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Top Minor League Markets: Additional Observations

SportsBusiness Journal this week unveiled our biennial ranking of the country’s Top Minor League Markets. In a project that considered more than 225 communities, more than 400 teams and close to 50 leagues, there are plenty of things that stood out. Following are some additional observations from research director David Broughton, who spearheaded the project, beyond what’s available in this week’s print issue.

Highway to highs
If a fan were to embark on a coast-to-coast minor league sports road trip along Interstate 90, traveling from Seattle to Boston, that fan would be able to hit a number of our top-ranked markets: Spokane, Wash. (No. 9); Sioux Falls, S.D. (10); Toledo, Ohio (1); Rochester, N.Y. (2); Syracuse, N.Y. (6); and Springfield, Mass. (5).

Upstate New York

The continued presence of No. 2 Rochester, No. 6 Syracuse and No. 23 Binghamton near the top of our rankings belies much of upstate New York’s minor league sports scene during the years that we have researched for this study.

Small-town baseball has been hit the hardest. Following the 2009 season, for example, Oneonta (No. 207) saw its New York-Penn League Oneonta Tigers move to Norwich, Conn., after nearly half a century in town. Two hours to the west, Elmira (No. 99) had fielded a pro team dating to 1923, serving as an affiliate for 14 different MLB clubs between 1923 and 1995. After averaging 1,200 fans per game in 2005, the Can-Am League Elmira Pioneers, who had spent a decade in independent leagues, folded. In Albany (No. 107), Heritage Park had a similar, albeit shorter, minor league baseball history. The state’s capital served as home for the Eastern League’s (AA) Oakland A’s affiliate from 1982-84 and for the New York Yankees’ farm club for 1985-94 before the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs folded after playing eight seasons in independent leagues.

Syracuse and Rochester have not been immune to challenges, as each has seen an indoor football team come and go. The struggles continue for the area, as well, as the ECHL Elmira Jackals have seen their attendance fall by one-third over the past three seasons, and the NYPL Jammers in Jamestown (No. 63) are expected to relocate to a new ballpark in Morgantown, W.Va., after the 2014 season.

Former af2 markets

Several markets were negatively affected when the af2 disbanded in 2009, including three former top-10 markets. The Quad City Steamwheelers (for Davenport, Iowa-Moline, Ill., ranked No. 48 this year) were a charter member of the af2 and played their home games at iWireless Center in Moline, Ill. The team averaged more than 6,000 fans per game throughout the first half of its existence and was still among the league’s top draws in its final years. The market ranked No. 6 in our 2007 survey.

Boise, Idaho (No. 116) was No. 7 in that 2007 study, and the Boise Burn added nearly 40,000 fans during its four-year tenure to the market’s annual attendance total.

Similarly, Peoria, Ill. (No. 55) was No. 6 in our 2009 study, having hosted an indoor football team for a decade prior to the Peoria Pirates’ 2009 demise.

Two developing markets

• On Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, plans were announced in May to build a $36 million, 7,000-seat minor league ballpark financed largely from BP oil spill settlement funds. The effort to bring baseball to the Biloxi, Miss., market (No. 164) is being led by baseball veteran Ken Young. The team would be located within a two-hour drive of the Southern League (A) Mobile Bay Bears and Pensacola Blue Wahoos. The market also has one of the smallest income bases in our study, and attendance for the SPHL Mississippi Surge, the area’s only team, has fallen in each of the past four seasons.

• Residents of El Paso, Texas (No. 148), voted this spring in favor of a hotel tax increase to help pay for a $50 million ballpark to host the San Diego Padres’ Pacific Coast League (AAA) affiliate. Plans call for the now-Tucson (Ariz.) Padres to move to El Paso for the 2014 season. Groundbreaking happened this spring, and construction is scheduled to be completed in time for Opening Day next season. The American Association (Ind.) El Paso Diablos began playing in the market in 1962.

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