Boston had failed to build a new Fenway Park in Boston due to public opposition, Lucchino put forth a series of demands and, more so than any factor, lead to the team’s stadium efforts failure.

First, he would not wait until after the 2018 election. Second, he refused to have the owners take on the final financial backstop. Third, he refused to acknowledge that times had changed — that minor league baseball’s popularity which peaked in the 1990s was long past.

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Public Support — No Millions for Billionaires

At the end of the day, Rhode Islanders, by an overwhelming majority did not want to invest taxpayer dollars in a public stadium.

According to two GoLocal polls conducted by Harvard’s John Della Volpe which asked, “The Rhode Island General Assembly is in the process of negotiating a $40 million public financing deal with the Pawtucket Red Sox for a new stadium, hoping to bring a vote before the House and Senate this summer.  

In general, do you favor or oppose the use of public funds to help finance a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox?”

Net: Favor                   33%

Strongly favor             13%

Somewhat favor          21%

Net: Oppose                59%

Somewhat oppose      21%

Strongly oppose         38%

Don't know                   8%

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Lack of Functional Leadership

In the end, the dysfunctional relationship between Raimondo, Mattiello, and Ruggerio doomed a viable solution — maybe from the beginning.

Instead of a united front by the three top political leaders, the owners got greedy and tried to manipulate the division of the state’s Democratic leaders.

Democrats Raimondo, Mattiello and Ruggerio are as aligned as Iraqi ethnic groups Kurds, Sunnis and Shias. Yes, they are all Democrats, but their trust and ability to co-govern often fails.

“Trust and reliability are the key ingredients in any public-private deal. Polls show about 60% of Rhode Islanders opposed the project which reflected in part a lack of trust in elected officials. The owners grew not to trust Rhode Island pols because of the way the process and negation unfolded at the State House,” Gary Sasse of the Hassenfeld Institute tells GoLocalProv.


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