SBJ/Sept. 18-24, 2017/Research and Ratings

Top 10: How did they shake out?

Markets 2-10 in our Minor League Markets study

2. Quad Cities (Moline-Rock Island, Ill./Davenport-Bettendorf, Iowa)

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): Midwest League Clinton LumberKings (1954), Midwest League Quad City River Bandits (1960), ECHL Quad City Mallards (1995)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Modern Woodmen Park (1931), Ashford University Field (1937), iWireless Center (1993)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: The Quad Cities, a region in southeast Iowa and northwest Illinois along the Mississippi River, saw almost no change in its population (383,000) over the past five years, and the market’s income growth of 6 percent during that span lagged well behind our other top-10 markets, and the rest of the country.

Yet in the face of the adverse market conditions, fans kept coming. In each of the past three years, the area’s clubs combined to draw more than half a million fans, and overall attendance this past season grew 9 percent compared to five years ago. Additionally, a combined total of more than $10 million was spent to upgrade the two stadiums that were built in the 1930s and the arena that will celebrate its 25th birthday next year.

Overall, the three clubs’ cumulative tenure in the region is 162 years, trailing only Rochester, N.Y., as the market that has hosted more seasons of minor league sports. But the appetite for sports will be tested even further in 2018, as the Quad City Steamwheelers of the Champions Indoor Football league begin play in March.

3. Fort Wayne, Ind.

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): ECHL Fort Wayne Komets (1952), Midwest League Fort Wayne TinCaps (1993), NBA G League Fort Wayne Mad Ants (2007)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Allen County War Memorial Coliseum (1952), Parkview Field (2009)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: Fort Wayne has now finished in the top 10 in six of the seven editions of our study, including being No. 1 in 2007. Attendance continues to thrive as Fort Wayne’s attendance-to-population ratio of 1.8-to-1 is the highest of any multiple-team market. The Komets averaged 7,568 fans in 2016-17, their third consecutive season of growth. The TinCaps finished 2017, the franchise’s silver-anniversary season, with their second-highest total ever with 413,374 fans packing Parkview Field. The Mad Ants recorded the team’s highest average (3,098) since the 2008-09 season.

Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, home of the Komets since the team was born in 1952, completed a $16 million addition in late 2015, and earlier this year county commissioners approved $1.4 million for additional renovations at the venue.

The TinCaps have advanced to the Midwest League Playoffs eight times in the last nine years. The team did, however, drop out of the top 25 in merchandise sales for the first time since rebranding from the Wizards in 2009. The 400 Club, a privately funded $800,000 luxury suite that opened in Parkview Field in 2013, is the only spot in minor league sports where fans can sit inside a stadium’s “batter’s eye.”

4. Charleston, S.C.

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): South Atlantic League Charleston RiverDogs (1980), ECHL South Carolina Stingrays (1993), USL Charleston Battery (1993)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): North Charleston Coliseum (1993), Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park (1997), MUSC Health Stadium (1999)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: The RiverDogs set their single-season attendance record this season (308,069), topping their then-record 2016 by 6 percent. The team’s bottom line was bolstered by the creation of the 6,000-square-foot Riley Park Club, a $3.1 million club level that overlooks the playing field as well as the Ashley River wetlands.
The Stingrays are the oldest continuously operational ECHL franchise to remain in its founding city, and have made the playoffs in all but one of their 24 seasons, including the conference finals two of the past three years. They drew 175,702 last season, a 41 percent jump from 2011-12, the year before the city completed a $22 million renovation of the arena.

On the soccer side, B Sports Entertainment, the Battery’s ownership group, purchased eight high-definition cameras and a production suite last winter, and brokered a deal with the city’s ABC affiliate to show all of the club’s matches live on local TV for the first time in its 25-year history.

Declining soccer attendance was the only factor that negatively affected the market’s ranking. With three home dates left this season, the team’s average attendance was 3,250 — on pace to be its lowest since 2001.

5. Toledo, Ohio

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): International League Toledo Mud Hens (1965), ECHL Toledo Walleye (2009)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Fifth Third Field (2002), Huntington Center (2009)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: Toledo’s economy continues to struggle: It experienced an 18 percent increase in total personal income during the five years covered in our study, yet saw a nearly 1 percent drop in population, and its 6.2 percent unemployment rate is the highest since January 2015. However, the two minor league teams in Toledo, ranked No. 1 in our 2013 study, combined for an all-time attendance high of 833,000 fans in the past year.

The Mud Hens filled more than 86 percent of the seats at Fifth Third Field over the past five seasons. Additionally, for the 22nd time since 1993, when MiLB began tracking team-level merchandise sales, the club in 2016 was one of the organization’s top sellers. Such achievements helped the Mud Hens pay off the debt on Fifth Third Field last year five years earlier than scheduled. Ohio-based Fifth Third Bank renewed its naming-rights deal through 2028.

The Walleye set team full-season attendance records in each of the last three seasons, drawing an additional 152,000 fans during its three straight playoff appearances.

6. Grand Rapids-Comstock, Mich.

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): Midwest League West Michigan Whitecaps (1994), AHL Grand Rapids Griffins (1996), NBA G League Grand Rapids Drive (2014)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): DeltaPlex Arena & Conference Center (1952), Fifth Third Ballpark (1994), Van Andel Arena (1996)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: The Grand Rapids-Comstock market continues to be a climber, moving up four spots from our 2013 study. The connection between the area and Detroit is strong, as all three minor league teams are tied to parent clubs in the Motor City, just two hours away. Since coming to Grand Rapids from Springfield, Mass., three seasons ago, the NBA G League Drive has drawn 212,731 fans to an arena that had lacked an anchor tenant since 2010. The Drive also remains one of the few G League teams with local ownership, maintaining a hybrid affiliation with the Pistons. The club’s attendance last season was up 33 percent compared to its inaugural season in the city.

Meanwhile, the Griffins won two AHL titles over the last five seasons and the club remained steady as a top-five draw among all AHL clubs. Similarly, the Whitecaps were a top-five attendance draw in the Class A Midwest League during all five years of our study, and significantly upgraded their ballpark during the past two offseasons.

The Bears helped Hershey-Harrisburg rank seventh after delivering knockout blows in 2009
and 2011.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


7. Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa.

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): AHL Hershey Bears (1932), Eastern League Harrisburg Senators (1987), USL Harrisburg City Islanders (2004), MASL Harrisburg Heat (2012)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center (1966), Metro Bank Park (1987), Skyline Sports Complex (1987), Giant Center (2002)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: These two towns in Western Pennsylvania, separated by only 14 miles, have long maintained a strong presence as a top minor league market, taking home the top spot in 2009 and 2011. After slipping to ninth two years ago, the market has climbed back to No. 7 this year. Hockey attendance in Chocolatetown, USA, continues to dominate its peers. The Hershey Bears have led all AHL teams at the gate for 11 straight seasons, even with a 7 percent drop during the past five years.

Meanwhile, down the road, the Senators suffered an 18 percent drop in attendance last season compared to their record set in 2015.

The City Islanders have been a presence in the USL for years now, and with that league looking more and more like it will be the future of Division II soccer in the U.S., the club is in a good place.

The market’s teams have a combined 140 years in the region, a strong indicator of fan support. However, the loss in 2014 of the Harrisburg Stampede, an indoor football team, and a slow decline in attendance among its two oldest clubs in the face of an improving economy shows that the market is not invincible.

Soccer and great demographics pushed Durham-Cary into the top 10.
Photo by: ICON SPORTSWIRE


8. Durham-Cary, N.C.

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): International League Durham Bulls (1980), NASL North Carolina FC (2007), NWSL North Carolina Courage (2017)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Durham Bulls Athletic Park (1995), WakeMed Soccer Park (2002)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: Every baseball fan can quote a line from “Crash” Davis and “Nuke” LaLoosh. The 1988 film “Bull Durham” cemented the Bulls’ legacy within American folklore, and that fame still translates today for the team. The Class AAA franchise has made the list of top-selling clubs every year since MiLB began tracking the sale of team merchandise in 1993. The team also plays in one of the nicer complexes in all of the minors, with Durham Bulls Athletic Park getting a $19 million facelift before the 2014 season. The upgrades have helped the Bulls at the gate, with 2017 marking the team’s second-best year ever.

Down the road in Cary, clubs from the NASL (North Carolina FC) and NWSL (North Carolina Courage) call WakeMed Soccer Park home in what is considered a thriving soccer region.

Meanwhile, the market’s economy is one of the most improving in our study — in the past five years its population grew 6 percent, the amount of personal income grew 18 percent and unemployment is below the national average. Attendance will need to match the area’s economic trends in order to maintain its position in our ranking.

9. Greenville, S.C.

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): South Atlantic League Greenville Drive (1984), ECHL Greenville Swamp Rabbits (2015)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Fluor Field (2006), Bon Secours Wellness Arena (1998)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: Greenville jumps into our top 10 for the first time, surpassing its previous high of 34th in 2015. The city has the youngest overall tenure of any top-10 market, with its two clubs having a combined 37 years.

The Drive filled 98 percent of its seats over the last five years, a feat unmatched by any baseball team in our study. Like its major league affiliate, the Red Sox, the Drive’s ballpark contains a manual scoreboard and its own 30-foot-high version of the Green Monster. The team and the city each pitched in $5 million last winter to pay for upgrades that included the addition of Green Monster seats, a renovated team store, a club area extension, a new 3,700-square-foot, 200-person capacity club, and additions to the Main Street and Field Street plazas.

On the hockey side, the Swamp Rabbits rebranded from the Road Warriors in 2015 and drew a team-record 142,616 fans last season, making the ECHL playoffs after a two-season absence.

10. Binghamton, N.Y.

❱❱ TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): Eastern League Binghamton Rumble Ponies (1992), AHL Binghamton Devils (1977)
❱❱ VENUES (YEAR OPENED): NYSEG Stadium (1992), Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena (1973)
❱❱ BREAKDOWN: At 246,000, Binghamton is the smallest market in our top 10 — and it’s getting smaller. The market lost 1.8 percent of its population over the past five years, and the region’s 5.3 percent unemployment rate is a full point higher than the national average. However, the combined attendance among its two clubs during the past year was 334,791, a 5 percent increase over the previous season. Additionally, the ballpark and arena each recently received a $2.5 million upgrade.

On the baseball side, the club no longer shares its parent club’s name, after switching from the Mets to the Rumble Ponies prior to this season — a tribute to the city’s claim to be the “Carousel Capital of the World.” The hockey club also experienced a name change when it switched affiliates this summer from the Ottawa Senators to the more geographically logical New Jersey Devils.

— Compiled by David Broughton, Brandon McClung and Austin Karp

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