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Volume 22 No. 43

In Depth

Van Andel Arena, built in 1996, drew more than 300,000 fans a season for the past six years for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Photo: grand rapids griffins
Van Andel Arena, built in 1996, drew more than 300,000 fans a season for the past six years for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Photo: grand rapids griffins
Van Andel Arena, built in 1996, drew more than 300,000 fans a season for the past six years for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Photo: grand rapids griffins

Minor league sports barely existed in western Michigan in the late 1980s and early ’90s. And with a declining population and an unemployment rate that was well above the national average, why would it?

Yet it was during that time when two different groups with two distinctly different business models spent years working toward the same goal: to create a franchise as integral to the community as the Grand River that runs through it.

In 2014, a third team whose owner had twice refused to take “no” for an answer joined the market.

Over the past quarter century, these teams and their fans have faced obstacles the way a family does — together. That support is among the factors making Grand Rapids-Comstock Park, Mich., Sports Business Journal’s 2019 No. 1 minor league market.

Grand Rapids native Lew Chamberlin was working at his family’s steel and supply company in 1980 when he became intrigued by a series of articles in the Grand Rapids Press that pondered why Midwestern minor league baseball markets like Toledo, Ohio, and Evansville, Ind. — two cities whose economic and demographic makeups were similar to those of Grand Rapids — had ballparks to go to on summer nights, while folks in Michigan did not.

“As luck would have it, I guess, we got bought out [by Alro Steel] in 1984, and that baseball idea that had been banging around in the back of my head started to come out,” he said.

Chamberlin, who had received his law degree from the University of Toledo’s College of Law three years earlier, wrote letters to league presidents, “visited a few sympathetic team owners” to get an idea of how ownership worked and slowly crafted a business plan.

In 1986, he was caught off guard when he saw a story about a local accountant trying to get $12 million in public funding to build a ballpark 5 miles away. “I was wisely advised by my family to call the guy before I dumped my whole plan,” he said.

The “guy” was Denny Baxter, a native of nearby Muskegon, Mich. The Michigan State grad had hired an architect and a marketing firm as part of his effort to lure an affiliated minor league baseball team to the area.

Chamberlin and Baxter soon joined forces. “Our visions were really aligned: same approach, same philosophies, complementary skills,” Chamberlin said. “We decided to throw it in together.”

On the Whitecaps' Salute to Griffins Night on Aug. 24, Dominik Shine shoots the first pitch. The Griffins hosted Whitecaps players in a similiar promotion in March.
Photo: Sam Iannamico
On the Whitecaps' Salute to Griffins Night on Aug. 24, Dominik Shine shoots the first pitch. The Griffins hosted Whitecaps players in a similiar promotion in March.
Photo: Sam Iannamico
On the Whitecaps' Salute to Griffins Night on Aug. 24, Dominik Shine shoots the first pitch. The Griffins hosted Whitecaps players in a similiar promotion in March.
Photo: Sam Iannamico

Their sought-after site in Wyoming, Mich., and several others fell through. But in 1992, Chamberlin heard about two local businessmen who wanted to build a riverfront arena on a 45-acre plot 5 miles north of the city in Comstock Park. However, influential folks in Grand Rapids were talking about building an arena downtown adjacent to the convention center.

“We told those guys, ‘If you give us the land, we’ll build the stadium ourselves, and give you a share of the investment.’”

They agreed and still have equity in the team.

In 1993, the organization bought the Class A Madison (Wis.) Muskies, and after eight years of work, moved the newly named West Michigan Whitecaps to the $6.5 million, privately financed Old Kent Park. 

Any business would envy the support the club has received. Sixty-two of the original season-ticket holders maintain that status, and by mid-2020, the ballpark will likely welcome its 11 millionth fan. Several corporate partners have been there since day one, and when Fifth Third Bank bought Old Kent Bank in 2001, it kept and has since extended the naming rights.

The team has modified the ballpark on its own dime as fans’ needs have changed, reducing the venue’s original capacity of 11,000 seats to 8,942 by converting undersold inventory to higher-margin viewing areas. 

But it was a five-alarm fire in January 2014, which destroyed half of the first base side of the ballpark, that exemplified what the team and the community mean to each other. With wisps of smoke still visible in the background, Baxter proclaimed from the Pepsi Club in center field that the team would play on Opening Day. Former Whitecaps posted support on social media. And 43 days later, the club held an open house at the ballpark and handed out team T-shirts that said “Never In Doubt.”

“The fire was a defining moment for this community,” said Jim Jarecki, the club’s vice president and general manager, one of five employees who have been with the team since the beginning. “The trades and contractors in the city dropped the other jobs they were doing and got us through the pains of that destruction. Ninety-five days later we played on Opening Day.”

Photo: west michigan whitecaps
Photo: west michigan whitecaps
Photo: west michigan whitecaps

During the rebuild, Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids agreed to title sponsor the new rooftop craft beer area, which helped the club win Ballpark Digest’s 2015 Best Ballpark Improvements award.

“This is your summer cottage,” Jarecki said. “Your best nights in West Michigan should be at the ballpark.”

■ ■ ■ ■

While the ballpark search was going on in the early 1990s, the DeVos and Van Andel families of Grand Rapids were gathering support for a publicly funded convention center expansion and new arena for a professional hockey team they would own.

Many folks were skeptical, as several hockey teams had failed in the city. But when an $11.5 million contribution from Jay and Betty Van Andel helped secure approval for the project in 1994, Dan DeVos and David Van Andel (whose fathers co-founded Amway) formed what would become the Grand Rapids Griffins.

The following year, Diane Maher, the CFO for DeVos’ numerous businesses, recruited former Deloitte co-worker Tim Gortsema. “She asked me if I wanted to oversee the finances of a hockey team,” said Gortsema, the team’s president, who grew up 15 minutes from the arena. “This gave me the chance to apply my financial background in a sports setting, not to mention the excitement of coming on board during the birth phase of both the team and the building.”

Long-tenured West Michigan Whitecaps staff, left to right: Ernie McCallum, Shaun Pynnonen, Lori Ashcroft, Barb Renteria, Amanda Stephan, Drew Willard. Middle Row: Steve Dirksen, Chris Parsons, Matt Timon, Alanna Klomp, Chad Sayen, Joe Chamberlin, Denny Baxter Back Row: Jim Jarecki, Scott Lutz, Lew Chamberlin, Mike Klint, Dean Exoo. Not pictured: Dan Morrison, Brad Thompson and Kelly Pawlak.
Photo: west michigan whitecaps
Long-tenured West Michigan Whitecaps staff, left to right: Ernie McCallum, Shaun Pynnonen, Lori Ashcroft, Barb Renteria, Amanda Stephan, Drew Willard. Middle Row: Steve Dirksen, Chris Parsons, Matt Timon, Alanna Klomp, Chad Sayen, Joe Chamberlin, Denny Baxter Back Row: Jim Jarecki, Scott Lutz, Lew Chamberlin, Mike Klint, Dean Exoo. Not pictured: Dan Morrison, Brad Thompson and Kelly Pawlak.
Photo: west michigan whitecaps
Long-tenured West Michigan Whitecaps staff, left to right: Ernie McCallum, Shaun Pynnonen, Lori Ashcroft, Barb Renteria, Amanda Stephan, Drew Willard. Middle Row: Steve Dirksen, Chris Parsons, Matt Timon, Alanna Klomp, Chad Sayen, Joe Chamberlin, Denny Baxter Back Row: Jim Jarecki, Scott Lutz, Lew Chamberlin, Mike Klint, Dean Exoo. Not pictured: Dan Morrison, Brad Thompson and Kelly Pawlak.
Photo: west michigan whitecaps

The $77 million Van Andel Arena opened for the Griffins’ 1996 inaugural season, and the club had to cap the season ticket base at 7,000 because of high demand. When interest began to wane after about a decade, management made several changes, like offering more targeted concessions discounts and having its game-day staff wear team polo shirts, rather than formal attire.

“We looked like undertakers, not hockey fans!” Gortsema exclaimed.

The club’s total revenue has increased for nine consecutive seasons, setting franchise records in each of the last two, Gortsema said. Ticket sales revenue has increased for nine consecutive seasons; full-season renewal percentage stands at 90%; and sponsorship revenue has increased for 11 consecutive years, setting franchise records in each of the last five seasons. Additionally, the club ranked first in the AHL in both average and total turnstile count last season and has drawn more than 300,000 fans per season for six straight seasons.

This summer, Billboard named the arena the top-grossing venue of its size (capacity 10,001 to 15,000) in North America, and No. 6 worldwide, as the building tallied more than $19 million in ticket sales between November 2018 and April 30 from its 36 shows, which drew more than 305,000 fans.

Not only does the team have 10 employees with 20 years or more in tenure, but SMG has managed the arena since the beginning and is signed through June 2028.

The arena has had numerous renovations over the past few years and just a slapshot away are three under-construction mixed-use developments.

The team also operates the city-owned Griff’s Icehouse, and owns two other open-to-the-public rinks nearby. Gortsema said the rinks provide an avenue for the club to show its appreciation for the community’s support.

■ ■ ■ ■

In 2012, 24-year-old Steve Jbara was told twice by the NBA that it had no interest in placing an NBA D-League team in western Michigan. But in early 2013, the Springfield (Mass.) Armor became available, and he signed a tentative agreement with Wings Stadium in his hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich. During a site visit, league officials took one look at the center-hung scoreboard and asked Jbara to attempt a half-court shot to see if the arena was playable.

“I can still hear the clank in my head of the ball hitting the bottom of the scoreboard, ending my vision to be in Kzoo,” he said.

Grand Rapids Griffins staff, from left: Dan DeVos, Majority owner/CEO/governor (1995) Sean Wright, VP, corporate sales (2001) Diane Maher, President/COO, DP Fox Ventures (1995) Tim Gortsema, President (1995) Bob Kaser, VP, community relations and broadcasting (2000) Scott Gorsline, Alt. governor (1995) Matt Batchelder, VP, ticket sales (1999) Randy Cleves, Sr. director, public relations (1999) Lisa Vedder, Director, accounting and tax (1996) David Van Andel, Co-owner/chairman (1995).
Photo: grand rapids griffins
Grand Rapids Griffins staff, from left: Dan DeVos, Majority owner/CEO/governor (1995) Sean Wright, VP, corporate sales (2001) Diane Maher, President/COO, DP Fox Ventures (1995) Tim Gortsema, President (1995) Bob Kaser, VP, community relations and broadcasting (2000) Scott Gorsline, Alt. governor (1995) Matt Batchelder, VP, ticket sales (1999) Randy Cleves, Sr. director, public relations (1999) Lisa Vedder, Director, accounting and tax (1996) David Van Andel, Co-owner/chairman (1995).
Photo: grand rapids griffins
Grand Rapids Griffins staff, from left: Dan DeVos, Majority owner/CEO/governor (1995) Sean Wright, VP, corporate sales (2001) Diane Maher, President/COO, DP Fox Ventures (1995) Tim Gortsema, President (1995) Bob Kaser, VP, community relations and broadcasting (2000) Scott Gorsline, Alt. governor (1995) Matt Batchelder, VP, ticket sales (1999) Randy Cleves, Sr. director, public relations (1999) Lisa Vedder, Director, accounting and tax (1996) David Van Andel, Co-owner/chairman (1995).
Photo: grand rapids griffins

But like Grand Rapids’ other pro team owners, Jbara was confident the market would support his team.

In January 2014, he and his partner Wes Weir were sitting in Founders Brewing Co., knowing they had 90 days to come up with $4.5 million to buy the Armor, when Jeff Royce, the then-director of a local business incubator, overheard the conversation. Royce set them up with the first of what would become a roster of nearly 100 investors, and the sale went through.

The Grand Rapids Drive, which is affiliated with the Detroit Pistons, plays in the 62-year-old, 5,000-seat DeltaPlex Arena, a venue four miles from Van Andel Arena. In its five seasons, the club has averaged almost 3,000 fans per game. Attendance last season was 20% higher than it was in the inaugural year, and Jbara said the team has seen 5-10% growth across all of its business metrics each year.

Attendance and other business metrics continue to rise for the Drive.
Photo: nbae / getty images
Attendance and other business metrics continue to rise for the Drive.
Photo: nbae / getty images
Attendance and other business metrics continue to rise for the Drive.
Photo: nbae / getty images

“Fans and businesses are still learning about us,” he said. “We know it’s going to take a bit to gain their trust, given the history of basketball here. We are getting people who were probably sitting back a little before investing their emotions and money.”

The club received a shot of local support in 2017 when former Pistons great Ben Wallace became the most visible of an investor roster that has been consolidated to 22. “Ben was a game changer for our business. He is here every week, getting in the weeds of the business,” Jbara said.

Jbara is committed to Grand Rapids despite the Pistons’ announcement this year that their G League team eventually would play at a new arena on Wayne State’s campus in Detroit. What keeps him there?

“The team was invested in by the community, community companies have all backed the team, and fans have supported us and believed in us when it was just a concept,” he said. “We owe it to the community to stay put and continue being an asset to West Michigan.”

Additional photos: Grand Rapids/Comstock Park, Mich.

First Look podcast, with more on the minor league marking rankings, at the 11:54 mark:

 

Greenville, S.C.

TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): South Atlantic League Greenville Drive (1984), ECHL Greenville Swamp Rabbits (2015)
VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Bon Secours Wellness Arena (1998); Fluor Field (2006)

Greenville Swamp Rabbits owner Doug Heinzer learned one thing about the city after joining the team’s ownership group earlier this year. “The consistent theme is everything is better than you expect,” he said.

The Swamp Rabbits have one winning season in their last four, but they’ve grown attendance five straight years. The club, an ECHL hockey affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Greenville Drive, a Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, both benefit from Greenville’s revitalization. The Swamp Rabbits and Drive filled 78% of their available seats over the past five years, a nice bump from the 66% of the preceding five years.

The Drive and Swamp Rabbits drew an additional 160,450 fans over the past five years — compared to the previous five years — a much larger increase than SBJ methodology (see box) would have projected.

Excellent facilities contribute. The Swamp Rabbits’ downtown home, Bon Secours Wellness Arena, received a $14.6 million renovation in 2015 and is one of the best arenas in the ECHL. And the Drive’s ballpark is unique in minor league baseball: Fluor Field mimics Boston’s Fenway Park down to the same field dimensions and a replica Green Monster. Upgrades in 2017 created a premium group area on the roof of an old textile mill beyond left field that the team calls The Rooftop. 

The Drive won the South Atlantic League championship in 2017, the same year the club earned MiLB’s most prestigious honor for the organization’s complete baseball franchise, the John H. Johnson President’s Award. And the club won SAL playing surface of the year for 2019. — Bret McCormick

 

Photo gallery: Greenville, S.C.

Charleston, S.C.

TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): South Atlantic League Charleston RiverDogs (1980), ECHL South Carolina Stingrays (1993), USL Championship Charleston Battery (1993)
VENUES (YEAR OPENED): North Charleston Coliseum (1993), Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park (1997), MUSC Health Stadium (1999)

The consistency of Charleston’s three minor league teams is the major reason why the city is a mainstay on our minor league market rankings.

The Class A RiverDogs have long been known for clever promotions — Google “Helen McGuckin Night” — and a business operation that leverages that creativity into financial success. The RiverDogs were recently given the South Atlantic League’s 2019 Club Merit Award, for best all-around franchise, and set revenue and corporate sponsorship sales records in 2018 and 2019. The team also made MiLB’s top-25 merchandise sales list in 2018, the first time since 2011.

Stingrays President Rob Concannon said the team took inspiration from the RiverDogs’ view of minor league sports as entertainment first, and pro sports second. The hockey club just hired its first director of marketing.

“We’ve had to welcome and embrace that mentality as well,” Concannon said.

The Stingrays saw a 7% increase in average attendance over the last five years compared with the previous five, drawing an additional 145,000 fans during that period. That culminated in them winning the ECHL’s 2018-19 Team Award of Excellence, which recognizes the league’s best all-around club on, and off, the ice.

The Battery is the longest running pro soccer club in America and plays in the country’s first soccer-specific stadium, MUSC Health Stadium. But the stadium was sold in May, putting the team’s future up in the air. Evan Peters, the Battery’s director of communications, said the team has explored several downtown locations, but there is no news yet on plans for 2020. — Bret McCormick

 

Photo gallery: Charleston

Toledo, Ohio

TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): International League Toledo Mud Hens (1965); ECHL Toledo Walleye (2009)
VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Fifth Third Field (2002); Huntington Center (2009)

Toledo, our top-ranked market in 2013, is surrounded by major league competition, with Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland all within driving distance, which makes its place on our list all the more impressive. Its teams have strong market shares for both sports (20% for baseball, 28% for hockey), contributing to strong attendance — up 260,000 in the past five years — despite a decline in population and economic growth far below most minor league markets. 

Joe Napoli, president and CEO of Toledo Mud Hens Baseball Club Inc., the group that operates both the Mud Hens and Walleye, said that one major reason for the teams’ success is a commitment to understanding their fan base and their motivations through market research and surveys. This helps the teams strategize how to attract those fans with targeted theme nights, promotions and giveaways. These efforts have helped propel the Walleye to five straight years of attendance growth, while the Mud Hens have finished in the top 25 of MiLB merchandise sales every year since 1993.

Another key feature of the Toledo market is the Hensville entertainment district, a mixed-use development that opened in 2016 featuring restaurants, bars and retail space, and has hosted concerts, comedy shows and even weddings on its rooftop deck, which overlooks the Mud Hens’ Fifth Third Field. — John Aceti

 

Photo gallery: Toledo

Des Moines, Iowa

TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): Pacific Coast League Iowa Cubs (1969); NBA G League Iowa Wolves (2007); Indoor Football League Iowa Barnstormers (2008); AHL Iowa Wild (2013)
VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Principal Park (1992); Wells Fargo Arena (2005)

Iowa Wolves President Ryan Grant says Des Moines is like the country’s “smallest big city,” with fans who expect to be treated to top-notch experiences. It helps then to have Wells Fargo Arena, an impressive venue that is home to the Wolves, Wild and Barnstormers. All three teams mentioned the 16,000-seat, Spectra-run facility as a huge asset when it comes to attracting and keeping fans.

The teams in Des Moines, our top-ranked market two years ago, act more like major league franchises in the way they strategize attendance, plan events and market their product. The Barnstormers, who annually rank among the top teams in the IFL in attendance by averaging 6,436 a game over the past five seasons, recently began streaming all their games on YouTube in order to reach more fans.

Wild President Todd Frederickson has had success using theme nights and postgame concerts to attract fans. These promotions have helped the team to a 92% season-ticket renewal rate, and a 12% gain in ticket revenue year over year.

“We’re bringing in those fans that might not necessarily be hockey fans, and then they become hooked on hockey,” he said. “We know once we get them in the arena, we can sell them on the hockey.” — John Aceti

 

Photo gallery: Des Moines

Fort Wayne, Ind.

TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): ECHL Fort Wayne Komets (1952); Midwest League Fort Wayne TinCaps (1993); NBA G League Fort Wayne Mad Ants (2007)
VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Allen County War Memorial Coliseum (1952); Parkview Field (2009)

Fort Wayne has finished in the top 10 in seven of the eight editions of our study, including first in 2007. As a market, total attendance declined for the second straight year, falling 8% to 740,546, which contributed to Fort Wayne dropping three spots from its previous ranking. But the Komets led the ECHL in attendance in 2018-19, averaging a franchise-record 7,932 fans per game, their fifth consecutive season of growth. Komets co-owner and President Michael Franke said the team’s success at the gate can be attributed to the Komets brand being a “very large and important piece of the fabric of this community.”

Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, the Komets’ home since the team’s inception in 1952, completed $1.4 million in renovations in 2016 that included remodeling the ticket office and dressing rooms and upgrading the entrance plaza. “Having a nice venue is very important,” Franke said. “People feel comfortable coming to it, there is plenty of parking, it’s very accessible — that’s a big part of it too.”

Meanwhile, the TinCaps finished this past season with 371,259 in total attendance, good for second in the Class A Midwest League. This year marked the 11th consecutive increase in sponsorships and corporate sales for the club. TinCaps President Mike Nutter said Parkview Field, which opened in 2009, will have a new sound system, video board and ribbon board on the suite level by Opening Day 2020. “Status quo just doesn’t get it done anymore,” he said. — Lucas Smith

 

Photo gallery: Fort Wayne

Tulsa, Okla.

TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): Texas League Tulsa Drillers (1946); ECHL Tulsa Oilers (1992); USL Championship Tulsa Roughnecks FC (2015)
VENUES (YEAR OPENED): BOK Center (2008); ONEOK Field (2010)

Despite Tulsa ranking as the harshest economic market in our top 10, total combined attendance over the last five years was 3.3 million, a 20% improvement over the previous five years. That growth was fueled by the Oilers, whose 1.1 million fans over the past five seasons was up 73% over the previous five. Oilers GM Taylor Hall pointed to new ownership taking over in 2013 for the team’s recent success. “Eight or nine years ago, season tickets were on the downward slide, but now we’re one of the top teams in the ECHL selling season tickets every year,” he said.

SMG-operated BOK Center, which opened in 2008, was set to host on Sept. 21 a neutral site NHL preseason game for the second straight season, with an Oklahoma City Thunder preseason game coming to the 19,119-seat venue in October as well.

The Drillers increased their overall attendance by 24,105 during the 2019 season, as the team headed to its third straight Class AA Texas League championship series. Drillers general manager Mike Melega said a “great loyal fan base” and the team’s relationship with the Dodgers has propelled attendance in recent years. He added the Tulsa Stadium Trust, which owns the 10-year-old ONEOK Field, understands “maintaining for the long haul and reinvesting in their assets, and they’ve put money into this venue to make it dynamic and an ever-changing place.”

Declining soccer attendance for the Roughnecks negatively affected the market’s ranking. With five home dates left this season, the team’s average attendance was 2,233, down from 4,714 in their inaugural season. — Lucas Smith

 

Photo gallery: Tulsa

Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Pa.

TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (1999); International League Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (2013)
VENUES (YEAR OPENED): PNC Field (1989); Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza (1999)

Sports fans in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre once endured a 2012 season that saw the RailRiders play all road games and recently dealt with a lengthy process regarding the future of the Penguins’ home arena. But with a now-thriving ballpark that will host the 2020 International League All-Star Game and a new 10-year lease for the Penguins, things are looking good in the northeastern Pennsylvania region.

The Penguins’ average attendance has been stagnant in recent years, but CEO Jeff Barrett believes upcoming arena renovations will drastically improve fans’ experience. Upgrades in the short term will bring a new ribbon board and LED lighting system and eventually expanded premium seating and a larger team store. Under the old lease, the Penguins sold general seating while arena staff handled premium inventory, but that has changed. “We’re working together,” Barrett said. “We’re selling corporate sponsorships; we’re splitting some of the revenues so it’s all one big pot.”

RailRiders President and CEO Josh Olerud has a different challenge when selling tickets: Mother Nature. “April and May weather in Scranton, Pa., can be erratic,” Olerud said. “It can be snowing Opening Day, or it could be 80 degrees.” The team had six rainouts this year, but its average attendance has remained strong, up 10% over the past five years compared with the previous five, despite a declining population and slow-growing economy. Olerud credits the team’s efforts in expanding its corporate sponsorships with activations at the ballpark and at brands’ business sites. — David Rumsey

 

Photo gallery: Scranton/Wilkes Barre

Winston-Salem, N.C.

TEAMS (FIRST SEASON): Carolina League Winston-Salem Dash (1945), Federal Prospects Hockey League Carolina Thunderbirds (2017)
VENUES (YEAR OPENED): Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex (1989); BB&T Ballpark (2010)

Interstate 40 Business, one of Winston-Salem’s main arteries, runs past BB&T Ballpark, the home of the city’s minor league baseball team, the Dash. Business 40 closed in November and won’t open again until next spring. But the Dash still led all of MiLB’s Class A in attendance for the third year running.

“We’re not going to wave the white flag,” said Dash President C.J. Johnson.

The team held a Business 40 Closure Party the night before the road closed, including 40-cent concessions and was sponsored by the local transit authority. That ingenuity is one of the reasons Winston-Salem jumped into the top 10 from 16th in our 2017 rankings.

The Dash have averaged around 4,500 fans per game each season since opening BB&T Ballpark in 2010, one of the most consistent runs in minor league baseball. That’s more than double what the club drew in the final years at its previous venue. BB&T Ballpark has been put to good use, hosting over 250 non-baseball events annually. Over a million guests have visited the venue since it was first opened.

Named after the dash in the town’s name, the Dash brought NBA superstar Chris Paul, a Winston-Salem native, into the team’s ownership group in 2018.

Adding a successful hockey team also helped Winston-Salem’s ranking. The Carolina Thunderbirds play at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex. They won the FPHL’s 2018-19 regular-season championship, while growing attendance 26% from the previous season. — Bret McCormick

 

Photo gallery: Winston-Salem

Akron, Ohio

TEAM (FIRST SEASON): Eastern League Akron RubberDucks (1989)
VENUE (YEAR OPENED): Canal Park (1997)

Akron to most sports fans may be best known as the hometown of LeBron James. But the RubberDucks and owner Ken Babby are doing their best to win the loyalty of the city, located 30 miles south of Cleveland. The Class AA affiliate of the Indians has seen a huge uptick in business since Babby’s purchase of the club in 2012.

Babby, a member of the 2016 Sports Business Journal Forty Under 40 class, has invested $7 million of private funds into the city-owned Canal Park and boosted the team’s corporate sponsors by 42%. Dave Burke, RubberDucks vice president of sales, called Babby the “face of the ballclub,” citing the owner’s active involvement in the community. “His energy as far as being out in the public and interacting with everyone is contagious,” Burke said. “The staff feeds off it and certainly follow his footsteps.” The RubberDucks have seen attendance grow by 34% and have averaged about 5,000 every year since since 2012, all in a market that has endured 17 straight years of declining population.

“We need people that are caring for their home and care about their players just as much as they do their bottom line,” said Carter Hawkins, Indians assistant general manager. “We definitely get that sense.”

Hawkins added that players who pass though Akron are impressed with its metropolitan feel and the Indians appreciate its proximity to Cleveland. — David Rumsey

The Eastern League team has played at Canal Park since it opened in 1997.
Photo: Akron Rubber Ducks
The Eastern League team has played at Canal Park since it opened in 1997.
Photo: Akron Rubber Ducks
The Eastern League team has played at Canal Park since it opened in 1997.
Photo: Akron Rubber Ducks

ONE AND DONE

The No. 19 Austin-Round Rock, Texas, market won’t have much time to enjoy its first — and last — top-20 finish. The region is home to the Pacific Coast League (Class AAA) Round Rock Express, AHL Texas Stars, NBA G League Austin Spurs and the first-season USLC Austin Bold FC, which plays in the new $5 million Bold Stadium. The Express is the market’s most-tenured franchise, currently playing in its 20th season. The team has drawn more than 600,000 fans each of the past five seasons and advanced to the PCL Championship Series this season. However, ground was broken earlier this month on a new $242 million stadium that is scheduled to open in 2021 as the home of Austin’s MLS expansion team, which means that the next time we do this, Austin-Round Rock will be a major league market.

The Round Rock Express, playing in its 20th season, advanced to the Class AAA Pacific Coast League championship earlier this month.
Photo: julia price / round rock express
The Round Rock Express, playing in its 20th season, advanced to the Class AAA Pacific Coast League championship earlier this month.
Photo: julia price / round rock express
The Round Rock Express, playing in its 20th season, advanced to the Class AAA Pacific Coast League championship earlier this month.
Photo: julia price / round rock express

A DRAG ON THE DRAGONS

The Class A Dayton (Ohio) Dragons have sold out each of their 1,385 regular-season games since moving to newly built Fifth Third Field prior to the 2000 season. Team owners upgrade the ballpark annually and the club has been the top single-A draw every year of its existence. However, two things kept this market from competing for No. 1: the Dragons’ average annual attendance over the past decade was 4% lower than what it was in their previous decade; and the departure of its various hockey teams — dating to 1991 and known separately as the Demolition, Demonz, Gems and Bombers. That penalty will be off the books next time around.

WREAKING HAVOC

The Southern Professional Hockey League Huntsville (Ala.) Havoc has seen its attendance grow four straight seasons (breaking a record each time), and its average attendance of 4,283 over the past five seasons is 24% higher than what it averaged in the previous five seasons. The market will welcome the Class A Rocket City Trash Pandas next spring to a new $46 million ballpark in nearby Madison, Ala., as the relocation of the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears has left that Gulf Coast market without a team.

MOVIN’ ON UP 

Wichita, Kan., is poised to move up to the big leagues of the minor leagues, so to speak. The market has been home to professional baseball since 1992, with the exception of this year due to the construction of a new $75 million ballpark. The Class AAA New Orleans Baby Cakes are moving from the bayou to the plains next season, replacing the American Association Wingnuts, who played there since 2008. Additionally, the ECHL Thunder is about to begin its 28th season after seeing its attendance increase the last three years, and the Force is one of indoor football’s most stable franchises, with 13 years under its belt.

NUMBERS ARE DECEIVING

Bloomington-Normal, Ill., has more residents (190,000) and personal income ($8.9 billion) than the majority of the markets in our study. Yet the Frontier League Normal Cornbelters, who played in a $9 million, 7,000-seat ballpark that opened in 2010, averaged just 2,645 fans in their first season. By 2018 — their final season — that number had sunk by 40%. The team was sold and the Corn Crib is now home to a summer collegiate baseball team that bears the same moniker. Five miles up the road in downtown Bloomington, Grossinger Motors Arena was home to a minor league hockey team that over the years was called the Blaze, PrairieThunder and Thunder. It gave way in 2014 to an amateur junior hockey team, which also is no longer playing. Additionally, the CIF Bloomington Edge was an indoor football team that played 13 seasons before folding last year.

FOR RICHER OR POORER

Our ranking rewards markets that support their clubs throughout the good times and the bad. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in a handful of Southern Appalachian markets that host a rookie league team. In Johnson City, Tenn., 22% of residents live below the poverty line, nearly double that of the rest of the country. Yet the Cardinals have increased their attendance in 11 consecutive seasons, for a total bump of 166%. Two hours up the road, the Pulaski (Va.) Yankees have enjoyed six straight years of attendance growth, despite a population that has dropped 6% during that stretch. Both towns endured double-digit unemployment rates in the beginning of the decade. And after a picturesque, hourlong drive over the mountains, the Bluefield (Va./W.Va.) Blue Jays and Princeton (W.Va.) Rays, who play just 13 miles apart, have a combined tenure of more than a century.

Located in a former No. 1 market, the Hershey Bears have seen attendance drop over the past five years.
Photo: getty images
Located in a former No. 1 market, the Hershey Bears have seen attendance drop over the past five years.
Photo: getty images
Located in a former No. 1 market, the Hershey Bears have seen attendance drop over the past five years.
Photo: getty images

NO KISS FOR HERSHEY

This is the first time that the Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa., region has not appeared among our top 10 markets. Its three existing franchises — the AHL Hershey Bears, Eastern League Harrisburg Senators and MASL Harrisburg Heat — have been in the market for a total of 127 seasons. Only Rochester, N.Y. (188 seasons) and the Quad Cities (152) have a higher tenure score. However, our two-time No. 1 market (2009 and 2011) was penalized for losing its USL club. Additionally, the Bears and Senators attracted a combined 3.32 million fans over the past five years, a drop of more than 5% from what they drew during the previous five years.

This is the eighth time Sports Business Journal has produced a ranking of the nation’s top minor league markets, the first coming in 2005 and then every other year since. 

This year’s project included a review of the following:

• 211 markets
• 34 leagues (including three defunct indoor football leagues)
• 350 teams
• 190.7 million in total attendance
• More than $1 billion in construction at 46 new or extensively renovated venues

Each team in this biennial survey was assigned a territory based on the location of its home venue within one of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 898 metropolitan (areas with a population of at least 50,000) and micropolitan(less than 50,000) market designations. Markets that are home to an MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, NHL, NWHLor WNBAfranchise are not measured.

Compiling the data:

Attendance was included for the five most recently completed seasons for each league whose regular season finished by Sept. 7 of this year. The Atlantic League, an independent baseball league, had one week remaining, and the regular season for the USL, soccer’s highest-level minor league, was nearly complete, so season-to-date figures were used for those leagues.

No league or sport was weighted more than another. The attendance figures used came from official team and league reports, posted box scores and conversations with facility officials. As is the case at all levels of organized sports, reported attendance can vary from being a turnstile count to the number of tickets sold to the number of tickets distributed. Ticket prices were not factored into the ranking formula. The ranking also does not take into account other sports options in each market, such as racetracks, college programs or major junior hockey leagues.

A team had to have completed at least two full seasons within the past five years to be included. For example, Leesburg, Va., is the home of the Loudon United FC, a team in the USLCthat is in its first season of play. We gathered attendance data for the club, but because there are no past seasons against which to index, the market is not included in the final ranking. Analyzing a total of 20 years of data over the course of these seven studies, we’ve learned that win-loss percentages for the majority of baseball and hockey teams — 70 percent of the teams tracked in the study are in those two sports — create little attendance variance, so that criterion is excluded from the methodology.

In addition, references to a “current” or “lost” team pertain to a club’s most recent moniker and league. Numerous soccer and indoor football teams have changed names and/or leagues over the years but remained in the same market.

Calculating the score:

The majority of each market’s total score comes from three category-specific measures: tenure rank, attendance rank and economic rank. 

Tenure made up approximately two-thirds of each market’s score and takes into account such support measurements as a team’s length of presence in its market and commitment to maintaining the sports venues. Our tenure category essentially prevents new teams in new markets in new facilities from skewing results with a honeymoon effect (such as Amarillo, Texas, this year), while rewarding markets that have retained their current clubs.

Markets were penalized for having teams that folded or moved, although that deduction was eliminated if a market saw a team in that same sport return to town with only one season of play lost. Mathematically, the loss of a franchise that was not drawing well can actually increase the average attendance and percent of capacity of seats filled for the remaining teams, which improves the market’s score. Additionally, we excused historical one-year gaps in five markets that were brought on by weather, league mergers, venue construction and other circumstances that were beyond the parameters of “community support.”

The Mobile, Ala., and Metairie, La., markets are losing a franchise and were penalized. Additionally, the Pawtucket Red Sox are planning to move to an under-construction ballpark in Worcester, Mass., after the 2020 season. However, the Providence-Pawtucket market was not penalized, as the relocation has not yet occurred and construction delays could affect the pending move.

The rest of a market’s score is based on the total and average attendance (regular and postseason) of all of the teams that have played there in the past five seasons, the percentage of seats filled, and how those figures changed compared to the previous five seasons. Those fluctuations also were indexed against the region’s changes in unemployment, population and Total Personal Income (TPI) over those two time periods.

Markets gained or lost credit based on their attendance behavior relative to fluctuations in the economic metrics. For example, if a market’s unemployment rate decreased and TPIincreased, attendance was expected to increase. June 2019 estimates from both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau were the sources.

The 48 markets where construction was completed on at least one new or extensively upgraded minor league facility between Aug. 1, 2014, and Aug. 31, 2019, received extra credit. Markets with venues under construction but not open as of press time did not receive that bonus. Extra credit also was given to Auburn, N.Y.; Reading, Pa.; Rochester, N.Y.; and North Little Rock, Ark., for being home to teams whose ownership is made up entirely of citizen shareholders.

Points could be deducted from a market’s total for three reasons: losing a franchise, and/or failing to keep attendance in line with fluctuations in the area’s unemployment, population or TPI. Additionally, if a club went from being a professional team to an amateur or semi-pro team, that market was penalized. Fifty-six markets finished with a negative score because of indexing against the No. 1 market’s total.

In the end, Grand Rapids, Mich., a city that is home to a professional team in baseball, hockey and basketball, had the highest point total, and all markets were indexed against that number.

Leagues tracked:

 

Baseball

AA: American Association (Independent)
APP: Appalachian League (Rookie)
AL: Atlantic League (Independent)
C-A: Can-Am League (Independent)
CAL: California League (A, Advanced)
CAR: Carolina League (A, Advanced)
EL: Eastern League (AA)
FSL: Florida State League (A, Advanced)
FL: Frontier League (Independent)
IL: International League (AAA)
MWL: Midwest League (A)
NYPL: New York-Penn League (A, Short-Season)
NWL: Northwest League (A, Short-Season)
PA: Pacific Association (Independent)
PCL: Pacific Coast League (AAA)
PL: Pioneer League (Rookie)
SAL: South Atlantic League (A)
SL: Southern League (AA)
TL: Texas League (AA)

Basketball

NBAG: NBA G League

Indoor football

AAL: American Arena League
AFL: Arena Football League
AIF: American Indoor Football*
CIF: Champions Indoor Football
IFL: Indoor Football League
NAL: National Arena League
PIFL:  Professional Indoor Football League*
X-League: X-League Indoor Football*

Hockey

AHL: American Hockey League
ECHL: East Coast Hockey League
FPHL: Federal Prospects Hockey League
SPHL: Southern Professional Hockey League

Soccer

MASL: Major Arena Soccer League
USLC: United Soccer League Championship

* League ceased operation during the measured period but can be represented in the study by a current team that previously played in the league.

This week, writers Bill King and Bret McCormick get into our story on universities linking up with breweries for branded beer. Then, research director David Broughton shares more on our how we determined our minor league market rankings. Finally, Publisher and Executive Editor Abe Madkour weighs in on various topics.