Minor league mecca: Charleston rising in ranks as sports scene earns national reputation

The South Carolina Stingrays drew 122,351 fans to their home games at North Charleston Coliseum during the 2010-11 season.

Wade Spees

Charleston has long been considered a top tourist destination. Its history, architecture, restaurants and beaches have made it one of the most desired vacation spots in the country.

But that's not all Charleston has to offer. The area's minor league sports scene has earned a national reputation as well.

The Sports Business Journal recently ranked Charleston the nation's No. 7 minor league market in its biennial study. That's a huge jump from the No. 141 ranking in 2009. Charleston was ranked 17th in 2005 and 50th in 2007.

In 2010, more than 600,000 fans passed through the turnstiles for the three local minor league teams -- Charleston RiverDogs (baseball), Charleston Battery (soccer) and South Carolina Stingrays (ice hockey) -- giving the city one of the most loyal minor league fan followings in the country.

Maybe it's the wacky promotions the RiverDogs have become famous for, such as "Nobody Night" in 2002 when they locked fans out of the game until the fifth inning. Or it could be the Stingrays' annual "Pink in the Rink" night where everything at the North Charleston Coliseum is pink, including the ice. Or perhaps it's the Charleston Battery's ability to lure teams to Blackbaud Stadium from the English Premier League.

While the promotions and state-of-the-art facilities certainly don't hurt the overall fan experience, they have little to do with the study or Charleston's top 10 ranking.

The study is based on a formula that uses three basic economic statistics: unemployment rate, population growth and total personal income.

"It's not very glamorous," said Sports Business Journal researcher David Broughton. "The Charleston fans and fan attendance really outperformed the market conditions. Charleston has had a slight increase in population, but fan attendance has outpaced that and the other economic conditions like unemployment and total wealth in the market."

The study looks at all these factors over a five-year period and compares them to things like fan attendance, franchise stability and facilities.

Charleston has fluctuated in the rankings. The city's No. 7 ranking is the highest to date, but it plunged to No. 141 in 2009. When the recession hit the hardest and unemployment spiked to around 9 percent, fan attendance for all three teams remained relatively stable.

"The Charleston fans just over-indexed on all the economic factors," Broughton said. "We've done the study four times and Charleston has been a top 50 market three times. It's just a very strong market for minor league sports."

One of the other main ingredients in a strong market is franchise stability. The RiverDogs (1980), Stingrays (1993) and Battery (1993) have all been around for at least 17 seasons. Only San Bernardino (No. 2) can boast having three franchises for as long as Charleston.

"I think all three franchises have very strong ownership groups," said Charleston Battery president Andrew Bell. "The RiverDogs, the Stingrays and the Battery have owners that support their respective teams and love being involved in the sport."

The facilities don't hurt either. Riley Park, built in 1997, sits on the banks of the Ashley River. Considered one of the most picturesque ballparks in the South Atlantic League, it is the home of the RiverDogs, a Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees.

When Blackbaud Stadium was completed in a 1999, it was the first soccer-specific stadium in the nation and has attracted the U.S Women's national team and teams from Major League Soccer every spring. The North Charleston Coliseum, home of the Stingrays hockey team, is currently undergoing more than $18 million in renovations.

"I think the facilities do play a role for the fans," said Charleston RiverDogs general manager Dave Echols. "Anything that can make the fan's experience more enjoyable is going help improve your product."

All that doesn't seem to matter to Mike Maider, a transplant from Boston, who has been going to minor league events in the Lowcountry for nearly a decade.

"I think it's the value of the experience," Maider said. "You have to get a low-interest loan these days to afford a major league game or an NHL game, and it's a hassle getting in and out. I can go to a RiverDogs game or a Stingrays game and be home in less than three hours and really feel like I got my money's worth.

"You can't say the same thing about a major league sporting event. From parking to concessions to souvenirs, you could spend $500 or $600. It's just not worth it."

Another draw for fans like Maider is the prospect of seeing a future major league talent. Major league All-Star Josh Hamilton played for the RiverDogs in his first professional season. NHL star Rich Peverley hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, but played his rookie season with the Stingrays. Seattle Sounders All-Star midfielder Osvaldo Alonso got his start with the Charleston Battery.

"It's kind of neat to say, 'I knew them when they started out,' " said Brian Snow, who has been attending minor league games in the area for 15 years. "All the local teams have a pretty good tradition of putting players in the top leagues."