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Volume 23 No. 8
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Minor league markets: Methodology

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.