Quad Cities won the top spot for the first time, followed by 2013 winner Toledo, Fort Wayne which was No. 1 in 2007 and No. 2 in 2008. Only Hershey-Harrisburg, Pa., in 2009 and 2011 has ever earned two No. 1 rankings. Tulsa, Okla., was No. 4 and Charleston, S.C. No. 5.
"The gaps of the top five contender are so close," said SBJ Research Director David Broughton. "I think the Komets were the only somewhat of a drag because their numbers are down from where they were five years ago. They were over 300,000 seven out of eight years, and they've been pretty consistent within a reasonable standard deviation range over the last four years but they are still down a little bit. The TinCaps had a record number of fans last year with 411,000-plus with playoffs, and the Mad Ants are one of the darlings of the league as far as filling the seats believe it or not."
Broughton said in terms of terms of attendance to population ratio, only Portland, Maine had a higher ratio than Fort Wayne in the study of markets who had two or more teams. Portland, which finished No. 15 in the rankings, also has hockey, baseball and basketball minor league teams.
Quad Cities was selected No. 1 because of upgrades to its hockey and baseball facilities, and hockey's Mallards and baseball's River Bandits both showed significant attendance increases. Broughton said the Mallards have had four consecutive years of attendance increases, totaling about a 60 percent improvement, and the River Bandits set a franchise record last season.
"It's not team specific, but we look at every team in every market," Boughton said. "We look at the five years worth of attendance figures and then index them against the three economic indicators: Fluctuation in attendance compared to the change in unemployment, change in population and total amount of wealth in the market. If your population drops by 1 percent and your total attendance in the market goes up, you are obviously going to score more points in the rankings. Conversely, if your attendance goes down in the face of higher wealth or lower unemployment you are going to drop."
What could Fort Wayne do to climb back to No. 1?
"I would say really just increase its attendance by a little bit," Boughton said. "The markets are that close in the top 5. Fort Wayne can't afford to not keep pace with the economics, and the Komets have slipped a little bit. As long as they keep pace with the improving economy in the market then they are a good chance."
The Komets averaged 7,770 fans in 2011-12, 7,583 in 2012-13, 7,211 in 2013-14 and 7,277 last season, according to ECHL reports, usually ranking second in the league. The TinCaps are averaging 5,902 fans this season after drawing 5,810 in 2014, 5,766 in 2013 and 5,747 in 2012, and they usually rank second or third in the Midwest League. The Mad Ants have averaged 2,969 fans the last two seasons, and usually rank among the top three teams in the NBA D-League.
Boughton said he doesn't believe a proposed downtown arena would help Fort Wayne much in the rankings.
"I would be surprised it would work unless there's suddenly a huge influx of wealth into that market," he said.
Among other Indiana cities in the survey, South Bend came in No. 41, Gary was No. 137 and Evansville at No. 147.
During the previous surveys, Fort Wayne finished No. 7 in 2005, No. 1 in 2007, No. 2 in 2009, No. 19 in 2011 and No. 7 in 2013.