Rounding out the Top 10 markets
2. San Bernardino County, Calif.
■ Teams (first season): California League (A) Inland Empire 66ers (1987), High Desert Mavericks (1991) and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (1993); ECHL Ontario Reign (2008)
■ Venues (year opened): Stater Brothers Stadium (1991), Arrowhead Credit Union Park (1996), Rancho Cucamonga Epicenter (1993), Citizens Business Bank Arena (2008)
The four teams in the market combined to host an average of 250 games annually over the past three seasons. Meanwhile, in 2010, the area ranked fourth in the nation in the number of foreclosures, with one filing for every 133 households. Still, despite an unemployment rate well above the national average (14.2 percent as of June), the market’s sports attendance has jumped 19.5 percent compared to three years ago.
The addition of hockey is a big reason for the increase. The 2010-11 hockey season was the second consecutive season the ECHL Ontario Reign led that league in attendance, averaging 6,683 fans per game, up 18.6 percent over 2008-09, the club’s inaugural season in then-new Citizens Business Bank Arena.
3. Providence-Pawtucket, R.I.
■ Venues (year opened): McCoy Stadium (1942; renovated 1999), Dunkin’ Donuts Center (1972; renovated 2008)
The Providence-Pawtucket market is the wealthiest market among our project’s top 10, with a median household income of $55,652 (11 percent higher than the U.S. median), and its 1.6 million residents is second only to San Bernardino among the top 10. Yet confronted with nearly three years of double-digit unemployment (10.4 percent as of June) and a stagnant population, the market’s two minor league clubs have combined to consistently draw roughly 900,000 fans annually to their games. That’s about 8,000 fans per game on average. It’s that strength at the gate despite the economic challenges that sprung the market from No. 37 in the rankings in 2009 to No. 3 this year.
4. Reading, Pa.
■ Teams (first season): Eastern League (AA) Reading Phillies (1963), ECHL Reading Royals (2001), IFL Reading Express (2006)
■ Venues (year opened): FirstEnergy Stadium (1951; renovated 2011), Sovereign Center (2001)
While SBJ’s minor league market ranking recognizes fan support, the Reading Phillies have also been beneficiaries of loyalty from the Philadelphia Phillies, their parent club. The two franchises have been affiliated since 1967 — the longest such relationship in all of baseball — and the city of Reading in 2002 trademarked the term “Baseballtown” to acknowledge the region’s baseball heritage that dates back more than a century.
The AA Phillies have filled 75 percent of their seats over the past five seasons and were the Eastern League’s attendance leader heading into the final month of the 2011 season. The club also paid for a $10 million ballpark upgrade during the past offseason.
The IFL Reading Express recently wrapped up its sixth season with a 20 percent increase in average attendance over 2010. The only blemish on the market’s record was the 17 percent drop in attendance by the ECHL Royals since the 2005-06 season. The market ranked No. 5 in our 2007 ranking but No. 22 in 2009.
5. Portland, Maine
■ Teams (first season): Eastern League (AA) Portland Sea Dogs (1994), AHL Portland Pirates (1993), NBA D-League Maine Red Claws (2009)
■ Venues (year opened): Hadlock Field (1994), Cumberland County Civic Center (1977), Portland Exposition Building (1914)
Portland had one of the highest attendance-to-population ratios of any multiple-team market in the United States. The area’s teams over their past five seasons combined for an annual attendance of 637,000 on average, compared to an average annual population of 275,000. Among the 97 markets studied that had more than one team, only Hershey-Harrisburg had a better ratio.
Portland’s ranking — it was No. 78 in 2009 — was clearly helped by the addition of the NBA D-League Maine Red Claws, who have sold out nearly every game in their two seasons of play. The Portland Exposition Building, the club’s home court, is the oldest arena in the country to host a pro sports team. The building did have $375,000 worth of improvements made prior to the Red Claws’ 2009-10 debut season.
The Sea Dogs, meanwhile, have been ranked among Minor League Baseball’s top 25 for merchandise sales in every year of their existence despite having the same logo the entire time.
6. Syracuse, N.Y.
■ Teams (first season): International League (AAA) Syracuse Chiefs (1961), AHL Syracuse Crunch (1994)
■ Venues (year opened): Alliance Bank Stadium (1997), War Memorial at Oncenter (1951; renovated in 1994)
It would be an oversight to chalk up Syracuse’s high ranking to the boost it received last year from Stephen Strasburg’s three-week stay. The pitching phenom’s presence on his way up to the MLB Washington parent club gave the Chiefs three of their four most-attended games in the 135-year history of baseball in Syracuse. But 2010 marked the club’s fifth straight season of increased attendance, so the market was supporting the Chiefs even before, and after, Strasburg’s 2010 cameo.
Like most of the minor league markets in the study, Syracuse’s unemployment rate doubled during the economic downturn, and its population growth rate was less than 1 percent over the past five years. Still, the Chiefs and Crunch saw their combined attendance grow 12 percent during the period, the highest such mark among the top 10 markets — fueling Syracuse’s rise to No. 6 in the ranking from No. 159 in 2009. The Chiefs in 2010 also marked 50 years of community ownership, a factor that positively affected the market’s ranking, as well.
7. Charleston, S.C.
■ Teams (first season): South Atlantic League (A) Charleston River Dogs (1980), ECHL South Carolina Stingrays (1993), USL Charleston Battery (1993)
■ Venues (year opened): Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park (1997), North Charleston Coliseum (1993; currently being renovated), Blackbaud Stadium (1999)
River Dogs attendance makes up a little more than half of the half-million fans who annually attend Charleston’s pro sports events. The New York Yankees affiliate, owned by the Goldklang Group, has long been admired throughout minor league sports for its creative marketing prowess. Club president and Goldklang Group executive adviser Mike Veeck has spent his career running professional baseball teams, so when the company purchased the team in the 1990s, Veeck was sent down to help with the transition. “I moved here 15 years ago with the intention of working here for one year,” Veeck said. “Now I’ll never leave.”
Beyond just baseball, though, it’s the tenure of the all three local clubs that has helped lift Charleston into the top 10. Each club has been in the market for at least 16 seasons. San Bernardino (No. 2) is the only other market in the country that can boast hosting three or more clubs for at least that long.
The ongoing $18 million renovation of North Charleston Coliseum is expected to be completed by the start of the 2011-12 hockey season.
8. Modesto, Calif.
■ Ballpark (year opened): John Thurman Field (1955; renovation starting in 2007)
No other market defied such odds.
Modesto has had double-digit unemployment since January 2008, nearly two years before the national average hit that level. The market saw a scant 0.6 percent population growth, total wealth in the market has been flat — and the market was ranked in 2010 among the top car theft cities in the United States. Yet the Class A Nuts set a franchise attendance record for the fourth consecutive season in 2010 as 180,344 fans passed through the turnstiles at John Thurman Field. The feat was accomplished in only 67 openings (three games fewer than the preceding four-year average) as the Nuts lost three games due to inclement weather in April. The Nuts’ average attendance of 2,692 per game was an 11 percent increase from 2009 and up 25 percent from 2006. Each of those increases was among the biggest in all of affiliated Minor League Baseball.
In addition, beginning with the 2007 season, the city committed to $3 million in upgrades to the Nuts’ ballpark in the years ahead, including a $500,000 scoreboard and video board that has been added to the venue.
9. Idaho Falls, Idaho
■ Team (first season): Pioneer League (Rookie) Idaho Falls Chukars (1946)
■ Venue (year opened): Melaleuca Field (2007)
Idaho Falls made our Top 10 list not only because of the Chukars’ nearly seven-decade tenure, but also because its fan support over-indexed in one of the country’s most flourishing economic regions. The market saw a 10 percent increase in population and 17 percent increase in total wealth during the five years studied for this project, each measure being among the biggest growth rates of all markets examined. While Chukars attendance has tapered off since the record high seen in 2007 that coincided with the opening of Melaleuca Field, attendance in 2010 was still up more than 20 percent compared to 2006.
10. Spokane, Wash.
■ Venues (year opened): Avista Stadium (1958; renovated 2008), Spokane Arena (1995)
Spokane is a shining example of a market combining old and new. The Shock continues to be their league’s top-drawing team in a minor league market, filling nearly every seat over the past five years in a 16-year-old venue.
The Indians have been around since 1946 and play in one of Minor League Baseball’s oldest facilities, but the ballpark received a $4 million facelift prior to the 2008 season, with another $2.8 million in improvements coming after this season. The Indians have led the Northwest League in attendance for 12 consecutive seasons.
The changes in Spokane’s unemployment rate, population and total income mirror the marks of the country overall.