SBJ/July 25 - 31, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Minor league franchises have a difficult time living here in Allentown

A ballpark planned for the Black Diamonds was abandoned when it was half finished.
Bordered by the Lehigh River to the west, the Blue Mountain to the north and the Delaware River to the east, the Lehigh Valley region in eastern Pennsylvania boasts a natural beauty that belies its ability to support minor league sports.

A 20-mile drive along I-78 brings you through SportsBusiness Journal’s lowest-ranked minor league market — Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, the principal cities of the region that once provided the lion’s share of the country’s steel and anthracite coal.

But the mills and mines have long since closed, and a generation after Billy Joel sang about the exodus of both businesses from the area, Lehigh Valley’s recent pro sports history shows that little has changed:

2005: Williams Township Ballpark in Easton, the most visible and psychological scar on the area’s sports history, is demolished. The half-built structure that was to host the now-defunct Atlantic League Black Diamonds had sat unfinished since the summer of 1999, when lawsuits and bankruptcy halted construction.

2004: The Northeast League (Independent) Allentown Ambassadors folded after seven seasons. Attendance had faded from a high of more than 122,000 to fewer than 41,000 in five years. A proposed new stadium in Bethlehem that was to host the team fell through.

2000: The United Hockey League announced that the expansion Lehigh Valley Xtreme would play in the proposed Allentown Sports and Entertainment Center. Neither the hockey team, a proposed but never named AF2 team, nor the arena made it.

The region’s longest tenured pro team, the U.S. Basketball League Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs, play in a high school gym in front of a few hundred fans a game despite being coached by NBA legend Darryl Dawkins.

Could better times be on the way?

This month the state Legislature approved a bill to raise the area’s hotel room tax from 3.5 percent to 4 percent to pay off the debt service on a proposed $34.3 million ballpark in east Allentown. Owners of the Reading Phillies and Trenton Thunder baseball clubs plan to place a team in the market if a financing plan can be agreed upon.

Additionally, a local developer a few weeks earlier proposed a $30 million, 8,000-seat arena, in either Allentown or lower Nazareth, that would likely host an American Hockey League franchise. Philadelphia-based Comcast-Spectator has signed on to attract a team and manage the arena if it is built.

— David Broughton

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