The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce caught considerable flak for the “It’s Better Here” promotion during the recession. In terms of American cities with minor-league professional sports, though, the chamber was on the mark. Peoria ranks sixth nationally in a survey of 239 minor-league markets conducted by Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal. Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa., ranked first.
The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce caught considerable flak for the “It’s Better Here” promotion during the recession. In terms of American cities with minor-league professional sports, though, the chamber was on the mark.
Peoria ranks sixth nationally in a survey of 239 minor-league markets conducted by Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal. Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa., ranked first.
“It’s a measure of stability,” said David Broughton of SportsBusiness Journal. “It’s built on the premise of how people in a market support their teams and how long they’ve supported those teams, through thick and thin.”
Two-thirds of the score is derived from “market tenure.” Hockey, baseball and indoor football have a combined 75 years in Peoria, according to the study, which gave the city credit for the semi-pro Blades hockey team in the 1970s.
The Prancers brought full-fledged pro hockey to Carver Arena in 1982 and became the Rivermen the next year. Baseball returned to Peoria in 1984, with the Suns giving way to the Chiefs after one season. They were followed in 1999 by indoor football, which has played in four different leagues under the nicknames Rough Riders and Pirates.
“No. 6? I’m not surprised,” retired Rivermen owner Bruce Saurs said. “Longevity in minor-league sports is rare. The Chiefs are well-run, do something to promote every game. The Rivermen have pioneered some marketing concepts over the years. Can you imagine Peoria, as a sports market, without those two teams?”
The remaining one-third of the SBJ ranking is based on a combination of factors, including total attendance, percentage of available seats filled, a market’s unemployment rate and its total personal income. Teams’ won-lost records were not considered.
Peoria ranked 26th in total attendance and 24th in economic factors. The market also received credit for the renovations to the Civic Center and Carver Arena in 2007-08.
One appeal of the teams here is the chance for local residents to see big-league stars at minor-league prices. The Rivermen, the primary affiliate of the NHL St. Louis Blues, had 15 players who saw action in Peoria and St. Louis last season. This summer, four members of the Chicago Cubs have made injury-rehabilitation appearances with the Chiefs, their Class A affiliate.
“It just shows what great sports fans we have here in central Illinois: people who come out, support the teams and enjoy good, affordable, family entertainment,” Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen said of the ranking.
Vonachen expressed mild surprise at Peoria’s rank relative to bigger cities like Tulsa, Okla., (third) and Rochester, N.Y. (10th).
“But it makes sense when you look at the success we’ve had,” he said. “We have a new facility (seven-year-old O’Brien Field) that helps our ranking and gave us new life.”
This was the third time SportsBusiness Journal has conducted the study. Peoria ranked 13th in 2005 and 40th in 2007.
“This recognition is well deserved,” said Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis. “People in the area are outstanding sports fans, and we’re very lucky to have this level of professional talent in a market our size. Community support for local college teams wasn’t even considered in this report, but with the huge support for Bradley and ICC (Illinois Central College) athletics, I believe we are definitely deserving of their high ranking, and we should not only be proud of it but work to make it even better.”
The Peoria area’s population has grown at a rate only one-third of the 5 percent increase seen nationwide since 2005, while unemployment has doubled, to more than 9 percent. The magazine cited those figures, then noted that the Pirates rebounded from the brink of extinction to average more than 3,400 fans per game the past two seasons, while the Rivermen increased attendance by 4.5 percent in 2007-08 and the Chiefs set a team attendance record last year.
Jim Foster, founder of arena football and a minority owner and local managing partner of the Pirates, called Peoria “a very sophisticated sports market.”
“If we do our job right, we can thrive in a market like this,” Foster continued. “It’s a very unified market here, and I like that. When you sell tickets, recruit sponsors, you are doing it in the Peoria metro area, and they all identify with Peoria. … That’s why leagues come to Peoria, stay in Peoria, because of the dynamic here and the track record of supporting teams.”
The Pirates went dormant in 2007, and that had a negative impact on Peoria’s rank. But the attendance boost when the franchise returned helped make up for the one-year absence, Broughton said.
Marc Burnett, director of marketing for the Peoria Civic Center, called the ranking “a bona fide tip of the hat to central Illinois.”
“It’s really a positive reflection on Peoria and the area on how people come out to support their sports teams,” he said.
Kirk Wessler can be reached at (309) 686-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Scott Hilyard and Dave Eminian also contributed to this story.