Culbreath: No surprise Toledo tops for minor league sportsWritten by Matt 'Shaggy' Culbreath | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Every other month, another publication puts Toledo on a list. And it’s usually not good. Off the top of my head, Toledo has been named one of the worst cities in the country for dating, health, misery and mobile phone coverage (something something hear me now joke I’m not going to stoop that low).
So when someone puts us on a Top 10 list rather than a Bottom 10, we all tend to stand up and take notice. But we’re never surprised at what’s being acknowledged — just surprised that it’s taken people that long to notice.
That was my reaction when Sports Business Journal (SBJ) ranked Toledo as the top minor league sports market in the country. “Of course we are! Two of the greatest minor league teams in the world are here! Just… don’t look at the records or anything.”
But wins and losses had nothing to do with it. In fact, the most important metric you can measure a team by is it’s fan support, and the Hens and Walleye have that by the truckload.
SBJ looked at three categories when compiling these rankings: how long a team has been around, attendance and fan support in relation to the economics of the region. Bonuses were awarded for new facilities in the last five years, penalties levied for teams that left.
With that in mind, is there any doubt why Toledo ranks at the top of this chart? A legacy team in the Mud Hens, a fresh-looking team on the ice and two state-of-the-art barns for them both. Fifteen years ago, you had to go out of the city to see the Hens play, and it was five years ago you had to cross the river to see hockey in a building they nicknamed the Sports Aroma for a reason. That’s a hell of a turnaround for less than two decades.
But forget the history of the Hens, or the two amazing facilities these teams play in. The lifeblood of these teams comes straight from the fanbase. That’s you. You guys fill out those seats each and every year. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. (No, really, it wasn’t included in the study. Turns out that the team record doesn’t mean squat in terms of attendance, so the SBJ threw it out.)
A lot of credit there goes to the organization that runs both clubs. President/GM Joe Napoli and his team have built such goodwill with the community that 79 percent of the seats at both venues are filled every year. Fifth Third Field has averaged 87 percent since it opened in 2002. Corporate partners climb over each other to get involved, which includes the naming rights to each building and luxury suite leases. The Hens are so fiscally sound they’re projected to pay off the bonds to build the Field three years from now. That’s five years ahead of schedule.
Can’t go too much further without talking about merchandise. Boy, do you folks love your swag. The Mud Hens have shipped merch over the world ever since Klinger wore the gear, and they’ve been one of minor league baseball’s top selling teams for the last decade and a half, even with some awfully lean years on the field proper. The Walleye are catching on, too: while it took some time for families to warm up to ECHL hockey (even now, it can be a little… rough), the Fish have led the league in gear sales for the past two seasons. You know it’s going well when the Swamp Shop sells Toledo Mud Hens hockey jerseys. If you haven’t seen those, swing by the shop the next time you’re there. I want one, and I’m not above begging.
But it’s more than swag, and it’s more than the new buildings, and it’s more than new concession stands. The reason why SBJ can recognize Toledo as a top minor league market is because the teams have a special relationship with it’s fans. We know that when we go, we’re going to have a good time, win or lose. It means that when it comes to off-the-field issues, the Hens and Walleye have their games down to a T.
This honor doesn’t just recognize the teams. It also goes the community, who recognizes the hard work the teams do for us. That’s why we support them.
Matt ‘Shaggy’ Culbreath is sports director for 1370 WSPD.