Tuesday, January 19, 2021

During a pandemic, Gillette Stadium rises to be much more than a sports venue

By Zachary Baru

When most people think of Gillette Stadium they might think of a home to a world champion football team, a soccer club, or New England's largest concert venue.  But Monday that all changed, as Gillette become more than just an entertainment venue, it provided an opportunity to save lives and vaccinate area residents of the COVID-19 vaccine.  

The stadium became Massachusetts' first mass vaccination site, turning out to be more than adequate with its large parking lots and spacious indoor facilities.  The Putnum Club, which normally hosts fans with club seating and suite ticket holders, was turned into an indoor vaccination site.  The large indoor area and atrium turned out to be extremely safe for people to get vaccinated inside, making it an ideal location in the stadium to hold a vaccination.  

Not only is the parking vast, but Gillette's access to two major highways, Interstates 95 and 495 also make the stadium a highly suitable site.  While clearly not the only large venue in the Greater Boston area, when all requirements for a safe and seamless vaccination are added up, Gillette Stadium proved to be a successful choice on Monday.  

The significance of this in the sports and entertainment world is simple: it proves the importance sports franchises can play in the community, and the role they can assume in helping the region.  In this case, the Patriots' role was literally life and death, and Monday's accomplishment of the staff of the Patriots and Gillette Stadium goes well beyond the typical role of a standard sports franchise.  What everyone at the Kraft Group, owners of the Patriots and Gillette Stadium, accomplished proves just how important and valuable a franchise can be for its citizens in the community.  

The COVID-19 coronavirus has forced us all to look at life differently, and now we can do so in sport as well.  It shows us that while a stadium might normally be a venue to simply watch a game, sometimes it can be much more.  In this case, Gillette Stadium became a community gathering place, serving the highest purpose a sports team can serve - the health and safety of its fans and its community.

Source: Boston Globe, Boston Herald, WPRI-TV

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

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Arena Football League may be gone, but the Pirates are bringing the next best thing to New England

By Zachary Baru

Arena football fans in New England have long anticipated the return of the sport to the region.  And although the Massachusetts Pirates have brought indoor football to Worcester since 2018, this spring marks the first time a coast-to-coast indoor football league will play in New England since 2000.

The Pirates announced in August they would be joining the Indoor Football League for the 2021 season.  The franchise will continue to play at the DCU Center in Worcester.  Unlike the Pirates’ former league, the National Arena League, the IFL has teams on both the east and west coasts, making it in terms of geography the largest indoor football league.  

Fans should be careful to use the phrase “arena football” as the former AFL once held patents on parts of the sport that are still not incorporated into other indoor football leagues.  The most noticeable are the nets behind the end zones.  And yes, this invention alone helped the AFL classify their brand of indoor football as their own sport, called “arena football”.  But before we go down that rabbit hole, let’s save that for another story on another day.

The Arena Football League certainly has interesting rules, but also a well known brand name in the sports world.  The Pirates’ new league is has built up a following, but has some growth to do before it can get onto ESPN like the AFL for many seasons, as recently as last year.  

The IFL, by all accounts, is a strong, large league, with a good online and social media presence.  It’s YouTube Channel not only is well run, but streams the leagues’ games live each week of the season.  And with both an east and west coast presence, the Pirates have found a good home in a league that continues to grow each season.

For fans of the indoor game, the future of indoor football in New England looks like a positive one.  A new league, a good venue, and a bright future all surround the Pirates as they go into their new season this spring.

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

Monday, December 28, 2020

What to do with the empty space on the floor at TD Garden and around the NBA

By Zachary Baru

It's a problem only the year 2020 could give the Celtics and teams around the league - what to do with all of that empty floor space without fans at the games?  Typically at TD Garden or any other National Basketball Association arena, the court is surrounded by about three rows of seats on each side of the court, while the ends usually have ten or more rows set as "risers" extending into the lower level.  But in a pandemic, with the Celtics and most teams playing in empty arenas, that is just not the case anymore.  

Or should it still be?  No, not seats with fans, but just the seats themselves.  Watching the game on television, the sight of a court with no seats is not always so visually appealing.  And let's face it, sports have basically become "made for TV" in 2020.

If you've ever gone to a minor league basketball game in a large arena, this not-so-great visual of empty floor space is nothing new.  Many G-League and other minor league teams have battled this problem for decades.  Even scenes of the old American Basketball Association show that teams struggled with figuring out what to fill in floor space with.

It's an issue that does not get a lot of press, but during this 2020-21 season, you can't watch a game without noticing it.  Some teams have done a great job, as seen in Sunday night's Celtics game against the Indiana Pacers.  The Pacers have filled in empty floor space with not only an additional press table, but also a new car on display.  This has been done in other leagues, and even on concourses inside NBA arenas in the past, but to see a car right next to the court of an NBA game is an interesting use of space.  

For the Celtics, watching a game at TD Garden without seats on the floor has an issue: TD Garden, unlike Indiana's arena, is built for hockey dimensions.  Most NBA arenas have this design, where the floor's corners are curved, rather than arenas such as the Barclays Center that are angled inward.  The Barclays Center was built with the ability to have hockey, which it has had, but was ultimately designed for basketball.  Since the TD Garden does have a hockey design, an empty floor would be just that - very empty.  

It might be more visually appealing to add seats even if they are unused, and would also add an interesting perspective of seeing a completely empty floor, and a completely empty arena.  It’s a rare sight for sports fans, and once it’s all over, hopefully we won’t have to see it again for a very long time.

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

Monday, August 10, 2020

Revolution will host regular season matches once again at Gillette Stadium as 2020 season restarts

By Zachary Baru

The New England Revolution may have lost in the Round of 16 in the MLS Is Back Tournament last month, but fortunately for fans, the Revs will have another life in the 2020 season.

Major League Soccer is set to restart the season this month, with home games played at teams' venues, including the Revolution's Gillette Stadium.  The Revs will return to regular season action in Foxborough on August 21, but unfortunately for fans, the stands will remain empty.

The Revs are scheduled to play six additional games in a phased-approach just announced by MLS, three of which will be at Gillette Stadium.  All three home games will remain closed to fans, who will be able to watch all games live on regional and national television.

Five of the six games, including the first on August 21, will be broadcast regionally of NBC Sports Boston, with one game on August 29 against Red Bull New York televised live nationally on FS1.

While the news is mixed for fans and the businesses at Patriot Place that rely on games to drive foot traffic and sales, it ultimately is a first step towards bringing soccer back to local markets during the league's fight to keep players, fans and staff safe during a pandemic.

On a typical Revolution game day between March and November, shops, restaurants and hotels at Patriot Place see a large increase in walk-in traffic and revenue.  This is an enormous help during the summer months, since Patriots home games only affect August through January.   And with questions over the upcoming National Football League season, these businesses could potentially be hit with even more months of lost revenue.  Whether or not the Revolution will be able to host fans for the second phase of scheduling remains to be seen.  But one thing is for sure, plenty of businesses at Patriot Place can only keep their fingers crossed, as the pandemic continues to threaten both sports and the local economies where the games are played.

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

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Massachusetts Pirates to unveil new league, venue plans for 2021 season

Less than a month after news officially was released that the Massachusetts Pirates would not be returning to the National Arena League, the franchise has announced a press conference set for Wednesday, August 19 to discuss the team’s future.

According to the Pirates, an announcement will be made to announce which league the Pirates will be joining for the 2021 season.  The Pirates’ venue plans for the 2021 season will also be announced at the press conference, which will be held outside the DCU Center in Worcester.

Since 2018, the Pirates have called the DCU Center home, and have given no signs that they will make any venue changes for the upcoming season.

One potential league the Pirates could join would be the Indoor Football League.  The IFL was founded in 2008, comprising of 13 teams throughout the country, mostly in the western region of the United States.  But after the IFL announced last month that an expansion franchise was awarded to Columbus, Ohio, the possibility of an east coast team in the IFL is more realistic.

Details for this story are still unfolding, as more information will be released by the Pirates on August 19 during their press conference.  Stay tuned to Twitter @zbaru for continuing coverage and live tweets of the press conference.

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

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Benefits and drawbacks of streaming TV for Boston sports fans

By Zachary Baru

If you’re a Boston sports fan considering streaming television in 2020, there’s plenty of factors to consider before making the decision that is now culturally referred to as “cutting the cord”.

Sports fans, and especially New England sports fans, have very unique factors to consider, especially since the regional sports market is not dominated by one particular network.  Since the four regionally televised sports teams, the Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox and Revolution are on both NBC Sports Boston and NESN, the obvious question for any fan would be, “does my streaming service have both of these networks?”

Unfortunately for one big option, the answer is no.  Hulu does not offer NESN on its live TV service, which even has an entire website dedicated to the issue.  It is unfortunate since Hulu’s platform is excellent for sports fans, and would be a perfect option, if not for the lack of NESN.

Hulu, like YouTube TV, makes watching live and on demand sports easy, telling you exactly what is live and allowing you to watch it right away.  Hulu also gives fans the chance to see what games they missed from their chosen favorite teams along with an option to instantly watch it again.  This is very similar to YouTube TV, but Hulu does it in such a modern and easy way that any sports fan would definitely enjoy.

YouTube TV, however also has their version of showing fans what is available for sports and makes it very easy to watch, along with having NESN, a big, big plus for any Boston sports fan.  Xfinity from Comcast, however, has their own way of showing you what is live for sports, along with a scoreboard and the ability to simply click on the game and watch right away.  You can even use their Sports App right from a button on the remote, making it very easy for fans, while offering what is a perfect picture quality for all games.  Not to mention, Xfinity carries both NESN and NBC Sports Boston, as Comcast is the owner of latter.

Boston sports fans will definitely have a lot of options when deciding how to watch their teams in 2020, as the live TV landscape becomes more crowed and extremely competitive.  In the end, customers and fans will win, giving fans the opportunity to watch sports when, how and where they want to watch.

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

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 on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.