Baseball vs. soccer: Portland got it right

imo-blogIn the tale of two stadiums in New Jersey — a $34 million dollar stadium built for minor league baseball 13 years ago that is a complete flop, and the new Red Bulls Arena that’s a big success — Oregon economist Patrick Emerson says there is evidence that Portland, in its own struggle with the baseball vs. soccer question, got it right.

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The New York Times had a fascinating article on a tale of two stadiums in New Jersey over the weekend.  One, a $34 million dollar stadium built for minor league baseball 13 years ago is a complete flop.  No one goes to the games. The other, the new Red Bulls Arena is a big success (though, truth be told, the Red Bulls should not have to work had to sell it out, which they still do).

This has a lot of resonance in Portland, given its own struggle with the baseball vs. soccer question.  The Newark experience suggests Portland got it right:

Given the large soccer constituency in the city’s Portuguese and Latino strongholds, did Newark get its demographics crossed and build the wrong field of commercial dreams? Did the city bet on the wrong sport?

A Yankees fan who said his priest’s salary was better preserved by spending a few dollars at a minor league game than paying a small fortune at Yankee Stadium, Kwiatkowski, 54, who has a Roman Catholic parish in Glen Rock, N.J., has attended Bears games because he once lived in Newark’s Ironbound district and hoped that a successful team could contribute to the city’s revitalization.

“I was within walking distance, right over there,” he said, lifting his chin in the direction of the outfield fence.

Within the hour, a multitude of fans “over there,” in the Ironbound, would stream from restaurants on Ferry Street and across a nearby bridge to help pack another area sports facility, the 17-month-old Red Bull Arena, in the neighboring town of Harrison.

While Major League Soccer was growing in Harrison, minor league baseball appeared to be dying in Newark, along with the expensive dream of restoring a slice of its vintage past.


Although the Newark-Harrison story is an extreme and somewhat unusual case, it reflects an urban cultural shift on which soccer hopes to capitalize as an emergent and faster-paced sport in 21st-century America. Still enormously popular in many markets, baseball has lost traction with young people, especially African-Americans, with a 26 percent decline in youth participation between 2000 and 2009, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

“In terms of drawing people, the soccer stadium in Harrison has been a success,” said Rick Cerone, a former Yankees catcher and the Bears’ original owner, who grew up in Newark and lobbied county and city politicians for the return of the Bears, a popular Yankees farm team more than half a century ago.

He acknowledged that misjudgments might have been made about the Newark of then and now.

“Probably the best thing to do would have been a soccer stadium or maybe coordinate one stadium that could have been used for both,” Cerone said. “But, you know, it’s easy to look back.”

The demographics are entirely different here than in Newark, of course, but one only had to attend a typical Portland Beavers game and see the emptiness of a 20,000 seat stadium with less than 2,000 other spectators to understand what a perfect fit MLS has been.

Ironically, I was clued into this interesting article by Jack Bog who was using it as evidence to criticize Milwaukie for proposing to develop a minor league baseball stadium.  Ironic because he is a vitriolic critic of, well, just about everything, but especially about the re-purposing of Civic Stadium for MLS.  Surely he sees the irony: The Timbers are a runaway success, filling the stadium and breathing new life into what was a dying city asset?  I doubt it, he seems to be almost entirely irony free…

Patrick Emerson is an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University and author of the Oregon Economics Blog.