From the desk of: A Newark Bears Fan In Brooklyn
NEWARK BEARS: How Much Longer Can They Sustain Operations?
When talking about the New York Metropolitan area, I speak of the 50 mile radius around the city. Within this area live approximately 15 million people. Serving the baseball minded citizens within that population demographic, is an abundance, maybe even an over-abundance of professional baseball teams; be it from the Major Leagues; various levels of Minor League ball; or the Independent Circuits. On any given day, no one within fifty miles of my laptop is more than just a relatively short trip away from a baseball game.
Some would argue the market (the NorthEast market) is saturated. Yet, the Atlantic League is hoping to expand with a second team on Long Island (pending a loan from the Nassau County residents). That will bring the number of teams on Long Island Proper to four; the Mets; Brooklyn Cyclones; Long Island Ducks; and the expansion team in Nassau County.
The Yankees in the Bronx and the Baby Bombers in Staten Island; the Hudson Valley Renegades and the new Rockland Boulders, both just north of the city, round out the nearest New York teams.
Then there are the local New Jersey teams. The Somerset Patriots; Lakewood Blue Claws; New Jersey Jackals; and of course, the Newark Bears finish a listing of the baseball options a local fan has if they're willing to take a short drive and diversify their baseball experiences.
What's evidently clear in the baseball rich Tri-State/Metropolitan market is there exists an extraordinarily fierce direct competition for the almighty fan dollar. Leaving the Major League teams out of the rest of this discussion, a look at this season's local attendance figures shows there is rabid interest and devotion to the game of baseball at all levels of play, and that those passions and pursuits of Fandome are reflecting in healthy gate receipts thoughout the area.
Here's a brief look at some of these team's respective success at the gate this season:
* I rounded off numbers for ease.
- Long Island Ducks ~ ...Will welcome their five-millionth fan in their twelve year history before the start of Saturday's game. They lead the Atlantic League in attendance as they have every year in the circuit. After 43 home dates this season, attendance stands at 240,000; an average of 5,500. They are a resoundingly successful organization.
- Somerset Patriots ~ ...Another extremely well run organization and a resounding success in their own right as winners of five Atlantic League Championships. They are number two in attendance this season behind Long Island. In 42 home dates they've drawn 230,000; an average of 5,400 per game.
* There is great potential for gate success with an expansion team in Nassau County should the residents approve an August 1st referendum to fund a sports complex.
The Bridgeport Bluefish of Connecticut appear to be a franchise struggling and in clear trouble.
NEW YORK - PENN LEAGUE:
- Brooklyn Cyclones ~ ...Clearly the largest success story of the Tri-State area baseball scene. Having broken and set many records in Minor League attendance, after the Mets and Yankees, the Brooklyn team is the undisputed attendance champ. Many times over their 11 year history 9,000+ fans have packed MCU Park for baseball in Coney Island. This season marks the three-millionth fan to attend a Cyclones game. It's the fastest any minor league team has ever achieved that number; and the Cyclones play A-Level Short Season. But of course that comes with playing in Brooklyn; home of 2.5 million of the 15+ million Tri-Stae area residents. The Cyclones, like the Long Island Ducks, have led their respective League in attendance every season of their existence. This season, after 20 home dates, 140,000 fans have come through the gates for an average of 7,000 per game.
- Staten Island Yankees ~ ...It took a few years to catch on, but catch on it did. Staten Island is now routinely one of the NY-PL attendance leaders. This season they rank third in the circuit behind Aberdeen, MD. and Brooklyn. After 20 home dates 120,000 fans have come through for a 2011 average of 6,000 a game.
- The Hudson Valley Renegades are a near twenty year old; very vibrant and healthy organization with a strong fan base in Peekskill-NY.
- Rockland Boulders-NY ~ ...a first year expansion success of the CanAm League. They're a new team with a brand new park and attendance wise rank second in the circuit (#1 among the American teams). In 24 dates 61,000 fans have come through for an averae of 2,500 per game.*
- New Jersey Jackals ~ ...A very stable, CanAm success. They are always among the League leaders in attendance. In 31 home dates, they've received 56,000 fans for an average of 1,800 fans a game. It ranks them third.*
* To put CanAm League attendance in perspective, the Canadian team; Quebec Capitales; lead the League by a wide margin. In 31 home dates, they've received 88,500 fans for a 2,800 per game average. Of the American teams, with an average of six fewer home dates than the rest of the League (due to on-going construction of their park to open the season) the Rockland Boulders are having an impressive debut season.
# The Sussex Skyhawks (Northern NJ) team folded after the 2010 season.
What's evidently clear from these figures, is that even in a saturated market such as this, there seems to be room for everyone to carve out a profitable niche in the area and enjoy a slice of the financial pie. Most, if not all of the local area teams seem to be doing just fine (relatively speaking) at the gate this season; all except....The Newark Bears; a team which plays in New Jersey's largest city and in the second largest metropolis of the Tri-State/Metropolitan area.
They play a mere 12 miles away from the New Jersey Jackals and 35 miles from the Rockland Boulders. They are only about 20 minutes away from the Somerset Patriots to the south and a short half-hour drive from my location in Brooklyn ...or Staten Island.
Yet, in 37 home dates this season, only 29,000 fans have come through their turnstiles; a meager average of 775 fans per game (which is not nearly reflective of the dire straights they really find themselves in. Their attendance is actually worse than that). Originally a two-time Champion of the Atlantic League, due to continuing poor attendance figures over the years, the Bears were forced to make a switch into the CanAm League this season in order to slash operating expenses.
The CanAm League offered the Newark Bears smaller roster sizes; fewer scheduled games; and considerably less travel as ways to cut spending in the face of a years long battle with a dwindling gate. Former Yankee favorite; catcher-Rick Cerone's vision of Baseball in his home town, once realized, now faces extinction. The original owner of the Newark Bears has since sold the team. Today, the Bears are under new ownership and implemented this plan to switch Leagues and possibly save the franchise.
The fan base of the Newark Bears is non-respondent, dormant, or not at all existent these days. There appears to be no speakable support from the local residents; so crucial to any organization. Less than 1,000 fans a game will doom this city's legacy so rich in Baseball History. But on far too many nights, the Bears play before a very sparse, two to three hundred fans a night.
Just five years ago, although their attendance woes were already taking hold, there once was a fully-stocked gift shop with a very handsome variety of team items. Today there is only a fold out table with nary a souvenir available for purchase. There are letters missing from the great names mounted on Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium's Ring of Fame adorning the press box and (empty) suite level facade. The selection of items remaining in concession stands still open for fans have been minimized. At times, it seems like there is more staff personnel walking the concourse than there are fans attending the game. Chasing down a foul ball would be a race against yourself or versus two really rambunctious kids who couldn't sit still.
They no longer have their games broadcast on radio, and similarly ceased web casting this season. They maintain a web site which currently comprises the total extent of their media reach outside of what the Newark/NJ Star-Ledger may provide.
Centrally located among all these successful teams, as an organization which plays in such a large, downtown environment which Newark provides; with secure parking connected to the park no less; it's hard to believe the Bears can't draw more fans. The park is clean, very accessible, and sits under the backdrop of the downtown Newark skyline. And beyond the center field fence, lies a picturesque view of Manhattan.
Newark Bears manager, Tim Raines; a dynamic player in his day; stole many bases over his Hall of Fame worthy career. But he, along with his player/son; Tim Raines Jr., haven't been able to steal the hearts of the locals; much less spark moderate interest. On the field, with some Major League veterans on the roster, the Bears sport a rather potent offense. It's in starting pitching where this team lacks talent. As such, they've hovered around the .500 mark much of this season. But even in their most recent Championship season of 2007 (back in the Atlantic League), they struggled mightily at the gate; to include a poor showing during the playoffs and championship round.
The question now is, - How much longer can this organization survive without a change in fortunes and a stark rise in attendance before it's forced to fold operations; or in a best case scenario, remain in the hands of an owner willing to withstand the bleeding?
Anything beyond 2011 is looking bleak at this point. And that's a tremendous shame. Outside of the Yankees in N.Y. and the Brooklyn Cyclones/Brooklyn Dodgers connection, there is presently no city within even seventy-five miles of N.Y. Harbor that owns such a mature and rich tradition in Baseball as the City of Newark does. But alas, the Newark Bears are not the Yankees. However, Newark's history does own a branch on the family tree as the city once was home to the New York Yankees minor league affiliate; purchased and owned by the late Colonel Jacob Ruppert. Newark's history is undeniably real and needs...or should have an outlet for Baseball fans throughout the area to learn from; be prideful of; and passionate about.
Additionally, the Negro League liniages of Newark are also something that need to be embraced; celebrated; and promoted as part of an overall experience at a Newark Bears game. Perhaps the finest "Negro League Baseball Museum" imaginable; perhaps even finer...to rival the Negro League Museum in Kansas City; is in order for the East Coast, and more specifically Newark. There may be no better or appropriate place than Newark to capture the essence of Baseball's Negro Leagues in all the North East. It's just a thought. But the Bears' ownership and the Honorable Mayor Corey Booker; who's always worked hard for, and closely with the Bears; need to think of something in order to keep baseball operations in Newark ongoing and getting fans in the ballpark.
It's too easy for someone who actually writes for a living (unlike me) to take a cold hearted look at demographics and median incomes of the various team locations in the Tri-State area and draw ignorant conclusions from them. To that method I simply point to a Mr. George Steinbrenner; whom I had no great love for (I'm a Mets Fan), BUT, who is a person I always praised for keeping his team in the South Bronx throughout it's darkest days, and having the patience to outlast various City Administrations until he finally came across one friendly to his cause (unlike Walter O'Malley). So I would say, save me the crime riddled urban rhetoric and demographic-based determinations of what ails the Newark Bears' market. Sure, to ignore the stigma Newark has rightfully earned because of a darker past is not possible. But moving on and separation from the past, is. That's precisely what Corey Booker is trying to do; forge ahead.
Being surrounded by many more successful teams in the immediate area I think points to fixable reasons why fans aren't showing up to the ball park in Newark. Somehow, igniting the passion within people to again venture out to the ball park is the first step. Passion and inspiring people to move....Taking the first step is always hardest when moving from a sedentary position; like the Newark Bears' fan base presently finds itself. They're out there...; somewhere.
They must be found because Baseball games in Newark really should have a future beyond this season. The history in this city is worth every feasable effort.