SBJ/20090824/This Week's News

Rounding out the top 10 markets

2. Fort Wayne, Ind.

Teams (first season): IHL Komets (1952), Midwest League [A] TinCaps (1993), CIFL Freedom (2003), NBA D-League Mad Ants (2007)

Venues (year opened): Allen County War Memorial Coliseum (1952, renovated 2002), Parkview Field (2009)

Fort Wayne came up just short of retaining its title as SportsBusiness Journal’s top minor league market.

The former Class A Wizards are marking their 16th season of play this year with a new moniker, the TinCaps, while playing in the new $30.6 million Parkview Field. With the club’s single-season attendance record already broken, the club is on pace to draw 364,000 fans, up 30 percent over its previous high.

The Komets remain one of the top draws in minor league sports, averaging a team record 7,810 fans per game this past season, a fifth consecutive year-over-year increase. Attendance for the Mad Ants last season also jumped, up 44 percent to 4,008 a game compared with the team’s 2007-08 inaugural season.

Attendance at indoor football games, or lack thereof, is the major reason why the market fell to the No. 2 spot in the ranking. The Freedom averaged just 2,000 fans per game this season, one-quarter of its 2007 average and one-third of its four-year average prior to that.

3. Tulsa, Okla.

Teams (first season): Texas League [AA] Drillers (1946), CHL Oilers (1992), AF2 Talons (2000), NBA D-League 66ers (2005)

Venues (year opened): Drillers Stadium (1981), BOK Center (2008), SpiritBank Event Center (2008)

Tulsa’s four minor league teams have played a combined 96 seasons in the market, trailing only Rochester, N.Y., (our No. 10 market) and Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa., (No. 1) for teams’ collective tenure. The market’s economic picture has remained strong in recent years, as well, with the unemployment rate about half the national average and total market wealth growing at twice the pace of the rest of the country.

The opening of the $196 million BOK Center in downtown Tulsa helped its anchor tenant, the Oilers, enjoy their highest attendance in 13 seasons. The Oilers’ average of 5,427 per game was a 29 percent increase over 2007-08.

The Talons averaged 6,500 fans per game this year, tops since their inaugural 2000 campaign; the Drillers are on pace to average 4,500 fans per game, up 3 percent from last year; and the D-League 66ers averaged a club-record 2,445 fans per game in their most-recent season.

Looking ahead, the $39 million ONEOK Field in downtown Tulsa is scheduled to replace Drillers Stadium next season. More immediately, though, Tulsa could soon lose its designation as a minor league market, as a local ownership group is working to bring the WNBA to town as soon as 2010.

4. Billings, Mont.

Teams (first season): Pioneer League [Rookie] Mustangs (1969), IFL Outlaws (2000)

Venues (year opened): Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark (1975, renovated 2008), Dehler Park (2008)

Like Tulsa, Billings’ economy has outperformed the rest of the nation with low unemployment (4.1 percent in June), steady population growth (up 5.8 percent since 2005) and a 24 percent increase in the amount of total personal income in the market.

Fans turned out in record numbers for the Mustangs’ first season in $12 million, city-financed Dehler Park when it opened last year. The club is projected to surpass that 2008 mark and set a new record this season.

The $1 million upgrade to Rimrock Auto Arena included new Daktronics video boards and was partially financed by the market’s first naming-rights deal. The Outlaws’ average attendance of 4,100 fans per game this year was the team’s best ever.

5. Spokane, Wash.

Teams (first season): Northwest League [A] Indians (1946), AF2 Shock (2006)

Venues (year opened): Avista Stadium (1958, renovated 2008), Spokane Arena (1995)

The Indians have played in Spokane since 1946 and have consistently averaged between 4,600 and 5,000 fans per game for at least a decade. The team’s stadium received a $2 million upgrade for its 50th birthday last season.

But it’s indoor football that has propelled Spokane to our top-10 list this year, up 37 spots from our 2007 ranking. The four-year-old Shock sold out 10,400-seat Spokane Arena for 19 consecutive regular-season games between 2006 and 2009.

Further proof of Spokane’s strength as a sports market came in January 2007, when 155,000 fans attended the State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships in the city, shattering the event’s previous attendance record by more than 30,000. The event is returning to Spokane next year.

Notable is that the broad fan support is not the result of a stellar local economy. The changes in Spokane’s unemployment rate, population and total income mirror that of the overall country.

6. Peoria, Ill.

Teams (first season): AHL Rivermen (1972), Midwest League [A] Chiefs (1984), AF2 Pirates (1999)

Venues (year opened): Carver Arena (1982, renovated in 2007-08), O’Brien Field (2002)

While the overall U.S. population has increased more than 5 percent since 2005, Peoria’s growth rate has been one-third of that. Local unemployment has more than doubled, to 9 percent in June, and local industry leader Caterpillar has laid off thousands of employees. Still, the city’s three clubs, who have played a combined 75 years in the market, keep plugging along.

The Chiefs last year set a team attendance record (4,241 per game), and the AF2 Pirates have averaged 3,400 fans per game in each of their last two seasons, double what they drew before Carver Arena’s $63 million renovation. The AHL Rivermen similarly saw a 4.5 percent gain in attendance in 2007-08 before slipping back this past season.

7. San Bernardino County, Calif.

Teams (first season): California League [A] 66ers (1987), Mavericks (1991) and Quakes (1993); ECHL Reign (2008)

Venues (year opened): Stater Brothers Stadium (1991), Arrowhead Credit Union Park (1996), Rancho Cucamonga Epicenter (1993), Citizens Business Bank Arena (2008)

San Bernardino County has seen its unemployment rate soar from 4.8 percent in 2006 to 13.6 percent in June, and roughly 6 percent of the area’s housing units were in default in the first half of 2009, according to data released last month by foreclosure monitoring firm RealtyTrac, the fourth-highest rate in the country.

You’d never know it by studying the market’s sports base.

Attendance for the area’s three Class A teams is on pace to top 600,000 for the first time since 2005, and the clubs have combined for a 7 percent increase in attendance to date compared with last season. The county last winter paid for a $1 million upgrade to Quakes’ Arrowhead Credit Union Park, and the city of Ontario ponied up $150 million to build and own the Reign’s home, Citizens Business Bank Arena, which opened last fall.

8. Bossier City-Shreveport, La.

Teams (first season): American Association [independent] Captains (1968), CHL Mudbugs (1997), AF2 BattleWings (2001)

Venues (year opened): Fair Grounds Field (1986), CenturyTel Center (2000)

Bossier City-Shreveport is a bright spot in a state that has seen an otherwise gloomy minor league sports scene in recent years. At least a half-dozen Gulf Coast minor league clubs folded after the hurricanes of 2005 damaged their venues.

Although the Mudbugs’ attendance fell slightly last season, the club was still one of the top-drawing minor league hockey teams in the country, and over the past five seasons, the team has drawn more than 900,000 fans. In a further sign of market commitment, a new ownership group took over the franchise in July and immediately signed a multiyear arena lease to keep the team in town.

The AF2 BattleWings have averaged 3,643 fans per game over the past three seasons, nearly double the average of the prior two years, and the Captains are on pace to draw a club record 78,000 fans this season. It’s impressive that the Captains are doing that in a ballpark that will celebrate its 25th season next year, especially since the no-frills Fair Grounds Field looks almost exactly as it did when it opened.

9. Idaho Falls, Idaho

Team (first season): Pioneer League [Rookie] Chukars (1946)

Venue (year opened): Melaleuca Field (2007)

First of all, a chukar (pronounced ‘chucker’) is a game bird of the pheasant family, considered a type of partridge.

Idaho Falls has the lowest population and attendance of any of our top 10 markets, but fan support indexed high in all categories measured. The Chukars have been in the market continuously, although with a number of different monikers, since 1946, and attendance has increased 75 percent since 2006, the year before $5.6 million Melaleuca Field opened.

Although Idaho Falls’ 5.6 percent unemployment rate is still well below the national average, it is up 2 1/2 times its 2007 rate. The population has grown 11.7 percent since 2005, and total amount of personal income in the market is $3.7 million, putting Idaho Falls behind 210 of the 239 markets in our study.

10. Rochester, N.Y.

Teams (first season): International League [AAA] Red Wings (1895), AHL Americans (1956), USL Rhinos (1997), IFL Raiders (2006), PBL RazorSharks (2008)

Venues (year opened): Blue Cross Arena (1955, renovated 1998), Frontier Field (1996), Marina Auto Stadium (2006)

Nearly two centuries of combined tenure and attendance of close to 1 million fans (in the good years) give Rochester the strength to make our top-10 list for the third time, but it hasn’t been an easy couple of years for the city’s teams.

The Amerks averaged a franchise worst 4,080 fans per game last season, down 50 percent from 2005. The Rhinos, a club that not long ago routinely drew crowds of more than 10,000, are averaging a franchise-low 6,700 this summer. Red Wings attendance is on track to be the lowest in a decade.

The economy has not helped. Rochester’s population has dropped 2 percent over the past five years, and although the city’s $153 million in total personal income dwarfs that some major league markets, the growth rate of that total is half the national rate.

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