Thursday, May 16, 2019

New USL structure, strength of minor league soccer benefiting Revolution

By Zachary Baru

With the 2019 soccer season upon us for multiple leagues, the strength of minor league soccer is tremendously benefiting clubs across the country, including our own Major League Soccer franchise in Foxborough.

The "American Soccer Pyramid"

The New England Revolution are the highest level of soccer in New England as part of the so-called American soccer pyramid, but fortunately for soccer in the region, there are plenty more teams that help create a true minor league system for development for the Revs and all MLS clubs throughout the country.

The improved structure and stability of minor league soccer in the United States starts and ends with the United Soccer League.  The USL is an organization that operates several soccer leagues throughout the United States.  As of 2019, it is the only organization in the U.S. that runs professional minor league soccer, after the North American Soccer League cancelled its 2018 season and has since been on hiatus.

A Changing Soccer Landscape

After the 2017 season, the United States Soccer Federation, more commonly referred to as U.S. Soccer, lowered the NASL's status from the only Division II league to the only Division III league.  The NASL did not return for a 2018 season, and is currently on hiatus.

The changing landscape may not have been good for the NASL, but for several clubs in New England, the changes have helped shape the soccer structure both in the region and nationally.

In New England, the USL has seven franchises in two different leagues - USL Championship and USL League Two.  Six of the seven New England teams are in USL-2, with the one regional USL Championship team in Hartford.  USL-2 teams in New England include the Boston Bolts, Western Mass. Pioneers, Black Rock FC of Great Barrington, Mass., Seacoast United Phantoms of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, AC Connecticut of Danbury, and GPS Portland Phoenix. 

New League, New Opportunity for Minor League Soccer

Over 11,000 fans attended the inaugural Hartford Athletic
game in April 2019 at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
The new organizational structure is what is really helping these New England teams in terms of long-term potential.  With all of the changes happening in minor league soccer in 2018, the USL responded with a new league format for 2019.  For starters, it's name.  The organization dropped the "s" from its name, changing its name from the United Soccer Leagues to the United Soccer League.  This changed its top leagues' name from the United Soccer League to USL Championship, differentiating the name of the organization from the name of the highest league.

The 2019 season brings both a new name for the league, and an expansion team for USL Championship to Hartford, allowing New England to have a U.S. Soccer-sanctioned Division II league franchise for the first time since the Connecticut Wolves in 2001, which left the then-named A-League that year.  The USL has changed many of their leagues multiple times, changing the A-League to the USL First Division in 2005, then to USL Pro in 2011, to USL in 2017 and now USL Championship in 2019.

The Growth of Soccer in New England

With seven franchises throughout the various USL leagues, New England is one of the higher-represented regions, which really speaks to the state of soccer throughout New England.  With so many minor league teams in the region, fans are able to see live, professional and semi-pro soccer up close and in their local communities, greatly benefiting the Revolution.  While some areas in New England may be far from Foxborough, not allowing fans to go to as many Revs games as they would like, having USL teams throughout the region truly allows soccer fans to engage with the sport.  The more engagement fans have, the better chance they will stay a fan, and become an even stronger supporter of the sport.

With the current state of both MLS and the USL very strong, the Revolution are in a great position to use this rich soccer environment in New England to grow their fan base, and rise up in the rankings of the crowded and competitive New England sports scene.

Source: United Soccer League, Hartford Courant

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Friday, March 8, 2019

"Whalers Night" brought something special to TD Garden

By Zachary Baru

Officially it was not "Whalers Night", but throughout the TD Garden Tuesday night, it was 1997 all over again.  That was the last season the Whalers played in Hartford before moving to North Carolina.  But a decision this season by the Carolina Hurricanes to hold a "Whalers Night" in Raleigh featuring vintage Hartford Whalers jerseys followed by a game in Boston to again wear the famous Whalers green allowed fans to unofficially declare Tuesday Night in Boston their own "Whalers Night".

For New England hockey fans, it was something special.  Hearing chants of "lets go Whalers", a following of faithful fans making the trip from Connecticut wearing Whalers green, and a very rare opportunity to see the Bruins once again wearing their white jerseys at home made for a unique atmosphere at TD Garden.

Since the 2003-04 season, National Hockey League teams typically have worn white jerseys only on the road, with the exception of certain situations.  Tuesday night was not only reminiscent of seeing the Bruins in their traditional white home jerseys, but also gave fans an image they have not seen in 21 years - Whalers green on Boston's home ice.

Tuesday night was an occasion seldom seen in sports - a "promotion" during an away game.  The Hurricanes franchise deserves credit for paying homage to a historic New England rivalry, and even doing so while not on home ice.



After a 4-3 overtime win for the Bruins, Tuesday night brought out the best in hockey.  A game that had the feeling of 1997, paying tribute to 18 years of an intense regional rivalry, but also showcasing the exciting brand of modern hockey we see today.  Had this game been played the last time the Whalers existed, the game would have been played with 5 skaters during overtime instead of the 3 skaters per team now used, a rule that has been enacted to increase goals during overtime.

Anyway you want to put it, Tuesday night was an exciting night for hockey fans.  A night only made possible by a Carolina franchise bringing back the sight of a classic, special New England rivalry.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

New Bruins "in-ice" ads already feeling like the norm

By Zachary Baru

When the start of the 2018-19 National Hockey League season came around, I was very skeptical.  I was worried that watching Bruins games with four extra "in-ice advertisements" would begin to resemble a lower-level minor league game, but I quickly realized how wrong I was.

The NHL, unsurprisingly, did an excellent job working these ads into the ice (I'm still not sure why they're not called "on-ice ads", but that's another story.  The four additional ads have been worked in well to the TD Garden ice, and to all ice surfaces throughout the league.

In April 2018, the NHL announced that starting with the current 2018-19 season, all teams will be allowed to have four new positions for in-ice advertising.  These positions have been located in the corners of the rink.  Up to last season, all teams could and did sell up to four in-ice ads near neutral zone face-off dots.

The original four ads were allowed to up to 81 square feet per advertisement, while four new ads are allowed to be up to 44 square feet each.

Watching the Bruins games all season long, the new ads have blended in, and are starting to feel normal.  They don't jump out at the viewer, and being in the corners, its easier to forget they are even there.  Had the ads been placed in the offensive zones, like seen in some lower-level leagues, this would be a different story.  Fortunately for hockey fans, the new advertisements don't ruin the visual aspect of the game, and are allowing the league and all 31 franchises to make additional revenue.

Source: SportsBusiness Journal/SportsBusiness Daily

Zach Baru can be followed on Twiter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Boston/Foxborough in good position for World Cup in 2026

By Zachary Baru

It's official - the World Cup will come to North American in 2026.  Fortunately for Boston and Foxborough, the area looks to be well-positioned to host yet another World Cup.

Back in 1994, Foxboro Stadium hosted World Cup matches, but a lot has changed in Boston and in Foxborough since then.  The Big Dig, Gillette Stadium, more hotels, an improved transit system and an MBTA rail line that connects the stadium with Downtown Boston and Providence.

 When it comes to infrastructure, Boston can both be looked at as a great host city, or a poor candidate.  While public transit is more sophisticated than many other potential host cities, and the commuter rail has improved, the constant back-up on Boston-area highways is hard to overlook.  And anyone who has driven to Patriots games or a major concert in Foxbourgh knows, Route 1 has constant stand-still traffic.  Yet the advances Boston has made in commuter rail, including a CSX-owned MBTA line right to Gillette Stadium, certainly helps Boston's chances.  A 10-car train could easily transport 1,000 people, as single-level MBTA rail cars can hold 86-127 people per car, while bi-level cars can hold 175-185 people.

MBTA bi-level rail cars can fit 175-185 passengers per car.
Many of the other potential host cities do not have elaborate commuter rail systems, and by no means do they have comparable transit systems including subway and bus.  Combine this to an international airport close to downtown and easily accessible via highway and public transit, Boston is in very good position when it comes to infrastructure.



Another category Boston has in its favor is the amount of hotel rooms available in the area, which is much higher than many of the other potential host cities.  The stadium itself has two major hotels right at Patriot Place - the new Hilton Garden Inn and Renaisssance Boston - which would be perfect for officials, teams and media.

Which brings us to the venue itself, Gillette Stadium.  The stadium has seen several renovations since its 2002 opening, keeping it very modern with all of the amenities National Football League fans, players, officials and media expect.  Not to mention it sits on the grounds of Patriot Place, a destination for fans with shopping, restaurants, a movie theater, walking trail and of course the two hotels.

All of this puts Boston/Foxborough at the top of the list for potential host cities.  In fact, Boston appeared third on a list last week by the Washington Post of potential host cities.  Boston has a lot to offer, and hopefully in 2026, Boston will show this off to the entire world.

Cities Under Consideration for 2026 World Cup Games:
Boston
New York
Montreal 
Toronto
Philidelphia
Washington
Cincinnatti
Nashville
Atlanta
Orlando 
Miami
Kansas City
Dallas
Houston
Monterrey
Guadalajara
Mexico City
Denver
Edmonton
Seattle
San Jose
Los Angeles

Source: Washington Post, Kawasaki

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Why the NCAA Tournament had much more of a "Boston" feel at TD Garden

By Zachary Baru

The 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball East Regional at TD Garden may not have had any local teams, but last weekend the venue included a lot more of the city than the previous time the tournament stopped in Boston.

Actually, you could multiply the Boston influence by 23 times to be exact.  That's because in 2012, the last time TD Garden was chosen to host the tournament, every professional championship banner had to be removed.

NCAA regulations forced TD Garden to remove the banners of professional teams.  This was a little bit of a problem for a venue that is home to 6 Stanley Cup championships for the Bruins, and 17 World Championships for the Boston Celtics.

Fortunately for Boston fans, in 2018 the NCAA allowed TD Garden to keep all championship banners for the Celtics and Bruins.  Not only did this help out TD Garden staff enormously, who already had enough on their plate to ensure the venue was ready, but this also gave Boston fans and the estimated 8,000-10,000 visitors from out of town a chance to embrace in everything that is the tradition of Boston sports.

Although the famed parquet floor was not allowed, or any other local floor throughout the tournament, at least the banners gave the tournament's stop in Boston a little bit of a local feel.  Not to mention a small Boston College logo on the corner of the court, given to the school for being the host of the East Regional.

The tournament also helped the city economically, and in impressive fashion.  The two-night, three-game event last weekend was projected to bring in $25 million in economic impact, filling hotels, restaurants, shops and other establishments throughout the city.

The NCAA Tournament provided a big economic boost for the city, a reminder to all sports fans worldwide that Boston can be a great host city, and an amazing weekend for basketball fans throughout the region.  And yes, a reminder to all sports fans watching about the 23 titles that will forever live in The Garden.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Cold weather may have lead to low attendance for UMass' Fenway visit

By Zachary Baru

When the University of Massachusetts' football team faced the University of Maine on Saturday at Fenway Park in Boston, the temperature was 36 degrees with 12 mph winds, possibly leading to the low attendance of 12,794.

The game was part of the Fenway Gridiron Series, a five-game football series at Fenway including 3 college football games and two high school games between November 10 and November 22.  The series is promoted by Fenway Sports Management, and is yet another attempt to make Fenway Park more than just a baseball stadium for 82 regular season Red Sox games.

Year after year, Fenway has seen an increase in concerts and sporting events, as the Fenway Gridiron Series is an excellent way to make the venue a year-round destination for fans, just as Gillette Stadium and TD Garden is each year.

The big question is, was the less-than anticipated attendance of 12,000-plus strictly because of the weather, or was it something else?  UMass for years has been trying to increase their presence throughout the eastern part of the state, playing games at Gillette Stadium and marketing themselves as a team for the entire state.  Clearly the end result has been sub-par, as a game against a regional rival in a venue as special as Fenway Park should have had a much bigger crowd.

There has been talk about possibly having more UMass games at Fenway, and even a UMass lacrosse game at the ballpark as well.  But with such a low attendance, the chances of more UMass games at Fenway seems questionable.

If the windy, cold weather truly contributed to the lack of fans at Fenway, then possibly UMass Football could make a return visit.  For UMass, the goal has long been to market more across the eastern part of the state, where more of the population and larger sponsors are located.   Hopefully in the near future UMass sports can find a way to attract larger crowds in the Boston-area, which would only help promote and grow the UMass sports brand.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Clubhouse questions could effect bottom line for Red Sox

By Zachary Baru

July 2017 has been full of the wrong type of attention for the Red Sox when it comes to off-the-field news.  Unfortunately for Boston's long-loved baseball club, one major trait has come into question in recent weeks - the character inside the clubhouse.

Is this really a serious issue?  When it comes to the bottom line, it certainly is.  While in the long run this whole controversy could simply be just a slight drop in the popularity of the team, and potentially team revenues, the real issue at hand here is that any potential drop in popularity or revenues warrants concern.

But how could public concerns over the "character"of members of the organization translate to a potential drop in revenue?  The short-term answer is simple: ratings.  The more the public has a negative opinion of the internal makeup of the organization, the more likely it will be that fans will elect not to watch the games, or at least until the issue is dealt with internally, thus pleasing the fans.

Will all of this blow over?  More than likely.  But for now, this is a concern for fans, and should be a concern for the front office as well.  Ratings are incredibly important in sports, and nothing in sports can be a better barometer for a teams' popularity.  Which leads to the long-term affect of all of this mess - ticket sales.

Unlike ratings, ticket sales is not always an exact barometer of a teams' popularity.  Fans can obviously buy tickets far in advance and feel they need to use them, or simply be given tickets as a gift from friends or from businesses looking to entertain clients, potential clients or staff.  Long-term, this wave of concern from fans could result in lower attendances, meaning potentially less concession, merchandise, parking and other revenues.  In other words, make sure fans are happy, because professional sports is an industry full of domino effects.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, they are part of a market where fan scrutiny is the very essence that makes the market so successful for sports teams.  It is this passion that brings Boston teams off-the-field success year after year.   So while Red Sox fans may be upset over the character within the clubhouse, it is this criticism that continuously makes for a unique, and successful market.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.