Newark Becomes A Sports Mecca?

The idea of sports being an avenue for social change is pretty widely accepted, but the idea that sports brands and facilities being a motivator for economic change in a municipality has certainly been the cause of much more scrutiny, especially in recent years. A piece in the New York Times by Ken Belson last week highlighted some of the areas where arenas have been built as the centerpiece for growth and urban renewal, only to see abandonment, debt and disappointment.

Still there is at least one city that seems to be finding a way to use arenas, the teams who play there and the area around them as a positive force in exposing what was a downtrodden city to a new and more interested audience. The city is Newark, New Jersey, and with the support of its energetic and athletic Mayor Corey Booker, has seen a renaissance steadily bring hope to an area with a dastardly past.

Ironically the spot where sports as a centerpiece for urban renewal in Newark may actually be its latest beneficiary. Bears and Eagles Stadium, the home to the Can-Am League Bears, opened to much fanfare in 1999 and still has great charm and competitive baseball. Since then, once bright stars looking for a chance to go back to the Majors have come and gone, some with success, others with a last gasp and a core of players who fell through the baseball cracks got a chance that affiliated organizations never gave them. The team has flitted between the Atlantic and Can Am Leagues, and switched owners and staff as the economy and the competition for the casual dollar rose and fell and rose again. Even on the minor league level in the area, new franchises arose, many affiliated with MLB clubs, bringing new dollars, new mascots and new stadia. There was talk of even adding a team to the ill-fated Xanadu project, which would have eroded the Bears heart as well.

However with all the changes, all the uncertainty, and all the competition the bears are back again, with some notable leadership in former Yankees Tim Raines and Jim Leyritz, former White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice, and former Met and Yanks pitcher Mike Torrez as the GM. All are baseball lifers given a chance to stay in the game, now on the player development side. The team has a refreshed look off the field, and new faces on the field. They are all very symbolic of a new Newark.

The downtown Prudential Center came next, and a renewed and expanded marketing effort by the host New Jersey Devils brought in larger numbers of fans from a wide area each of the past two years, despite a team that has not been as successful on the ice than in earlier years. The movement of other hickey events, including the New Jersey State High School championships, helped make Newark and the Pru the centerpiece for hockey not just in the county, but in a larger geographic area that extended south and west, for the last few years.

Hockey at the Pru has been followed by a large scale hoops push, from Seton Hall’s expanded crowds to the temporary home of the Nets to this year’s NCAA Regional Finals and the upcoming NBA Draft and the WNBA Liberty (who will play in the area the next two seasons while Madison square Garden is being renovated). All continued to bring additional first-timers to Newark by car and rail, many of whom not just became repeat visitors for games, but also came back to sample the area’s growing restaurants and other non-sports activities. It was safe, clean and state of the art, and maybe a little more affordable than a jaunt across the Hudson.

Also not to be forgotten in the renewal process is soccer, and the opening of Red Bull Arena just across the Passaic River in Harrison. Fans have turned out not just to see the much improved and better marketed and promoted Red Bulls, but also to see a solid series of international friendlies and the upcoming MLS All-Star Game. Many of those patrons venture across the river to sample the cuisine of Newark’s Ironbound district before and after matches, further fueling the city’s social economy.

On the grassroots level, not for profit groups, led by First lady Michelle Obama, have refurbished parks and playgrounds with the help of the professional teams, all part of urban renewal and the “Let’s Move” campaign, which is fighting to eradicate childhood obesity and has targeted Newark’s kids as one of the key groups to employ lifestyle change.

Is all this a cure-all for inner city issues? No. Will it bring companies back in droves? No. What it will do, and continues to do, is bring casual consumers into the area who will now have a positive experience that they might not have had. That means they spend money, talk up the area, and will be less hesitant in coming back. They may also pay more attention to other goings on in Newark, and may even be able to contribute to a more positive urban revitalization through tax or financial support in the future. On the sports side, the Bears this summer may benefit the most. The urban revitalization has spread back towards the stadium, which was an island unto itself for a good part of the last ten years. Fans going to the Pru or Red Bull Arena will pass it and may now give the Bears a thought as a more convenient and affordable summer evening, where in other years they may have headed to a minor league game further east or to the north. That renewal would help give Newark a positive summer push to match its winter rise, and could help complete the circle year round.

Newark has been the lightning rod for negative issues for years. Now maybe through sport on all levels, it will be a shining light for change and how effective community integration can lift a city over time. that would bring a very positive ending to any game, especially when the game involves real live consumers in a city who many had written off years ago.