PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – The 2016 season marked the lowest overall attendance for the Pawtucket Red Sox since 1992, even as team officials work with state and city leaders on a plan to invest more money in McCoy Stadium.
According to data from the International League, attendance at McCoy hit an all-time high of 688,421 fans in 2005. Over the next decade the team saw a steady decline, with just 407,097 people attending a game at McCoy in 2016 – a 41 percent decline in attendance since the 2005 season.
To find a time when attendance was lower for home PawSox games you have to go back to 1992, when fewer than 320,000 passed through the gates at McCoy. That was before the significant renovation of McCoy that was done in the late 1990s.
Because the number of home games varies from season to season, Target 12 also examined average game attendance and found a similar trend: the average turnout was 9,561 per game back in 2005, but was down to 6,076 this year.
New PawSox General Manager Dan Rea said while baseball as a whole is facing steep competition from other sports and alternative forms of entertainment, there are other minor league teams that are seeing success.
“I think it’s a question we’re trying to answer and it’s the overarching question, because you do have this 10-year decline from the heyday,” Rea told Target 12. “A big part of my job and our job here is to answer that question: why have the numbers dropped off in the last 10 years?”
Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, said attendance at minor league ballparks has remained steady nationwide.
“What we see is minor league attendance has been roughly flat over the last decade, something like 41 million fans,” Matheson said. “But there are some places that have simply exploded and there are other places that are unsuccessful and teams have moved.”
He said part of the drag on the 2016 season at McCoy can likely be attributed to hurt feelings from loyal fans after the team’s new ownership group proposed building a new ballpark on the water in Providence the year before.
The plan failed, but not before the new ownership group faced strong public backlash, particularly over its request for $120 million from taxpayers.
“I think the PawSox really burned themselves last year,” Matheson said. “I think it was deeply unpopular to have a new management come in and demand taxpayer subsidies to try and move the team.”
Rea said attendance does not necessarily improve when the team itself is having success on the field, but rather when its big brother in Boston is doing well.
“The years when the Red Sox have been successful, the PawSox tend to do pretty well,” Rea said. “Whenever the Red Sox do well we like that because it shines a focus on us as well.”
The issue of declining attendance is important as the team, the city of Pawtucket and the state have embarked on a study examining the feasbility of McCoy and the neighborhood around it.
Rea said they are looking to determine if it is worth upgrading McCoy and what kind of partnership might work with the state and city.
“I think in the right circumstances it can work,” Rea said. “But we need to ask that question about [McCoy] and perform an objective analysis, taking into account the ticket numbers – the trend lines we’ve seen – and then answer the question of ‘can it work here and how can it work?’”
The ballpark – which opened in 1942 – is the oldest minor league park in the country, according to Matheson, who said it is in need of an upgrade. The PawSox currently have a lease agreement with the state to use McCoy Stadium until 2021.
Sam Bell, chairman of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats and an outspoken critic of the failed attempt to move the PawSox to Providence, said the declining numbers should be a cause for concern for taxpayers when considering investing further in the team.
“I don’t think it’s the role of the government to try to bail out businesses that aren’t doing very well,” Bell said. “I just don’t think that’s the best use of our tax dollars in Rhode Island.”
Bell said he’s a fan of the PawSox and wants to see the team remain in Rhode Island, but there needs to be taxpayer protections built into any deal that would use public money for McCoy renovations.
“I think it’s fine to invest more money in a publicly owned stadium if it gets reflected in higher lease payments,” Bell said.
Rea said it’s too soon to talk about what a public-private partnership for McCoy would look like because the feasibility study isn’t complete. It’s expected to be done in December.
“Like anything, the devil’s in the details and the specifics are obviously important,” Rea said. “[In] the right place and the right circumstances, it’s absolutely a good investment.”