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Why Rochester is No. 1
Published July 25, 2005
Fans flock to see the Red Wings baseball team (above) and the four other minor league franchises that call Rochester home.
“When I had to pick a market, Rochester was No. 1 on my list, despite the fact that it was my hometown,” Donner said. “I looked at all the factors — a strong population, a corporate base that’s always maintained a certain strength, and the fact that we didn’t have a [Division I] program or any major league teams. Rochester was the perfect candidate.”
The city, tucked under Lake Ontario, embraces sports, from venerable franchises in baseball and hockey to the more recent arrivals of lacrosse and soccer.
Support for the city’s minor league teams has remained solid although Rochester’s economy, like that of many Northeast cities, continues to evolve from a dependency on manufacturing to high-technology research and the service sector.
To develop the ranking of the nation’s best minor league markets, SportsBusiness Journal conducted months of extensive research that took into account such things as attendance, percentage of seats filled, franchise tenure and economic factors (see complete methodology).
When all the numbers were crunched, Rochester came out on top, followed by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa.; Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa.; Providence-Pawtucket, R.I.; and San Bernardino County, Calif. Rounding out the top 10, in order, are: Oklahoma City, Okla.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Dayton, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; and Fresno, Calif.
Rochester has five franchises in four sports — Red Wings (baseball), Americans (hockey), Raging Rhinos (soccer), Knighthawks and Rattlers (indoor and outdoor lacrosse, respectively).
“Our history has a lot to do with it,” Naomi Silver, chairman of Rochester Community Baseball Inc., said of the Red Wings’ success. “We’re on everyone’s radar. It’s an important entity. Some teams have to fight to be known or thought of, but the Red Wings are always on our citizens’ mind.”
The chance to spend a summer’s day or night at Rochester’s Frontier Field is inviting, too. “Our tough, cold winters make our summers so well appreciated, people look to do things outside with their families,” Silver added.
The “Amerks” — as the natives know them best — are another franchise with deep roots. The American Hockey League farm team of the Buffalo Sabres will celebrate its 50th season in 2005-06. With a team that sat atop the standings much of the 2004-05 season, attendance at Blue Cross Arena increased 13 percent and revenue improved 25 percent over the previous season.
“The AHL is a thin-line business,” said Donner. “Our goal is survival, not profitability.”
The Raging Rhinos have been a huge success playing in the United Soccer Leagues’ First Division. Four times the club has won a title and has continued to draw fans in numbers that many Major League Soccer teams would welcome.
All that winning, too, raises expectations. While attendance remains strong at Frontier Field, ownership awaits a move to the new Paetec Park, which will offer more seating and better sight lines. The new venue will also generate additional revenue streams.
The Knighthawks of the indoor National Lacrosse League are a perennial playoff team while the Rattlers, despite playing in a high school stadium each summer, have made the playoffs in half of their four Major League Lacrosse outdoor seasons.
As well as these franchises have done, not every team makes it. An AF2 entry, the Brigade, folded after only a couple of indoor football seasons. Still, one new team is coming to Rochester. The Rochester Razorsharks of the American Basketball Association are scheduled to begin play this year.
“There are a lot of teams with a lot of tradition,” said Steve Rossi, vice president and general manager of MSM Sports Marketing in Rochester. “It’s a tough sports town. You had better perform because people know the game.”
Nearly 50 years ago, pro baseball in Rochester was at a crossroads. The team, owned by the St. Louis Cardinals, was on the verge of shutting down.
As the number of factory jobs declined, Rochester’s economy shifted to high-tech industries.
“What they try to do is put on 72 separate parties each year,” said Scott Pitoniak, columnist for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper and co-author of a book on the city’s baseball history. “They’ve built a lot of goodwill in the way they have promoted, and really have developed a great rapport in the community.”
The Red Wings have ranked among the top 25 minor league franchises in merchandise sales in eight of the last nine seasons.
What the team has not done since 1997, its inaugural season at Frontier Field, is win a championship. Five straight losing seasons followed, and a 42-year association with the Orioles deteriorated to the point where Rochester became the top affiliate of the Minnesota Twins in 2003. With history and tradition on its side, the team retains a solid fan base.
As several thousand investors have a stake in the Red Wings, Rochester’s other four minor pro teams — Americans, Raging Rhinos, Knighthawks and Rattlers — are privately owned by the Rochester Sports Group, the company that manages the four teams. The ownership group consists of Donner, Frank DuRoss, Chris Economides and Peter Bourne.
Rochester may not have the presence of a major league team or a Division I college program, but Donner senses a passion among fans. “The minor league teams have really been the major league teams of the city,” he said. “There’s an aura in the community you normally see from a major league organization.”
The stadium-building frenzy of the last two decades spread into Rochester, too, and is not yet complete. The cost for three sports construction projects will total just over $100 million, with public money covering nearly all of the expense.
Frontier Field, built for $35 million, came on line in 1996, likely keeping pro soccer from going away for a second time. (The city had another team — the Lancers — that folded 25 years ago.)
Four titles have helped the Raging Rhinos post impressive numbers at the gate.
The Rhinos have consistently drawn, on average, more than 10,000 spectators a game, though only 4,500 of the stadium’s 12,500 seats are between the goal lines.
Donner said that as the sport has matured, the fan base has outgrown Frontier Field. Now the Rhinos and Rattlers eagerly await the completion of Paetec Park, a $25 million venture that is about three-quarters constructed. When ready, the facility will have 13,000 seats and expansion potential that could take capacity as high as 20,000.
In 1997, the Red Wings began playing ball at Frontier Field, and in that inaugural season everything came together for the club. Rochester won the International League’s Governors’ Cup and attendance reached a record 540,842. The top nine attendance marks in Red Wings history were set at Frontier Field. Silver called the stadium a “tremendous help” to the franchise’s bottom line.
“The one thing we do is take profits and put them back into the stadium and our marketing efforts, probably more than any other team does, because we don’t have a lot of owners who want to take their money out of the team,” she said.
About the same time the baseball stadium was being erected, the aging War Memorial arena — it’s as old the hockey club — was getting a makeover. The expense to renovate what is now known as The Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial ended up around $41 million.
Not everyone was impressed with the work done to the 11,200-seat home of the Amerks and Knighthawks, however. “Blue Cross Arena, despite the renovations, is antiquated,” said the D&C’s Pitoniak.
The changing economy
Rochester has continued to support its teams at a time when the metropolitan area is going through a transitional period. Population in the city dipped 3.1 percent to 212,000 in 2004 from 219,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Monroe County, though, population remained steady at 735,000 over that same period.
The $25 million Paetec Park, future home of the Raging Rhinos, will have 13,000 seats.
“It’s a rust-belt city that has changed into a high-tech city led by the colleges and universities,” said sports marketer Rossi. “It’s like a mini-Silicon Valley at times. People get laid off from Kodak and stay in the area and start their own spin-off businesses. There’s been some great success stories.”
Still, a tight economy presents a challenge for the sports operators, who often seek corporate sponsors from the same marketing pie. Donner said that though the soccer club looks ahead to soon having its own place to play, the Red Wings’ management has treated the Rhinos well during the 10 years they have shared Frontier Field.
“Being a midsized city, you don’t want to make enemies, so it encourages you to work together,” said Donner.
That can’t always be easy. The Red Wings, Rhinos and Rattlers all compete at the same time of year — summer — yet each has enjoyed its own level of success.
“We all feed off each other,” said Silver. “All these events create a more friendly attitude toward sports in general and becomes part of life. It’s good to know our community is sports-minded.”
Rick Maloney writes for Business First of Buffalo, an affiliated publication.