PORTLAND — Two years ago, Portland was on the lower end of the nation’s top 100 minor league sports markets. Now, boosted by the addition of a basketball team and the tenure of two longtime franchises, the city has been named one of the top markets.
The Sports Business Journal released its biennial rankings of minor league markets this week and named Portland the No. 5 market out of 241 nationwide. Two years ago, Portland was No. 78.
The Sports Business Journal attributed Portland’s jump in the rankings to the fact that it has one of the highest attendance-to-population ratios of any multiple-team market.
The American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates and the Eastern League’s Portland Sea Dogs are two of the region’s minor-league staples. The biggest boost to Portland’s ranking is the addition of the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League. The franchise has sold out every game in its first two seasons at the Portland Expo, averaging 3,045 fans a game.
“There’s an intense passion we’ve seen in just two years of being in existence,” said Jon Jennings, the Red Claws’ president and general manager. “When we announced the start of the team in 2009, many people thought we were in the middle of a potential (economic) depression. We were concerned with how it would play out, but this has exceeded our expectations. It goes back to the people here in Maine. They love their minor-league teams.”
Harold Dyer of Saco, general manager of UniFirst in Portland, has attended Pirates games since 1993 and attends Sea Dogs and Red Claws games two or three times a season.
He has seen the minor-league sports base gain community support, and has seen Portland become a proving ground for current and former National Hockey League stars Bobby Ryan, Sergei Gonchar and Olaf Kolzig, along with Red Sox stars Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon and Adrian Gonzalez.
“Look at the number of players that have gone to the next level,” Dyer said. “So many youngsters want to go to the games and see these up-and-coming stars. It’s an inexpensive event to go to, and when these players see it, they really appreciate the fan support. Sometimes I think it’s better than going to Fenway Park or going to the Bruins, especially for the cost of it.”
Portland ranked fifth in the country behind Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa., San Bernardino County, Calif., Pawtucket-Providence, R.I., and Reading, Pa.
Hershey-Harrisburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, is home to the Hershey Bears of the AHL and the Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League. It was named No. 1 for the second time in the six-year history of the Sports Business Journal’s rankings.
The Charlotte, N.C.-based publication cited the region’s strong fan base, the tenure of its two organizations and its stable economy as the reason for the No. 1 ranking.
Geoff Iacuessa, general manager of the Sea Dogs, said, “The thing that the three teams (in Portland) have in common is that they have tremendous local fan support. … When you run a team well and put out a product that customers want to see, they’ll come out and support you.”
Pirates CEO Brian Petrovek cited the region and the fan base’s history of supporting sports, entertainment and the arts.
“It’s a market that’s savvy, well-educated and has high expectations,” he said. “By the time we got here (in 2000), there had been two decades for an American Hockey League affinity. We looked at it as a mature, sophisticated, well-educated marketplace. That kind of support puts us on our toes as to what we need to deliver for the fans, but there’s a track record that goes with it.”
If there’s anything that can help Portland rise in the 2013 rankings, Petrovek believes it’s the local population supporting potential projects that are tied to the sports teams. Cumberland County residents will vote in November on a $33 million bond to renovate the civic center, which has hosted AHL hockey since 1977.
At the same time, private developers are moving forward with plans to build a multipurpose facility that would house the Red Claws at Thompson’s Point.
“If you had the three owners of these teams in one room, we’d agree we can always do better,” Petrovek said. “(The Pirates) aren’t selling out every game, but if we can have success with the passage of the bond, and if the civic center is renovated, we believe people will come. If Thompson’s Point is successful, you’ll see the Red Claws grow. If there’s a civic center renovation, you’ll see the Pirates grow.”
Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at: [email protected]