Will Rhode Islanders Attend the PawSox’ Final Years?

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

 

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Will Rhode Islanders support the PawSox in their final seasons in Pawtucket?

The Pawtucket Red Sox announced Monday that in the upcoming season, kids can attend weekday games free -- and that the club will split profits in 2019 with the City of Pawtucket — “if any are generated.”

The company disclosed to GoLocal that it has not been profitable in recent years.

But will it be enough to bring fans in during the last two remaining seasons before the Red Sox AAA affiliate moves to Worcester, after years of dwindling attendance? 

“I understand that emotions are ripe,” said PawSox President Dr. Charles A. Steinberg on Monday. “What you look to do is [support] the bedrock of this franchise — and that has been children and family. Make it easy for the children and families [to attend].”

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According to International League records, the PawSox season attendance average was nearly 9,000 a game (8,937) ten years ago, in 2009. Last year in 2018, the “official” count was less than 6,000 a game (5,982) — but as GoLocalProv.com reported, that number could have been inflated as much as 300%

And while the PawSox ownership announced its intention to move the team to Worcester in August, following months of speculation, Steinberg said that the team had been "fully committed" to staying in Rhode Island. But in 2015, when the team announced its intention to move to Providence the team's spokewoman Patti Doyle repeatedly said that the team would not stay in Pawtucket.

“May 16, 2017 — that’s when we announced a commitment to stay in Pawtucket for 30 [more] years pending legislative approval — that’s where we thought it was going,” said Steinberg. “[But] we fully understand that those who feel the loss for Rhode Island are nursing wounds. What you find is the children are a lot more flexible.”

Steinberg was far less certain about the prospects for profit sharing, however — as he stated that the club failed to post a profit in either 2017 or 2018. 

“The ball club has not been profitable in 2017 or 2018. Mostly that was the expense of exploring the ballpark [at the Apex location], the cost for that communication effort,” said Steinberg. “So to the positive is [we won’t have those costs] this year— but to the negative there are people who won’t turn out now.  The budget doesn’t call for a profit at the moment.”

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Libertarian Party of Rhode Island Chairman Pat Ford, who had helped spearhead the effort in 2015 to defeat the proposal to give taxpayer subsidies to the group of owners whose collective worth is in the billions to move to Providence — and again to move across Pawtucket to the former Apex site -- weighed in on the PawSox announcement. Ford was also one of the most active questioning the 2018 proposal that would have cost the State of Rhode Island more than $100 million.

“As a Libertarian, the concept of a private entity voluntarily donating to a municipality or charity is intriguing. However, if the Pawtucket Red Sox Baseball Club is attempting to leverage, or use the imprimatur of the City of Pawtucket to generate additional sales ... based on the goodwill associated with profit participation by a municipality... strict terms must be in place to define percentage participation, as well as what actually constitutes a profit,” said Ford. “Sadly, the lack of detail available at the time of this trial balloon is representative of the approach taken throughout the failed stadium negotiations ... generalities ... vague proposals ... the absence of substance.”

Focus on Post-Move Outreach

On Monday, both Steinberg — and Pawtucket Mayor Grebien — stressed that PawSox would remain committed to Rhode Island after the move to Worcester. 

“Our announcement [Monday] was for the next two years — and also the commitment to the community will be beyond the next two years,” said Steinberg. “For the last 50 years, Worcester has been defined as part of the [PawSox] market and have been beneficiaries of our community outreach. So now it will be with [Rhode Island] being at the other end of the Blackstone Valley region.”

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“We have a rule that any accredited nonprofit in the PawSox region, we’ll give help to in some way,” said Steinberg. “There’s always a way to say yes. Worcester and Central [Massachusetts] have operated with that approach from us. Off the top of my head? The PawSox have helped up there Boys and Girls Clubs and YWCA and there might be more. When the tornadoes hit Webster we helped out. Now you flip the model — if you’re in Pawtucket, you’re St. Ray’s or Agnes Little or Slater, Shea, Tolman you name it — there’s going to be a way moving forward.”

Grebien’s office on Monday weighed in on the proposed profit-share — and community involvement once the team moves to Worcester. 

“Not knowing what the PawSox numbers are, the Mayor’s continued partnership with the PawSox has not really been about the profit share. The PawSox value to the community, as he has said all along is not the team itself, but their civic engagement in Pawtucket and the Blackstone Valley,” said Wilder Arboleda in Grebien’s office. “The organization currently provides roughly $100,000 in philanthropic initiatives yearly that include a $10,000 scholarship each year to a Pawtucket student, and a pioneering mentor program with Agnes E. Little. So long as the PawSox continue to engage with our residents and provide the necessary, positive initiatives that they have provided all along, the City will continue to work with the organization as a partner.”

“The Mayor’s first priority will always be to advocate for our community. In our conversations with PawSox management, we share the same commitments to continue to invest long term in Pawtucket, Central Falls and the Blackstone Valley beyond their time here over the next five or ten years,” said Arboleda. “Again, not knowing the PawSox numbers, it is difficult to foresee how their attendance will do throughout the next couple of seasons.”

 

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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