Iowa crashes No. 1
“Google Des Moines.”
It wasn’t a request, but a challenge, by Todd Frederickson. The 38-year-old had just been hired to assemble a front-office staff for a hockey team that would begin play in five months in a market that had lost a team four years earlier, in 2009.
His challenge was issued to the 25 staffers in the office of the AHL Houston Aeros, the franchise that the Minnesota Wild owned and was relocating to Iowa’s capital.
Frederickson wanted to entice the staff to join him in Des Moines. He had done the same search a few weeks earlier when the Wild lured him away from the league’s headquarters in Springfield, Mass. What he found surprised him: a thriving economy, a young population, low crime and lots of hip restaurants and entertainment options.
Those Google searches now will turn up something even more surprising: Des Moines is No. 1 in our 2017 ranking of the nation’s minor league markets.
First Look podcast, with Minor League Markets discussion at the 17:15 mark:
|Teaming up: Iowa Wild mascot Crash throws out the ceremonial first pitch at an Iowa Cubs game.
Frederickson was named president of the Iowa Wild on April 24, 2013, began work on May 9 and five months later saw the puck drop for his first game.
The Des Moines appeal worked enough to entice six Aeros employees to take the Midwest plunge, although Frederickson had to wait a few more precious weeks for the playoffs to end.
“It’s hard to get Texans to leave Texas,” the Michigan native said. “But people see how cool it is here, and Des Moines itself has actually become a recruiting tool for me.”
As the team heads into its fifth season, the market appears to be catching on.
The team has sold more than 2,500 full-season tickets, its most ever, while group sales are on record pace, sponsor revenue is already up 25 percent over last year’s record high and last year’s average attendance of 6,019 was the club’s best yet.
The installation of rinks is part of the edict from the parent club, which is an easy 3 1/2-hour drive away, to grow the game of hockey in Iowa. As a result, the teams have spent four years donating rinks and equipment as well as staffing physical education classes with players and coaches to teach kids how to play.
Not everyone who comes to Iowa for hockey stays, however. Thirty-two Iowa players have been promoted to the parent NHL club, which Frederickson thinks is a great selling tool.
“We might not have a major league team,” he said, “but we want our fans to have the pride in being a fan of a minor league team.”
Plus, when a fan favorite goes to the NHL, or when an NHL player does a stint in Des Moines, the two teams can share information, such as ZIP codes of fans who appear to be willing to make the drive across state lines.
Additionally, all Iowa Wild season-ticket holders receive a ticket to a Minnesota Wild home game. That cross-promotion strategy also works within the city: All Iowa Cubs season-ticket holders receive a ticket to a Wild game, and vice versa.
“The Cubs are great partners,” Frederickson said. “They’re a big reason why this city is so great.”
Sam Bernabe, Cubs president and general manager, grew up in West Des Moines, earned a degree in education two hours away at the University of Iowa and returned to his hometown to become a Cubs intern in 1983. After 34 full seasons, no one has had a better view of Des Moines’ minor league sports evolution than Bernabe.
As an intern, he was one of five employees — “and no GM” — whose job was to run a Class AAA franchise.
“It was a dumpy, old ballpark,” he said of since-demolished Sec Taylor Stadium. “It was a battle to open the doors every day and a bigger battle to get people to actually come to the ballpark.”
Bernabe helped orchestrate the construction of a new ballpark on the same site in 1992, only to see it flooded a year later by one of the worst floods Des Moines had suffered in decades, and then again in 2008. “Things are tough when you have a 500-year flood every 10 years,” Bernabe said.
Mary Mycka, executive director at the Stadium Managers Association and a lifelong Des Moines resident, empathized.
“Our office used to be across the parking lot from the ballpark, and we moved after the area got flooded so many times,” she said. “Poor Sam and his crew have had a lake for a ballpark too many times.”
Water aside, times have never been better for the Cubs.
The team’s owner, Des Moines-based Raccoon Baseball, now boasts two businesses to complement the 27-employee team. Iowa Cubs Sports Turf started building pitching mounds and home-plate areas for $500 in 2005. It now has 17 full-time groundskeepers who count the Cubs, the Class AAA Omaha (Neb.) Storm Chasers, the Class A Burlington (Iowa) Bees and dozens of colleges and community athletic complexes as clients.
The ownership’s other business is the Cub Club Restaurant, Principal Park’s left-field premium area that is open year-round and has become a popular destination for special events. Bernabe said the team brought its catering operation in-house in 2014 and has seen the number of Cub Club events increase from 86 to more than 200.
“We will do over 210 events there for the second straight year this year, with proceeds growing at a similar rate,” Bernabe said.
|When parent club Chicago won the World Series last season, Iowa Cubs merchandise sales jumped and are on pace for another increase.
Another catalyst for the team’s revenue growth came with the 2014 conversion of an underutilized picnic area into the Bud Club, an all-you-can-eat premium area where fans can reserve patio tables. The tables cost $200 to $240 each, depending on the game. The Cubs sold about 300 tables the first year, then added a second row after the season, and this summer more than 600 tables were booked.
By design, 25 of the ballpark’s 45 suites are on a full-season lease and 20 are available for nightly rental. Revenue from those individual game-day rentals is up about 30 percent since 2014. Overall, the Cubs averaged 7,763 fans per game this season, up 5 percent from 2016 and their best figure since 2009. Their season-ticket base held steady at 2,500.
Putting more fans in the seats, though, was just part of the club’s recent run of success, Bernabe said.
Piggybacking off the parent club’s historic World Series title, merchandise sales in 2016 were 25 percent higher than what they had generated during a record 2015, and are pacing 18 percent ahead of where they were at this time a year ago.
Stadium upgrades during the past three years have led to a better fan, and player, experience, too.
Prior to the 2015 season, a 62-foot-wide, 24-foot-tall HD video board was installed in right-center field. This year, the team spent $900,000 for a left field video board and to convert the stadium’s lighting to LED. Player areas also have been upgraded and a $450,000 batting tunnel will be built this winter.
As a result, the team saw a 25 percent increase in revenue from non-game-day full-stadium rentals from 2014 to 2016.
Also this summer, Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group, a global financial investment firm, extended its naming-rights deal through 2027. The Cubs also extended their lease with the city through 2037 and their MLB affiliate agreement through at least 2020.
Des Moines is the first No. 1 market in our study to boast a team in four sports. That, of course, can strain ticketing and marketing staffs, not to mention fans’ wallets. But anyone who questions the city’s ability to support four franchises can gain a little comfort from Bernabe’s background.
“The first baseball game I saw was when my grandpa took me to Sportsman’s Park, right before they tore it down,” he says. “So I grew up a Cardinals fan.”
If a Cardinals fan can run a team called the Cubs for 34 years, anything is possible in Des Moines.