PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – One of the biggest questions swirling around the newly unveiled $400 million development in Pawtucket is whether the proposal’s crown jewel, a professional soccer stadium, will draw a crowd.
The Pawtucket Red Sox, who are relocating to Worcester after playing home games in Pawtucket since the 1940s, suffered from declining attendance for years before the ownership group announced it wanted a new stadium in 2015. The downward trend raised questions about the popularity of minor-league baseball here and around the country.
But advocates of the new United Soccer League Championship stadium proposed for the west bank of the Seekonk River argue soccer is on the rise in the United States and has a clear future in Rhode Island.
“The state of Rhode Island is the best [soccer] market in the country without a professional soccer team,” said Brett Johnson, principal of Fortuitous Partners, who is heading the effort to build the 7,500-seat stadium.
Johnson, who joined public officials this week in announcing the massive Tidewater Landing development, is confident he can replicate the success he’s had in Arizona, where he owns a USL Championship soccer team called Phoenix Rising.
That team competes in the same professional league as the one that would start in Pawtucket, a tier below Major League Soccer. It started playing in a new stadium in 2016 and has since reported three consecutive years of attendance growth.
Average attendance grew 10% to 6,752 in 2019 compared to 2016, and the club boasts 25 consecutive sold-out home games, according to the league.
“If there’s anyone who’s capable of building a stadium and packing it out, it’s Brett,” said Ryan Madden, a USL Championship spokesperson.
The league, which has more than 30 teams, bills itself as the fastest-growing soccer organization in North America, reporting total attendance has increased to 3 million in 2019 from 1 million five years ago.
Central Falls city solicitor Matt Jerzyk, who also works as a State House lobbyist, writes a soccer blog and has watched closely as the sport has grown in popularity in Rhode Island.
Jerzyk said he supported trying to keep the PawSox from leaving the state, but believes a new soccer team might actually serve the area better in part because of the robust number of immigrant families and other community members with relatives in other countries where soccer is more popular.
“Baseball is a legacy sport,” Jerzyk said. “Soccer is growing.”
As Target 12 reported earlier this year, Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket have the highest rate of foreign-born residents in Rhode Island. And The Nielsen Co. estimates Hispanics accounted for 68% of U.S. soccer viewership in 2017.
A Gallup poll released last year, meanwhile, backed up Jerzyk’s analysis, showing a generational split in sports viewership. “Soccer and baseball show meaningful differences by age, with soccer appealing more to adults younger than 55 and baseball more to adults aged 55 and older,” the pollsters wrote.
Madden looks at Rhode Island and says he’s confident the team will create a loyal fanbase.
“It’s not whether or not you’re going to fill a 7,500-seat stadium, it’s whether those will be enough seats for the club,” he said.
Despite the bullish outlook from advocates, however, there’s some evidence to suggest the sport’s future success in Rhode Island faces potential challenges.
The USL Championship league could not immediately provide a breakdown of attendance by team, but the online industry publication SoccerStadiumDigest.com shows average attendance from 2018 to 2019 fell about 9% to 4,476 across the league.
The new team would also face regional competition from the New England Revolution, an MLS team, playing home games about 20 miles north at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. The major-league team, a tier above USL Championship, draws fans from the Providence area, which is closer to the stadium than Boston.
And the team has struggled to fill seats in recent years: average attendance at Revs games declined 15% to 16,737 in 2019 compared to 19,627 five years ago, according to SoccerStadiumDigest.com.
The PawSox, by comparison, saw their attendance decline 20% during the same period, including a precipitous fall after it became clear the team would relocate to Massachusetts.
Steven Frias, who has twice challenged Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello for his seat in the R.I. General Assembly, serves as Rhode Island’s Republican national committeeman. He was a vocal critic of the failed stadium deal with the PawSox ownership group, and is skeptical of the new plan.
“One can only imagine how low attendance will be at a minor league soccer stadium in Pawtucket,” Frias wrote in an email.
Madden pushes back on the idea that falling attendance at Gillette, which was built for the New England Patriots, is any indication of what to expect in Pawtucket.
“What you have in Pawtucket is a beautiful riverfront soccer-specific stadium, and that lies in a bit of contrast to what you’re seeing in other communities where soccer teams are playing in stadiums where they might have been built for another purposes,” he said.
The league also puts a strong focus on building a community around soccer and greater engagement in youth leagues, which are already growing in Rhode Island.
Soccer is among the top five fastest-growing boys sports in the state since 2000, increasing nearly 50% to 2,151 players in the 2018-19 season, according to the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.
Participation among girls, meanwhile, did not crack into the top five fastest-growing sports, but has nonetheless increased about 25% over the same period, rising to 1,795 players in the 2018-19 season.
Whether those trends continue to grow into the future could go a long way toward building the future fan base of a USL Championship team in Rhode Island, which is what many — including Johnson — envision.
“The ability for us to build in this community and invest hundreds of millions of dollars and create thousands of jobs is going to have an impact for decades to come,” Johnson said.