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The Mud Hens and Walleye organizations have earned the right to claim “We're No. 1.”
Toledo has been ranked the No. 1 minor league sports market out of 235 communities in the country by Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal.
By offering affordable family entertainment while also appealing to the region's avid sports fans, Toledo moved to the top of the business publication's rankings for the first time.
The SBJ rankings are based primarily on attendance figures. The publication's researchers analyzed 235 markets, 47 leagues, and 408 teams.
David Broughton, the research director for SBJ, created the study in 2005. He pointed out that both teams' attendance has remained strong despite some struggles on the field and ice.
“This project measures what market best supports its minor league teams through thick and thin,” Broughton said. “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.”
Joe Napoli, the president and general manager of the Mud Hens and Walleye, said the award was significant and particularly meaningful.
“It's great because it's something that is unbiased,” Napoli said. “It uses methodology that goes beyond a good story. Some of the sports publications will do stories about the most popular sports markets and it usually revolves around the team's performance. This is from a purely business perspective. Their analysis is based on the size of the market place. We have followed this very closely.”
More than 550,000 fans attended Mud Hens games at Fifth Third Filed last season, which included 33 sellouts. Last season, the Walleye set a franchise record for attendance when 226,743 spectators games at the Huntington Center. The team had nine sell-outs and set a team record for group tickets.
Every year, both clubs also are at or near the top of their respective leagues in merchandise sales. Napoli also credited the organizations' corporate sponsors.
“There are very good organizations out there that give customer service lip serve,” Napoli said. “And there are others that live it. Awards are only meaningful if they are accurate and reflect the truth. When they told when we were No. 1, I was speechless.”
A standing-room-only crowd of 11,500 attended Saturday night's Mud Hens game at Fifth Third Field despite the team entering the contest with a 52-70 record.
Toledo was ninth in SBJ’s first survey, then fell to No. 77 in the 2007 study. But the city's sports teams rose back up to No. 18 in 2009, and climbed to No. 13 in 2011.
SBJ unveiled the teams that made up the other top five markets on its Web site today. Toledo finished ahead of Rochester, N.Y., Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa., San Bernardino County, Calif., and Springfield, Mass.
Napoli said the ranking validates the team’s significant investment in market research and staff training. He said customer satisfaction has led to steady attendance.
Napoli said employees in both organizations go through a training program called “the fanatical experience.” He said the basic philosophy is that fans come first.
“We emphasize to everyone that works with us that a fan's experience and opinions about the franchise are based on how we interact with them,” Napoli said.
He said every employee from ushers and ticket takers to waitresses and front-office personally have taken it to heart.
Napoli said the teams also use “secret shoppers” to collect feedback from undercover customers. The GM said fan forums also offer customers opportunities to provide input.
“If they are not happy with us, that is part of the process. They feel so good that we listened that they remained season ticket holders,” Napoli said.
As a result Napoli said community support for the two teams has never been higher. Napoli said studies have shown that 50 percent of fans who attend Walleye and Mud Hens games “have no interest at all in baseball and hockey.”
“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,” he said. “They get three hours of affordable entertainment.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.