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America’s top sports cities
Published March 1, 2004
The SportsBusiness Journal market-support ranking is the culmination of one of the most extensive data collection efforts in our magazine's six-year history. Our report looks at the 41 markets that served as home to at least one team in Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA or NHL for at least one season from the point of view of the financial beneficiaries — the owners of the franchises and events in those markets.
While the 121 teams from those leagues are certainly the most visible on a national level, each of these markets also supports at least one minor league and college program. A true look at a market's ability, or desire, to support sports must extend beyond the big leagues to include these teams. To wit, we analyzed data from across the sports spectrum, including affiliated and independent minor leagues, college athletic programs, lacrosse and women's professional basketball, soccer and volleyball.
Data from this study
The obstacles were many. The volume of data was enormous (see "Teams and leagues included in study" for the complete list of leagues and organizations tracked). We tracked down attendance data for extinct teams that belonged to leagues that have folded and played in venues that have been demolished.
There was also the issue of fairness, always a key in a ranking such as this. The biggest debate centered on weighting. An AFL team may play in a Big Four arena and play in a league with a national TV contract, but how important is it to the fabric of a market's sports landscape? What about the Class AA baseball team that has been there for 30 years and draws 6,000 fans on 41 nights every summer? Or niche sports, such as lacrosse, which are far from the national radar even though they fill arenas and stadiums for a few months a year?
How would we address the fact that teams in New York City could sell out every seat for every game played in every venue for the whole season, but because they play in the nation's biggest metropolitan statistical area, they could have potentially not finished at the top of the list?
The answer was in the weighting. While the number of minor league and college teams far outnumber pro teams in all but two of the markets, teams from the Big Four leagues clearly dominate the sports commerce. Figures from these teams are weighted more heavily than all other teams and events.
Across all levels of play, filling the seats is the top goal of every team. Therefore, attendance accounts for 60 percent of our weighting. Using U.S. Census data, teams drawing well from smaller markets scored higher than those filling a similar capacity of seats in larger markets. Attendance was indexed against overall market population. To measure true fan loyalty, we looked at attendance fluctuation when the local favorites were not faring well on the field, and when unemployment rates in the city were changing.
A formula based on Nielsen Media Research ratings and total TV audience watching local broadcasts of the home teams accounted for 20 percent of our result.
Finally, a measure of true support lies in length of time a team or event has been in a market. Tenure of these entities accounted for 16 percent of the total. Level of play, meaning major league, minor league or college program, for teams that had played in the market over the last five seasons finished off the final 4 percent.
Who scored well and why
No. 1: Denver has been said to be an oversaturated sports market. We politely disagree. All of its big-league teams play in new facilities that have corporate names. The Rockies, Broncos and Avalanche all rank near the top of their leagues in attendance. The city added two new teams last year, the NLL Colorado Crush and AFL Colorado Mammoth, and both teams played to capacity crowds, adding more than a quarter million to the city's overall attendance totals.
No. 4: Of markets that have two or more Big Four teams, Seattle has the second-strongest fan support base in our study. In recent years, residents have voted to help fund two new stadiums, and the Mariners are the attendance and international marketing apple of MLB's eye. A major golf event or two could put it closer to the top.
No. 9: Minor leagues may have kept St. Louis in the top 10. While factored in with less weight than its three big-league teams, whose attendance has fallen dramatically over the period studied, the market has since 2000 added three new facilities and four minor league teams to its roster, boosting market attendance by nearly half a million.
No. 11: Dallas-Fort Worth may be building a sports infrastructure that will rival any market in the country. Over the last four years, a new NBA and NHL arena, three minor league stadiums and a college football stadium have been built, with a new soccer stadium now under construction. Two proofs of stability? Despite having one of the highest unemployment rates among Big Four markets, attendance jumped 20 percent over five years, and the market lost no pro teams over the period of our study.
In the middle
No. 19: Memphis lured the NBA Grizzlies away from Vancouver thanks to strong corporate backing. The city is one of several markets that may be new to the major league scene, but have hosted marquee events for decades. Its oldest pro team, the Class AAA Redbirds, has played only six seasons, but is among the league leaders in attendance. Memphis' unemployment jumped from 5.2 to 6.4 percent, the biggest such jump among cities with teams in the Big Four.
No. 25: Raleigh is a market on the way down. If our ranking were based on last year's attendance only, rather than a five-year total, it would be much further down the list. N.C. State Wolfpack men's hoops draw well, as do the defending Class AA Southern League champion Carolina Mudcats, but the market has lost an AFL and WUSA team in the last 18 months. Are the NHL Hurricanes next?
No. 28: Pittsburgh residents overwhelmingly defeated a public referendum to build two new stadiums. Politicians built them anyway. Now residents are voting by staying, or moving, away.
Who scored poorly and why
No. 33: Sacramento Kings fans have filled every seat in Arco Arena since 1999, one of the longest sellout streaks in NBA history. If this were solely a measure of the Kings' fan support, the city would rank near the top. But Sacramento's market capacity is so much higher than the 17,317 the arena holds. Additionally, attendance for the Class AAA River Cats, who play in a new stadium, has dropped 15 percent in three years, and the market lost its professional minor league soccer team after nine years and a recent league championship.
San Antonio (36) and Orlando (41) are markets with one Big Four team and populations above 1.7 million, with low attendance-to-population ratios.
No. 39: Portland has added four new minor league teams in the past six years — three of them are already gone.