Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal has named Toledo the Top Minor League Market in the country for 2013.
The Toledo Mud Hens are the proud Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. The Toledo Walleye are the proud ECHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.
This is the first time SBJ has picked Toledo as number one out of the 235 communities nationwide, in its biennial Top Minor League list since its inception in 2005. Toledo was #9 in SBJ's first survey, then fell to #77 in the 2007 study. However, it rose back to #18 in 2009, rose again to #13 in 2011, and this year rose to the top spot.
Here are SBJ's top five minor league markets in the country this year:
1 - Toledo, OH
2 - Rochester, NY
3 - Hershey-Harrisburg, PA
4 - San Bernardino County, CA
5 - Springfield, MA
According to SBJ, the ranking is determined by fan base, tenured clubs and the economy. This year, researchers analyzed 235 markets, 47 leagues, 408 teams, 249.8 million in total minor league attendance, and 2.64 billion in construction at 50 new or extensively renovated venues.
"This project measures what market best supports its minor league teams through thick and thin," said SportsBusiness Journal research director David Broughton, who has spearheaded this study since creating it in 2005. "Toledo has lost jobs and residents, and championships on the field have been few and far between. Despite these challenges - or maybe because of them - fans of the Mud Hens and Walleye have set the standard for team support."
"The market's #1 ranking validates the team's significant investment in market research and staff training," says Joe Napoli, president and general manager of Toledo's Mud Hens and Walleye. "Community support for the two teams has never been higher. Fans come to both Fifth Third Field and the Huntington Center with family, friends and business associates knowing it's a good value and an exciting experience."
For baseball and hockey, attendance in Toledo has increased 35 percent over the past five years, with fans filling 79 percent of all available seats. During that time, Napoli says demand for Mud Hens and Walleye merchandise has steadily increased. Every year, both clubs are at or near the top of their respective leagues, in terms of merchandise sales.
"Mud Hens and Walleye fanwear are number one in Minor League Baseball, Minor League Hockey - both number one," said Napoli.
The numbers reflect their passion for the teams. More than 550,000 people came to downtown last season to attend a Toledo Mud Hens game, which included 33 sellouts. The 2013-2014 Walleye season set a team record for attendance at 226,743. The team had nine sellouts, plus set a team record for group tickets.
Napoli believes having good facilities plays a big part in the ranking.
"It's really a testament to the entire community. You roll back the clock, you look at maybe 15 years ago when we broke ground on Fifth Third Field, there was a bit of skepticism," said Napoli.
Napoli feels fan support is having a significant ripple effect for local businesses.
"When we picked the locations in downtown, we wanted to see development around both facilities. And that's happened," said Napoli.
Denise Adamski says she was skeptical when the Mud Hens relocated from the rec center in Maumee.
"I have to say, I was sad when it happened, because I liked going there, and then I ate my words. I think it's way better here," said Adamski.
Toledo's roots for professional sports run deep. Baseball dates back to 1883 when the first professional team played at League Park. The team went by other names until 1896 when it became the Mud Hens. Through the years, it moved through several sites, including Swayne Field and Ned Skeldon Stadium before coming to downtown in 2002. Professional hockey began in 1947 when the Toledo Mercury's became the first IHL franchise to be granted outside the Windsor-Detroit area. The Toledo Walleye formed in 2009.