A closer look at the rest of the top 10
2. Rochester, N.Y.
■ Teams (first season): International League Rochester Red Wings (1895), AHL Rochester Americans (1956), USL Pro Rochester Rhinos (1996), MISL Rochester Lancers (2011)
■ Venues (year opened): Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial (1955), Frontier Field (1996), Sahlen’s Stadium (2006)
Rochester continues to be a stalwart among minor league markets after missing out on the top 10 in 2011 for the first time in the survey’s history. Big gains at the gate for the AHL Americans helped the market rise up: The club drew nearly 1 million fans over the past five seasons, and the 2012-13 average attendance at Blue Cross Arena was up 63 percent from a record low mark for the 2010-11 season. It is probably no coincidence that the increase at the gate has come under Terry Pegula’s ownership. The Buffalo Sabres owner took control of the club in May 2011, and he proceeded to spend an estimated $5 million while aligning the Amerks’ operation with that of its new parent club. The team had been affiliated with the Florida Panthers since 2008.
The International League Red Wings, on the other hand, drew an average of 6,094 fans a game in 2012, the club’s lowest mark since the 2002 season. The club is, however, the oldest minor league team in North America, having run continuously since 1895. For the survey formula, that tenure helps offset the attendance dip.
3. Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa.
■ Teams (first season): AHL Hershey Bears (1932), Eastern League Harrisburg Senators (1987), USL Pro Harrisburg City Islanders (2004), AIF Harrisburg Stampede (2009), PASL Harrisburg Heat (2012)
■ Venues (year opened): Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center (1966; renovated 2001), Metro Bank Park (1987; renovated 2010), Skyline Sports Complex (1987; renovated 2008), Giant Center (2002)
In the No. 1 market in our survey in 2009 and 2011, the sports scene continues to thrive. The market’s attendance-to-population ratio is the highest of any multiple-team market in our study, with fans outnumbering residents more than 2.5-to-1 (attendance of 3.21 million vs. population of 1.23 million). The AHL Bears, founded more than 80 years ago, are the oldest minor league hockey franchise in the country. The team averaged a franchise-record 10,046 fans a game last season, extending what is now a nine-year streak of year-over-year attendance growth.
The market was further buoyed in November by the return of the PASL Heat, an indoor soccer team that during its 1991-2003 existence regularly averaged more than 5,000 fans a game. The new team enjoyed similar success in its inaugural season, filling 70 percent of the seats at Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center.
Fifteen miles to the west, though, in the state capital of Harrisburg, the Senators have seen their attendance drop slightly in each of the last two seasons, although last year’s average was still 74 percent higher than it was in 2008, prior to Metro Bank Park’s two-year, $45 million upgrade. Additionally, the AIF Stampede and USL Pro Islanders have filled just one-third of their seats at their respective venues, pulling the market’s score down slightly.
4. San Bernardino County, Calif.
■ Teams (first season): California League Inland Empire 66ers (1987), California League High Desert Mavericks (1991), California League Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (1993), ECHL Ontario Reign (2008)
■ Venues (year opened): Mavericks Field at Stater Bros. Stadium (1991), LoanMart Field (1993), San Manuel Stadium (1996), Citizens Business Bank Arena (2008)
San Bernardino County is the country’s largest county by geographic size, and it squeezes in three California League baseball teams and one of the best-drawing clubs in the ECHL. The Inland Empire 66ers have led the way at the gate among those three baseball teams the past three seasons, averaging 2,493 fans a game in 2012.
The Ontario Reign topped all ECHL clubs at the gate from the 2009-10 season through 2011-12. Despite a 20 percent increase in attendance at Citizens Business Bank Arena last season, the team ranked second leaguewide with its 7,575 average (trailing Fort Wayne’s 7,583 average).
The market retains its top-10 status because its attendance total still outnumbers its population, and those fans are still filling the seats despite a 3 1/2 year stretch with a double-digit unemployment rate. A bankruptcy court judge earlier this summer confirmed a late August hearing to determine whether the city of San Bernardino is eligible for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, a request it filed for last summer.
5. Springfield, Mass.
■ Teams (first season): AHL Springfield Falcons (1954), NBA D-League Springfield Armor (2009)
■ Venue (year opened): MassMutual Center (1972; renovated 2005)
Springfield earns its No. 5 ranking because few minor league sports markets have been as defiant against tough economic times. According to the most recent numbers available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Springfield’s unemployment rate rose to 8 percent again in May after having dropped to 7.3 percent last November. That follows annual rates of 8.2 percent in 2012, 9.2 percent in 2011, 10 percent in 2010 and 9.4 percent in 2009. Nevertheless, the total combined attendance at AHL Falcons and NBA D-League Armor games was up 42 percent last season compared with five years ago, the biggest such jump in our study.
The market also has invested in its sports future. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — based in the city since 1968 — relocated within Springfield to a new $47 million facility in 2002, and the MassMutual Center, which houses both of the market’s teams, benefited from a publicly funded $71 million upgrade completed in 2005.
Additionally, the AHL has been based in the city since 1968, and its offices are one block from the arena.
6. Syracuse, N.Y.
■ Teams (first season): International League Syracuse Chiefs (1961), AHL Syracuse Crunch (1994), MISL Syracuse Silver Knights (2011)
■ Venues (year opened): NBT Bank Stadium (1997), War Memorial at Oncenter (1951; renovated in 1994)
Much like No. 2-ranked Rochester, N.Y., 90 minutes to the west, Syracuse boasts long-standing and well-respected International League and AHL teams. The IL Chiefs’ relationship with Syracuse dates more than 50 years. The team now plays in the $28 million NBT Bank Stadium, opened in 1997, which also was when John Simone assumed operation of the club from his father, Tex, who had run the team since 1970.
ESPN’s Mike Tirico spent many years in Syracuse, first as a student and then as an employee at the city’s CBS affiliate, WTVH, and has seen the impact of the Simone family on the Chiefs. “I can recall many days when Tex or John Simone would personally be working around the ballpark to have it ready for the next crowd to arrive,” Tirico said via email. “That father-son executive team has made five decades of family-run, community-owned AAA baseball one of Syracuse’s great sports legacies.”
The club is enjoying its 53rd year of community ownership this season. That tenure helps offset in the ranking the fact that the club has seen attendance decline in recent years, with last season’s average of 5,288 fans a game marking the team’s lowest figure since 2004.
Meanwhile, attendance for the AHL Crunch rose this past season for the third straight time. The 2012-13 season average of 5,399 fans a game was the club’s best since the 2007-08 campaign.
7. Fort Wayne, Ind.
■ Teams (first season): Midwest League Fort Wayne TinCaps (1993), ECHL Fort Wayne Komets (1952), NBA D-League Fort Wayne Mad Ants (2007)
■ Venues (year opened): Allen County War Memorial Coliseum (1952; renovated 2002), Parkview Field (2009)
Baseball and hockey have long been institutions in this city, also known for being the final resting place of Johnny Appleseed. It was local pride in the folklore legend that spurred the 2009 rebranding of the Midwest League baseball team, now named for his peculiar headgear. The team also opened $34 million Parkview Field the same year as part of a downtown revitalization project. TinCaps average attendance has been around 5,600 fans a game since then after drawing 3,702 fans a game in their last season at their prior home, Memorial Stadium.
As for the ECHL Komets, they have played hockey in the city since 1952. Local fans especially showed their love for the team this past season, which was the first for the club in the ECHL after moving from the CHL. The team drew 7,583 fans a game at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, an average that was tops among all ECHL clubs.
Despite a population growth rate of only 2.8 percent over the past five years, the market’s overall attendance count for its teams increased 13.8 percent.
The only true negative for Fort Wayne, the No. 1 market in our survey in 2007, has been its inability to support an indoor football team. The CIFL Fort Wayne Firehawks folded after the 2010 season. It was the sport’s fourth attempt to break into the market.
8. Des Moines, Iowa
■ Teams (first season): Pacific Coast League Iowa Cubs (1969), NBA D-League Iowa Energy (2007), AFL Iowa Barnstormers (2008)
■ Venues (year opened): Principal Park (1992; renovated 2005, 2006 and 2013), Wells Fargo Arena (2005)
Des Moines made the leap to No. 8 this year from its No. 31 ranking in 2011 largely because of the success of the NBA D-League Energy. The team set a regular-season franchise attendance record in 2012-13, averaging 4,452 fans a game. That figure put the Energy over the 100,000 fan mark in total attendance for the second consecutive regular season.
Meanwhile, the AAA Cubs show many of the signs of being middle-aged: The team is only a few years away from its 50th year, its house is nearing the quarter-century mark, and by dipping into the home improvement fund, it’s time to do some repairs. City-owned Principal Park received a $6.8 million upgrade during the 2005 and 2006 offseasons, and an additional $1.1 million in improvements before this season; $3 million more has been approved for additional improvements over the next few years.
At the gate, the Cubs through late July were on pace to draw more than half a million fans for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons. Add in the AFL Barnstormers, one of the top-drawing football teams in our study, and the area’s attendance-to-population ratio of 1.6-to-1 is one of the highest of any multiple-team market. The city this fall will add the AHL Iowa Wild to its landscape, as well.
Bob Harlan, former chairman and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a Des Moines native, grew up watching the Western League Des Moines Bruins, an MLB Cubs affiliate that was a predecessor to today’s AAA Cubs. “My folks had Bruins season tickets,” he said. “My father ran a trucking company and traveled a great deal, so my mother and I spent many, many nights at the ballpark.”
9. Spokane, Wash.
■ Teams (first season): Northwest League Spokane Indians (1946), AFL Spokane Shock (2006)
■ Venues (year opened): Avista Stadium (1958; renovated 2008 and 2013), Spokane Arena (1995; renovated 2013)
Sports fans in Spokane continue to pack the stands, helping to keep the market in our survey’s top 10 for the third straight time. Leading the way is the seven-year-old AFL Shock, which filled 96 percent of the club’s seats over the past five seasons, the highest such rate among indoor football teams. In fact, just seven other minor league teams among all sports researched had a higher percentage of occupied seats. And with the 2013 Northwest League season more than two-thirds over as of press time, the Class A Indians are on pace to lead that league in attendance for the 15th straight season.
Spokane’s unemployment rate was still near 10 percent during the first quarter of 2013, although its changes in population and total income over the past five years were similar to that of the country overall.
10. Sioux Falls, S.D.
■ Teams (first season): American Association Sioux Falls Canaries (1993), NBA D-League Sioux Falls Skyforce (1989), IFL Sioux Falls Storm (2000)
■ Venues (year opened): Sioux Falls Arena (1989), Sioux Falls Stadium (1993), Pentagon by Sanford Health (2013)
Sioux Falls easily has the lowest population and amount of total wealth of any of our top 10 markets, as well as the lowest unemployment rate. But the region’s attendance at its teams’ games has gone up 5 percent over the past five years, matching the population growth. All three local clubs enjoyed record or near-record attendance in their most recently completed seasons.
The largest market in South Dakota, Sioux Falls has supported minor league basketball for nearly 25 years, and that support is now being reflected with a new arena. The Skyforce began play during the 1989-90 season as part of the former Continental Basketball Association, eventually making the switch to the NBA D-League in 2006-07. The club averaged 3,427 fans a game last season, its best mark since 2008-09. The team additionally signed an exclusive affiliation with the NBA’s Miami Heat and will move into the new $19 million Pentagon by Sanford Health venue this fall.
The area’s other indoor franchise, the IFL Storm, has won 34 straight home games and won its third IFL championship earlier this summer. It drew a record 44,000 fans this past season.
As for the American Association Canaries, one of the oldest teams in the independent league, the club has played at Sioux Falls Stadium since 1993. The team last season averaged 2,664 fans a game, up 54 percent from its average across the previous two seasons.