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Volume 20 No. 45
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Pennsylvania powerhouse keeps the top spot

Hershey-Harrisburg #1 market in biennial study of minor league markets

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

It would be easy to label Hershey-Harrisburg’s repeat No. 1 ranking in our biennial study of the nation’s top minor league markets as a gimme.

The Pennsylvania market has a passionate fan base, tenured clubs and a stable economy — everything our study values highly. And now, as the first market to hold the title of Top Minor League Market twice, the assumption could be made that as long as the AHL Bears and Class AA Senators keep playing, fans will keep coming, and more No. 1 rankings will follow.

The Bears’ winning percentage dipped, but their attendance numbers did not.
Not so, in this market, warns Senators President Kevin Kulp.

“This is the most passionate fan base I have ever seen, so we feel that we have a responsibility that comes with that,” said Kulp, whose 16-year minor league baseball career began as an intern with the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs and who has helped launch minor league baseball clubs in Delmarva, Md., and Lexington, Ky. “These fans do hold you accountable for making sure you do the right things, and they will definitely let you know if they’re not happy.”

That sense of accountability may come from the fact that before Kulp and his group came along, it was the fans themselves who owned the club.

In 1995, the city of Harrisburg purchased the Senators for $6.7 million from an ownership group that was planning on moving the franchise to a new, taxpayer-financed ballpark in Springfield, Mass. The city sold the club in 2007 to Chicago-based International Facilities Group. It was not an easy transition. Many fans had become used to referring to the club as “our Senators.” But the new ownership soon embarked on a three-year stadium upgrade priced at more than $40 million. That effort was mostly finished in time for this season and fueled a change in the team’s marketing strategy.

“Over the last couple years we’ve changed the way we’ve marketed ourselves and made an effort to be more family friendly,” Kulp said. “The new ballpark is more receptive to that type of marketing because it has more destination areas for families to visit during the game.” Kulp points to an increase in children’s entertainment spaces and in concessions areas, as well as new sight lines from a concourse that wraps around three quarters of the playing field.

The Senators set an attendance record last season, and Kulp said revenue from corporate partnerships has increased about 25 percent in the last two to three years largely because the improved ballpark includes a scoreboard and two LED ribbon boards that are incorporated into every sales call.

Stephen Strasburg’s stint in Harrisburg last season was a boost for the Senators.
Also helping the Senators, a Washington Nationals affiliate: having Stephen Strasburg in the club’s lineup for several games last year while he worked his way up to the parent club. This summer, fellow former MLB No. 1 draft pick Bryce Harper is wearing a Senators uniform.

Meanwhile, a few miles east, the Hershey Bears also set an attendance record for their most-recent season, doing so for the eighth straight year. That happened despite the team having its lowest on-ice winning percentage since 2007-08.

The Bears have played continuously on the site of their Giant Center home — albeit in different structures — since the franchise was created by chocolate magnate Milton Hershey in 1932, but the team continues to grow its fan base beyond the boundaries of what might be considered a traditional distance for a minor league hockey team.

“The Bears are an iconic brand throughout the state and certainly draw fans from further away than most teams,” said AHL Commissioner Dave Andrews.

The Harrisburg Senators welcomed another phenom this season, Bryce Harper.
Andrews said Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Co. (HERCO), the Hershey Co. subsidiary that oversees, among other business divisions, the Bears and the Giant Center, has made a strong effort to strengthen its ties to the Washington Capitals, the Bears’ NHL parent club. That helps extend the area of influence for both clubs, he said. It is not uncommon now to see fans wearing Bears apparel at Capitals games.

“The supporting cast the team has on the business side from [Hershey Co.] is very strong, very progressive and very committed to the sports product,” Andrews said. “They invest in the hockey team and they invest in the relationship with the Washington Capitals.”

This is the fourth time SportsBusiness Journal has ranked the nation’s minor league markets. Among the other observations made through this year’s survey:

TACKLED FOR A LOSS: Hershey-Harrisburg seems to have everything going for it — it’s the only market of the nearly 300 we have measured over the survey’s history that has finished among the top 10 every time — but a look at the standings of previous high-rated markets shows there is no room for complacency at the top. Rochester, N.Y., and Fort Wayne, Ind., for example, are previous No. 1 markets, in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Each had finished in the top 10 in our previous reports, but each fell out this year after failing to keep an indoor football team in its market. The loss of an indoor football team has also negatively affected past top-10 markets Boise, Idaho, and Stockton, Calif.

WATER ON THE FIRE: Dayton, Ohio, has received a great deal of publicity this year, as the Class A Dragons broke the nation’s record for most consecutive team sellouts, a streak that was up to 830 games earlier this month. Back in 2005, Dayton ranked No. 8 in our study. This year, it ranks No. 150. While the Dragons have been going strong, the CHL Gems have filled only one-third of their seats over the past 5 seasons, and the team plays in an arena that is showing every bit of its half-century age. Dayton also has seen challenges with indoor football.

IF YOU BUILD IT … : Eleven years of frenzied ballpark construction has helped lead to franchise stability, especially in the world of Minor League Baseball. From 2001-05, 35 markets lost a baseball club, either to it folding or in the 18 cases involving Minor League Baseball clubs, relocating to another market. In the five-year period examined for this year’s ranking, baseball teams in 20 markets were found to have disappeared, only six of which were due to a Minor League Baseball club relocation.

: South Texas has seen plenty of activity among its minor league teams in recent years. Hidalgo, for example, is the only market in the survey that is home to five teams. Beaumont opened a new arena in 2003 but has since lost both a hockey team and a football team. Corpus Christi also built a new arena and stadium in the last decade, but it has lost three teams in the last five years. And Laredo has lost a baseball team and indoor football club, but it broke ground this summer on a new $18 million ballpark for the planned American Association expansion Laredo Lemurs.