Second Thought: Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Bad Sports

Major markets are tough on minor leagues.


Public relations guys from Fort Worth’s minor league teams all tell you they face the same problem. It’s that the local media doesn’t pay much attention. Fort Worth is a big city, but it is also part of the Dallas media market, the seventh largest in the country.
The reality is that there is little chance of coverage here from tv or radio for minor league sports. WFAA’s sports anchor Dale Hansen will never mention the Fort Worth Brahmas hockey team because the station’s audience wants Cowboys and Rangers and Mavericks coverage, not to mention Dallas Stars (when they are playing), plus big-time college and high school sports. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram barely covers the Brahmas or the Fort Worth Cats baseball team or the Texas Tycoons basketball club, because once again, their readers want coverage of the market’s big sports league and teams. Not enough space for the minors.
The National Basketball Developmental League (NBDL), a minor league run by the National Basketball Association, recently announced five new teams for next year, including one in Fort Worth. NBA Commissioner David Stern highlighted Fort Worth as being a big city capable of producing big crowds for the as-yet-unnamed team. “This is a distinct market and close to Dallas,” Stern said at the recent expansion announcement.
What Stern should have said is: “This is not a distinct media market, and being close to Dallas causes all sorts of problems.” Maybe Stern has forgotten that the Texas Rim Rockers of the United States Basketball League couldn’t even make lease payments at the Fort Worth Convention Center and got run out of town after one year. The Texas Tycoons of the American Basketball Association just finished their first season at the W.G. Thomas Coliseum in Haltom City. The Tycoons said they needed about 2,100 fans per game to break even; they got about 500. The Tycoons may face the same fate as the Rim Rockers.
So why not give this new minor league basketball league a chance in this city, a move that Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief calls a “slam-dunk?” The reason is pretty simple: Bringing this new NBDL team to the Fort Worth Convention Center could force the Fort Worth Brahmas hockey club out of town.
In their eight years here, the Brahmas have figured out the precarious art of running a minor league hockey club in a big market. Most of the Brahmas’ competitors in the Central Hockey League, teams like the Oklahoma City Blazers and Shreveport-Bossier City Mudbugs, get plenty of media coverage because they are the only game in town. But the Brahmas get so little media attention that they know they need premium weekend dates at the convention center to break even.
The Brahmas’ market is mostly transplants from the northeast, people who love hockey and feel no need to drive to Dallas and spend $40 on a Dallas Stars ticket to get their hockey fix.
The weekend dates are very important to the Brahmas because their fan base is mostly families, and bringing kids to the games on school nights isn’t an option for most. But Fort Worth apparently wants to run both the basketball team and the hockey club out of the convention center next year, by splitting up the prime weekend dates.
Under the proposed plan, the Brahmas could get 17 of these prime dates and the USBL team 12. But moving so many weekend dates (about 12) to weeknights will probably make the Brahmas attendance crater. They average about 6,000 fans each Saturday and about 3,500 fans for Friday games. The numbers barely break 1,000 for most weeknight games. Taking away prime weekend dates will probably move the hockey team into red ink.
There are rumors that the Brahmas might be sold and moved out of town over losing the prime dates. Fort Worth leaders should realize that playing around with a minor-league sports team that has enjoyed some success in this very difficult market, because of the enticement of some NBA-sponsored minor league, is a gamble that will most likely fail.
This is all about fan base. Hockey fans here are small in number but very passionate. There is no real college or high school hockey in Texas to give them their fix. Basketball, on the other hand, is everywhere. Besides the Dallas Mavericks, there are men’s and women’s college teams and high school action. That’s why the Rim Rockers couldn’t make it, and the Texas Tycoons are having their troubles.
The NBDL next year will add new franchises in Albuquerque, Little Rock, Austin, and Tulsa, which rank 47th to 60th in media market size. The Fort Worth market looks great in comparison. But this is a mirage. Those other four cities will have the benefit of all the free local media coverage and won’t have major league sports to compete against.
Let the new NBDL team play in some college arena or some smaller venue and see if they can draw more than 2,000 fans a game. If they do, bring them downtown. But don’t punish a hockey team that has worked hard to establish itself —and does bring people downtown — just because the NBA thinks the basketball minors might work here. It hasn’t worked before, and probably won’t this time either.
Dan McGraw is a Fort Worth author and freelance journalist.

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