Saturday, May 21, 2011

Is Marion a go?

Earlier this week, the Marion city council approved a $30 million bond issue to pay for a 4,100-seat arena which would play host to a USHL team beginning in the 2012-13 season -- the year after next.

If it comes to fruition, it would give the Ice the in-state rival they've lacked since leaving the now-defunct International Hockey League in 1999. Since, the Indianapolis hockey teams have competed in the Central Hockey League (1999-2004), whose teams were primarily based in the Plains states and the Deep South, and since 2004, the Indiana Ice franchise has played in the Midwestern-based USHL. While the USHL follows the footprint of the old pre-1990s expansion IHL, the Ice's closest geographic rivals have been in the western suburbs of Chicago or, for a brief time, Columbus, Ohio.

The rink would be just off I-69 at the Ind. 18 exit, and would be an easy 90-minute (or less) drive from Indianapolis -- even shorter for the core of fans on the north and east sides of the city.

Currently, according to published reports, the dormant Thunder Bay franchise would be moved to Marion to fill the arena. However, the USHL governors would have to approve the move.

Two questions arise. Will it be approved, and will it work?

The USHL is already at 16 teams, and currently operates as the only Tier I junior league in the United States. It compares favorably to Canadian Junior A hockey, and is often used as a training ground for players wanting to play U.S. college hockey instead of going to Major Junior. Tier I is unique in that the teams pay all player expenses. In Tier II and Tier III, the players pay for some or all of their expenses. One question is, how much further does the league want to expand? The other is, would it approve Marion?

Let's look at Marion. With a population of 30,528, according to a 2006 Census Bureau estimate, Marion would be the smallest market in the USHL. The city's $30,000 median household income places it as a smaller market. The population of surrounding Grant County is 68,796, with a median income of $38,677. In both city and county, the population has been in decline, meaning there would be a need for fans to come up from nearby Anderson, Muncie and Fort Wayne. However, of those communities, Fort Wayne is the only one with any significant hockey culture -- there are no ice rinks between Fishers and Fort Wayne in the I-69 corridor -- and that city fervently supports the Komets, which has consistently drawn strong crowds even since dropping a level from the IHL to the old United Hockey League in 1999 and merging with the Central Hockey League this year. How many Fort Wayne fans could be drawn an hour south to watch a new team in Marion? It's an important question, and that could factor into whether or not this new Marion team would be successful.

Madison and Delaware Counties -- which straddle I-69 and whose county seats of Anderson and Muncie are about a half-hour's drive from Marion -- have a combined population of 246,500+, but both have been declining, and a growing of the Madison County population is significantly closer to Indianapolis than Marion -- specifically, the fastest-rising areas of Pendleton and Lapel. The counties to the north and east have a combined population of less than 50,000, so a regional population base would be important and promotion would be key.

The positive for Marion is that, like its bigger neighbor to the north -- Fort Wayne -- it would be the only game in town. It would provide a centerpiece for civic pride in a town whose struggles have been well-documented over the last decade. Right now, the sporting landscape in the Indy-to-Fort Wayne corridor is essentially dominated by high school sports, with Ball State University in Muncie being the only major college in the corridor. There have been attempts at minor-league sports -- most notably the ABA's Anderson franchise and an independent baseball circuit -- but they've been short-lived. The rink's location on I-69 signals that it intends to draw fans from nearby communities and be a regional franchise.

Marion would be the second-smallest city in the USHL, represented by the second-smallest population base and -- by far -- the least affluent. On the positive, the team controls the rink and therefore all ancillary income, and operating costs would be smaller -- for example, the Ice do not have any control of the rink or parking/concessions income.

Just for comparison, here are some other USHL markets (all data from the U.S. Census Bureau)
Bensenville, Illinois (Chicago Steel): county population 932,531; median income $77,040 (city: >25,000). MSA population: 9.8 million. Other sports; Independent baseball, in MSA, virtually everything.
Indianapolis (Indiana Ice): county population 890,829; median income $43,823 (city: 785,597). Other sports: NFL, NBA, Triple-A baseball, two Div. I colleges, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. MSA population: 1.7 million
Omaha, Nebraska (Omaha Lancers): county population 510,199; median income $52,222 (city 419,545). MSA population: 837,925 (Omaha-Council Bluffs). Other sports: Div. I college, Triple-A baseball, College World Series
Des Moines, Iowa (Des Moines Buccaneers): county population 429,439; median income $56,980 (city: 193,886). Other sports: Triple-A baseball, Div. I college. MSA population: 562,906
Lincoln, Nebraska (Lincoln Stars): county population 281,531; median income $52,228 (city: 241,167). Other sports: Div. I university, independent baseball. MSA population: 289,672
Green Bay, Wisconsin (Green Bay Gamblers): county population 247,319; median income $53,558 (city: 100,353). Other sports: Div. I university, NFL, arena football. MSA population: 282,599. 
Youngstown, Ohio (Youngstown Phantoms): county population 236,735; median income $40,508 (city: 81,520). MSA population: 565,773.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Cedar Rapids RoughRiders): county population 209,226; median income $55,173 (city: 124,117). Other sports: Single-A baseball. 

Sioux Falls, South Dakota (Sioux Falls Stampede): county population 183,038; median income $55,138 (city: 142,396). Other sports: Arena football, independent baseball, NBDL basketball
Muskegon, Michigan (Muskegon Lumberjacks): county population 173,951; median income $41,274 (city: 39,608).
Fargo, North Dakota (Fargo Force): county population 143,439; median income $46,942 (city 90,056). Other sports: Div. I college, independent baseball
Waterloo, Iowa (Waterloo Black Hawks): county population 129,276; median income $45,647 (city: 65,998).
Sioux City, Iowa (Sioux City Musketeers): county populations 125,041; median income $43,616 (city 83,262). 

Dubuque, Iowa (Dubuque Fighting Saints): county population 93,072; median income $49,160 (city: 57,696).
Marion, Indiana (proposed team): county population: 68,796; median income $38,677 (city: 30,528).
Kearney, Nebraka (Tri-City Storm): county population 45,814; median income $46,316 (city: 29,385).

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