No. 2: 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