Tuesday, November 2, 2021

How the lack of local sports media hurts the brand

By Zachary Baru

One of the biggest assets of our small region here in Western Massachusetts is the fact that this little area actually does in fact have a great deal of media entities.  While the number of local news stations, radio stations (both public and private radio) websites and local papers that focus on one or more towns is arguably a lot greater than the size of the market, the amount of full news coverage has declined in recent years.  Papers have become smaller, news stations have merged but remain on separate channels at separate times, and websites are increasingly asking for subscriptions to see full content.  So where does all of this leave sports?

Sports in Western Mass.

One of my greatest memories of my childhood in Western Mass. was following sports here in the region.  I always enjoyed reading Garry Brown in the Union News, Sunday Republican, and now The Republican.  I enjoyed watching Scott Coen on News 40 and both WWLP's and News 40's high school sports coverage - for not just football, but all sports.  I enjoyed reading The Republican's stories about local sports but also their two full pages of scores, calendars and box scores.  I could see everything going on in the sports world with just one glimpse.  While some of this remains the same, a lot has changed.  Not just locally, but nationwide.  We are seeing a trend of sports departments getting smaller and smaller in both papers and news stations.  Many local news stations throughout the country, including here in Western Mass., do not have a sports department anymore, and show sports stories from time to time.  This begs the question, how does this hurt the brand?

Sports media is essential for local sports teams.  We are fortunate to have eight local sports teams at either the professional, semi-professional, or amateur/collegiate development level.  These are the Springfield Thunderbirds, Western Mass. Pioneers, New England Mutiny, Western Mass. Zombies, Holyoke Blue Sox, Pittsfield Suns, North Adams SteepleCats and Westfield Starfires.  Fortunately for some of these teams, they do still receive good coverage from local media.  The Thunderbirds and Blue Sox enjoy decent coverage, but even both of these franchises do not get the complete coverage across all mediums they once had.

Present-Day Coverage

Coverage for the Pioneers is not what is has been in the past, and even the Mutiny, who now have become a staple in Western Mass. having formed in 1999 as the Springfield Sirens, receive limited coverage.  It is understandable that Berkshire County teams such as the Suns and SteepleCats will not get coverage in Springfield, but what kind of local television coverage can these teams get?  Especially when many people who live in Berkshire County only receive local channels from the Albany market.  These teams rely on all forms of coverage, from print, to digital, to television, to radio.

Fortunately WAMC, Albany Public Radio and local NPR affiliate, does in fact cover Berkshire County.  But the fact remains that local sports coverage in the media just is not what is once was.  And while nothing can ever stay the same, especially with the emerging media and technology landscape, the brand of local sports has been hurt over the last decade.  

The Effect on Local Sports

Less media coverage to local teams hurts franchises' marketing, sales, and overall awareness.  In today's economy, between prices and competition within the entertainment industry, it is hard enough to get people to come and watch a game in person.  Local teams do not have the luxury that major league teams have when it comes to television contracts.  Local sports depend on in-person attendance.  To anyone that says "no one reads the paper", or "no one is watching local news on TV anymore", I simply say that is wrong.  People are still reading papers and watching news, just sometimes on different platforms.  I would argue that news and media is consumed more today than it has ever been, especially with new digital platforms for it to be delivered.

Whether it is a newspaper, a digital version on a desktop or phone, television, a streaming platform with local news, YouTube, radio or a podcast, people are consuming media just as much as ever, but in more ways than ever before.  Media is still extremely relevant, and local sports teams know this.  They depend on the local media to get the word out about their team.  And while the responsibility still lies with the team to market itself, a lack of sports coverage truly hurts the brand for the local teams we love.

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

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Hockey makes a comeback in Springfield with back-to-back big nights in October

By Zachary Baru

The City of Springfield waited for an entire season without AHL hockey, and on October 15th and 16th, hockey returns to the region with fans in dramatic fashion.  

The American Hockey League's return to Springfield comes one day after American International College faces local rival and national champion, the University of Massachusetts.  Any UMass appearance in Springfield would be a big game, as the team has previously played games at the formerly-named Springfield Civic Center.  

In the renovated MassMutual Center, the venue is now home to the city's NCAA Division I hockey team, American International.  The MassMutual Center has served as AIC's home ice since the 2016-17 season, after the team switched home venues from Olympia Ice Center in West Springfield, Massachusetts.  UMass, coming off a 2021 NCAA Frozen Four championship, has heated up an already interesting rivalry between the two D1 schools who are just 23 miles apart.  

The very next evening marks the return of AHL hockey to a city with a storied history in the league.  AHL hockey began in the city in 1926, when the Springfield Indians began playing at the Eastern States Coliseum in West Springfield.  The Indians became the Kings during the franchise's affiliation with Los Angeles, became the Indians again, and moved to Worcester in 1994.  Fortunately that same year a group was established by Bruce Landon, a long-time Indians great and General Manager of the franchise after his playing career.  The Springfield Falcons were born, moved to Tucson in 2016, but once again Landon was able to save the city's AHL franchise and helped put together a new ownership group with Majority Owner Paul Picknelly.  The Thunderbirds were established, and although COVID-19 cancelled their 2020-21 season, the franchise returns in October 2021 for a new season at full capacity.  

There are many reasons for hockey fans in Springfield to celebrate with a big October weekend of hockey.  Hockey is back in Springfield at both the pro and Division I levels, not only serving hockey fans, but providing a much-needed boost to the local economy.  As the fans return to downtown Springfield, restaurants, shops and hotels will all see increased business, one of the many positive impacts the city will see as hockey fully returns.

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

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Thunderbirds set to return to the ice for 2021-22 season

By Zachary Baru

The Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League announced last week they will return to the ice to play in the 2021-22 season this fall.  

The target start date will be October 16, and the team is hoping to be able to allow full capacity at the home games this season according to Nate Costa, President of the Thunderbirds.  Built in 1972 and renovated in 2005, the MassMutual Center, the Thunderbirds' home venue, seats 6,663 fans for hockey games.

The news comes with great relief to local businesses in the downtown area who have been suffering throughout the entire pandemic, but also hit even harder by the loss of 38 hockey events that bring fans into restaurants, bars, hotels and shops in Downtown Springfield.  

Local businesses - the ones that are fortunate to remain - are hoping to pick up where they left off before the pandemic, typically welcoming patrons before and after Thunderbirds games.  Away teams, coaches, staff, and media support local hotels, along with occasional fans traveling for away games.  The restaurant and bar scene in Downtown Springfield were arguably impacted the most, as many downtown establishments see a noticeable difference between nights when there are Thunderbirds home games and nights when the team does not play.  

Aside from the local business owners at these restaurants and stores, all staff including servers, bartenders, bar-backs, managers and cooks have lost a tremendous amount of tips and hours without downtown events brining in customers on a weekly basis.  

As the country continues to become vaccinated, and life slowly moves closer to normal, the local economy in Springfield will soon get a much needed shot of life pumped into the downtown.  As the Thunderbirds are set to play a key role in Downtown Springfield's revival, the relief for all employees at local businesses cannot come soon enough.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Basketball Hall of Fame to hold enshrinement at Mohegan Sun Arena, continuing partnership with resort

By Zachary Baru

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will be holding their enshrinement at the Mohegan Sun Arena, marking the first year the museum will hold the ceremony at the resort casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.

The Enshrinement Weekend, taking place May 14-15, 2021, will continue a partnership the Hall of Fame has had for many years with Mohegan Sun.  This year, however, the Hall of Fame will hold their enshrinement in the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena, an arena that has has 9,323 fixed seats and expandable to 10,000 for concerts.  The arena has won numerous awards, most recently winning Casino of the Year award for venues at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2019.  This is the seventh time in 12 years the Mohegan Sun Arena has won the award at the ACMs.

Aside from being an intimate yet rather large arena, and a modern venue, holding this year's enshrinement at the resort casino also allows the other events of the weekend to all be held on the same property.  Whether this is COVID-related has not been mentioned, but it does add to the case of making the Mohegan Sun property a good choice to host the weekend event.  

The weekend events begin on Friday, May 14 with media availability at 2:00 p.m.  Later that afternoon at 5:00 a Tip-Off Celebration and Awards Gala will be held.  The following day on Saturday, May 15 there will be a VIP Reception at 2:00 p.m., followed by the 2021 Enshrinement Ceremony at 5:00 p.m. at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

With two luxury hotels, 50 restaurants, bars and eating options, and two separate convention and exposition centers all connected on the same property, Mohegan Sun allows the Hall of Fame to host the entire weekend event inside the resort casino.  The ability to have all of the weekend events within walking distance and inside the same resort is an interesting concept, one that makes for a good case to hold the event outside of Springfield, the location of the Hall of Fame.  While this plan will undoubtedly see some criticism from the Springfield-area, during a global pandemic, there is a level of safety that this provides.  

This year's enshrinement will be yet another example of a long-time partnership between the Basketball Hall of Fame and Mohegan Sun.  The resort casino and its arena have hosted numerous tournaments and one-day showcases for both men's and women's college basketball.  The Mohegan Sun Arena hosts the annual Tip-Off Tournament, and Mohegan Sun is a key sponsor of the museum in Springfield.  Having the enshrinement at the resort casino will continue to strengthen this partnership, while offering a location that can conveniently host all weekend events all in one property.  

Sunday, March 7, 2021

With the loss of a Thunderbirds season, Western Mass. Zombies set to become Springfield’s only team this spring

By Zachary Baru

Like many cities, the City of Springfield and it’s downtown entertainment district has been hit hard by COVID-19.  The Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League announced in 2020 they would sit out the 2020-21 season due to the coronavirus, leaving Springfield without sports and entertainment for quite some time.  That is all about to change next month, as another team is about to start its season and welcome fans to downtown.

The Western Mass. Zombies of the East Coast Basketball League have announced they will begin their third season in Springfield on April 3.  The team will return to the South End Community Center for a third season.  Although games typically have a capacity of 200, this season the capacity has been limited to 40 fans.  

The Zombies, owned by Bill and Nichole Bullock, formerly were members of the American Basketball Association, joining the ECBL in 2020.  The Zombies will play teams throughout the Northeast such as Philadelphia and Fredericksburg, in a league that has teams that stretch throughout the East Coast down into the Carolinas.  

The South End Community Center is a modern $10.3 million facility opened in 2017.  The Zombies’ current configuration allows for 200 fans, but make no mistake about it, the court and basketball venue are rather large with a high ceiling and modern touches throughout the facility.  LED lighting, new baskets and new scoreboards make watching the game enjoyable, especially in such an intimate atmosphere where fans can get very close to the action.  

Located in Springfield's South End, the venue and the Zombies will be welcoming fans back to Springfield to watch live professional sports for the first time in nearly one year.  While the Zombies will only be starting the season with a limited seating of 40 fans, it is a start to slowly bringing entertainment-based economic life back to the downtown area.  

The cancellation of the Thunderbirds' season may have been a blow to business in Downtown Springfield, but that isn't the only shot to Springfield's economy during COVID.  The loss of events such as concerts and conventions at the MassMutual Center has had a major affect on the downtown economy.  

Countless restaurants, hotels and shops have been hit with a major loss of revenue.  The addition of events such as basketball and other sports can provide an opportunity for the downtown economy to begin to recover.  Having teams such as the Western Mass. Zombies return to the city is a positive sign for an economy that has felt the affects of COVID-19 for twelve consecutive months.  Fortunately, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, a light area businesses have long been waiting for.

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Thunderbirds opt out of season, plans to resume play in 2021-22 season

By Zachary Baru

Hockey fans in Springfield will have to wait until the fall for the return of professional hockey, as the Springfield Thunderbirds announced that they will be voluntarily opting out of the 2020-21 American Hockey League season.

Not only will this be a major loss for hockey fans and families seeking entertainment in the area, but this impacts the already-hurt restaurants and other businesses in the city's downtown.  Economics aside, with a rise in cases and a concern for the safety of fans, the numbers show that this was most likely the right choice made by the team.

The Thunderbirds aren't alone, the team is one of three AHL franchises choosing to opt out of the season. Since joining the AHL in 2016 after the Springfield Falcons left for Tucson Arizona, the Thunderbirds have achieved a quick and large amount of momentum in the city.  There is no question COVID-19 has affected this momentum, but the impression the Thunderbirds have made on the city and its fans has been extremely positive, a sign the momentum could easily continue once play is resumed in the fall.

Without significant television revenue, a minor league team like the Thunderbirds depends on its ticket sales for revenue.  Removing this would make a season extremely difficult, a contributing factor to having the Thunderbirds choose to opt out of play.

When hockey returns, the 94-year legacy of Springfield hockey will continue, once again bringing fans into the city and aiding a downtown in need of its team.

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