Minor league markets on the move
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.
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.
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.
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.