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Are there enough fans in Rochester for 7 pro sports teams?

It hasn’t even been three years — July 2005, to be exact—since Rochester, the Flower City, our city, was named the No. 1 minor league sports market in the country by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal.
That’s when the seven minor league pro sports teams here were turning heads, instead of making them break out in a cold sweat; when hands were clapping, not wringing; when Rochester sports fans were cheering for all of our teams, not fearing for some of them.
Now, as this is written, the biggest unanswered question concerns the future of the Rochester Rhinos—that is, does the team even have a future here? Paetec Park, the city’s brand-spanking new soccer stadium—it opened in June 2006—is up to its cheap seats in debt. The stadium is owned by Rochester Rhinos Stadium LCC, which is facing a lawsuit filed by NBT Bancorp, which claims there are $10.8 million in unpaid loans.
Daniel Williams, an Englishman who lives in New Jersey, has said repeatedly that he wants to buy the Rhinos, keep the team here and develop the area around Paetec Park. “A soccer village,” he told RBJ last week.
The Rhinos are owned by Rochester Sports Group, which also owns the Rhinos women’s soccer team, the Knighthawks indoor lacrosse team, Rattlers outdoor lacrosse team and the Rochester Americans hockey team.
The Amerks, another synonym for turmoil. I wasn’t a fly on the wall in the room, but there have been several reports of conflict between parent club Buffalo Sabres and the Amerks’ front office, led by owner, president and CEO Steve Donner.
There was even some concern that the team, along with the Rhinos, might be sold and moved out of Rochester because of economic problems and disputes with the Sabres and the city over concession revenue sharing at the Blue Cross Arena.
When I heard that, I tried to imagine New York City without the Yankees, Boston without the Red Sox, Green Bay without the Packers. And Rochester without the Amerks? No way. They’ve been here since 1956. They’ve won a half-dozen Calder Cups, the American Hockey League’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup.
Though they have drastically different histories, the Amerks and the Rhinos have one thing in common: Too many empty seats. For the 2007-08 Amerks, the reason is simple. They have the worst record in the AHL—probably for the first time ever—which explains why attendance is down.
It reminds me of Shreveport, La., my hometown. I can remember when hockey there was only slightly more popular than athlete’s foot and jock itch. Now, though, the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs, who have the best record in the Central Hockey League this season, sell roughly 2,500 season tickets and average more than 4,500 fans for home games.
The key, the bottom line, is fan base. There are people in Rochester who eat, sleep and breathe hockey and soccer. They will go to games no matter what. Just drop the puck or kick off and they’ll be there. But what hurts the Rhinos and what is hurting the Amerks is the absence of the casual fan. That is, some dad who says to his wife and kids, “Hey, guys, whattaya say we take in a soccer game (or this time of year, a hockey game) tonight?”
But! If the soccer team is playing in a neighborhood where the dad isn’t comfortable taking his kids—doesn’t matter if his concerns are real or not—then he won’t go. And justified or not, the area around Paetec Park is a concern. And if the dad’s going to spend $75 or more to take his family to watch the worst team in the AHL, more than likely he’ll say, “How ’bout we rent a movie instead?”
That is why the Red Wings aren’t suffering at the gate and one big reason why they are recording their numbers in black ink instead of the red ink. Simply put, their fan base is larger, and the casual, ho-hum fans go to a baseball game to sit back and relax, have a hotdog and a beer or soft drink and enjoy the atmosphere.
Sure, they hope the home team wins, but most of them don’t live and die with the final score. There is little, if any, emotion involved. Many people don’t go to baseball games because the home team is dominating the league or even has a winning record. They go because it is an escape, a great place to take a deep breath and get away from the real world.
What concerns me is this question: How many teams are too many teams? Can we, will we, support seven pro sports teams? The Red Wings for sure. And the Amerks, I hope. After that, don’t bet the house payment on it. At some point, we cross the line. Maybe Rochester has done that. I hope not, but we’ll see.

Rick Woodson’s column appears each Friday in the Rochester Business Journal print edition. Listen to his weekly program, “The Golf Tee,” at 9 a.m. Sunday on WHTK-AM 1280.

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