Springs a sports capital without a major minor-league presence

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The Iowa Cubs play in a stadium in downtown Des Moines, near the Iowa Events Center, home to the Iowa Stars of the AHC.

It’s one of the city’s favorite themes: Colorado Springs, Sports Capital!

The Economic Development Corp. uses it to attract relocating companies, Experience Colorado Springs (formerly known as the Convention & Visitors Bureau) uses it to entice visitors, and most residents likely would agree that the Springs is, in fact, a community deeply involved in sports.

But despite the presence of the Olympic Training Center, several nationally recognized college sports programs and many amateur sports tournaments/events, the Pikes Peak region is surprisingly deficient in one area.

Despite a metropolitan population of more than 550,000, the city has only one professional sports team, the minor league baseball Triple-A Sky Sox. Other cities of comparable size have multiple professional teams, and some even have one or two of the “Big 4” (Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association).

More typically, residents of cities of comparable size can enjoy some combination of minor league baseball, arena football, a Continental Basketball Association or an NBA Development League team, and minor league hockey.

The Sky Sox have been here since 1988. They’ve been a successful enterprise, periodically upgrading their facility, and drawing enough fans during good years and bad to remain a viable business.

On the face of it, it would seem that Springs residents might be equally supportive of other professional sports teams. The World Arena could easily host minor league hockey, indoor soccer or arena football.

A lack of interest?

But other than hosting Colorado College’s NCAA Division I hockey team — and, for a brief period, the Colorado Gold Kings hockey team — the World Arena has never attracted the interest of a professional team.

Dot Lischick, who has managed the venue since it opened in 1997, would welcome a pro franchise. But, she said, the promoters and would-be franchise owners who have contacted her haven’t been able to put it all together.

“You need to have more than just a manager — you need the wherewithal, the expertise, and you need patience,” she said. “Owning a pro team is not just a hobby — it’s a business, and you need to approach it as a business.”

Fred Whitacre, who brought the Sky Sox to town 19 years ago, thinks that any new professional sports team would have a difficult time establishing a fan base.

“The problem is the mentality here, and it really hasn’t changed a bit,” he said. “You’ve got a core of 50,000 people who support everything. They’re the ones who go to ‘Hansel & Gretel’ (the current Opera Theater of the Rockies production), who buy SkySox tickets. The town may be over 500,000, but it’s really a lot smaller.”

Mike Moran, for many years the public communications director of the United States Olympic Committee and presently the communications director of the Colorado Springs Sports Corp., is blunt in his assessments.

“We differ from other similar communities because there’s a proliferation of pro sports 60 miles to the north — and the local media are obsessed by Denver pro sports,” he said. “I mean, I still can’t believe it. On the 6 o’clock news on every local TV station they lead with last night’s Nuggets or Avalanche game even though Colorado College is playing a hockey game that night in the World Arena.”

But, according to Moran, that’s the least of the city’s problems.

“In the last 25 years, almost every medium-sized city with a Triple-A franchise has built a downtown stadium,” he said. “And most of these stadiums are coupled with an arena, and sometimes a convention center, too, so you have these downtown sports complexes, which bring in people — not just for sports, but for everything else. The stadiums trigger economic development and downtown revival. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Despite the absence of a downtown sports complex, potential franchises have looked at the Springs, Moran said.

“It’s been an interesting, sometimes comical history,” he said. “There have actually been half-a-dozen teams that played a few games here — The Spirit of Colorado Springs football team, then the Gold Kings, and a soccer team, the Sabres, and then the Flames, another football team.

“But none of them were legitimate franchises. For Colorado Springs that would mean Arena II football, Indoor Soccer, CHL, AHL (hockey leagues), NBA Development League. The AHL has a franchise in Fort Collins, but I don’t see a minor-league hockey team being viable. Colorado College has that market. Theoretically, the others would work, but no one has been willing to make the investment.”

Public-private partnerships

But, Moran said, the private sector and private investors can’t be expected to do everything.

“These deals just can’t happen without taxpayer support,” he said. “When you look at Indianapolis, at my hometown, Omaha, at so many other places, you see that the citizenry have been willing to participate in rebuilding their cities.”

Albuquerque is an example of such resident participation. In May of 2001, voters approved a $25 million renovation of an existing stadium to attract a baseball team. The Triple-A Isotopes opened the stadium in 2003, and have played to full houses since, attracting more than 1.1 million fans during its first two years.

Albuquerque sports fans also can enjoy CHL hockey and NBA Development League basketball, both of which play in publicly-funded facilities, as well as the Division I college programs of the University of New Mexico.

Moran remembers visiting Indianapolis in 1981, when the city hosted the now-defunct National Sports Festival.

“It was just a decaying, rusty downtown area,” he said. “But the city leaders used the NSF as a way to jump-start new facilities — and now it’s just amazing.”

Indianapolis has substantially recreated its downtown during the last 25 years. Victory Field, home of the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians, opened during 1996 to widespread plaudits. In 2001, Sports Illustrated named it “The Best Minor League Ballpark in America.”

As the team’s Web site notes: “The opening of Victory Field in 1996 was the catalyst for a revitalization of downtown Indianapolis. The area has enjoyed $3 billion in public and private capital investment in the last decade. The thriving downtown now boasts more than 200 eating and drinking establishments as well as more than 300 retail stores including the Circle Centre mall.”

Substantial investment

But such ballparks aren’t cheap.

In Nashville, Tenn., the city plans to build a $43 million downtown stadium which will be surrounded by a privately financed $200 million hotel-office-condo project. By contrast, Security Service Field, the home of the Sky Sox, originally cost $3.8 million, and received an $8.5 million upgrade in 2005.

Omaha, although significantly smaller than Indianapolis, hopes to reap the same kinds of economic benefits from its downtown sports complex. Anchored by a combined arena-convention center which was principally financed by a voter-approved $216 million bond issue, downtown Omaha will host the 2008 Olympic swimming trials.

Pro teams in Omaha include the Triple-A Omaha Royals, moving in 2009 to a new downtown stadium, the Omaha Beef arena football team, and two minor-league hockey teams.

Holly Kjeldsen, marketing manager of the Omaha Events Center, said that the facility has been an unqualified success.

“We’ve operated in the black since we opened, although the convention center has been less successful than we had hoped,” she said. “But as you know, post 9/11, the convention business really took a hit.”

She said the downtown location has “absolutely” been a plus.

“We’ve spawned about $2 billion in development, including a 40 story tower,” Kjeldsen said. “The condo/loft market is very strong, the riverfront was a junkyard a few years ago, and it’s being re-developed, there’s a new park district, and we’re even building a pedestrian/bike bridge across the Missouri (River). People come downtown, shop, go to restaurants, then come to an event, and then go back downtown. Hotel occupancy is way up — and the arena has been so successful we’ve had to expand it to 18,500 seats.”

And the taxpayers haven’t footed the entire bill.

“It wasn’t all tax money,” she said. “The private sector kicked in $75 million, including $25 million from the Peter Kiewit Foundation.”

Success stories

Des Moines, Iowa, with a metro population of 520,000, is about the same size as Colorado Springs. Des Moines’ Triple-A baseball team, the Iowa Cubs, competes with the Sky Sox in the Pacific Coast League.

The Cubs play in the rebuilt and renovated Principal Park, which seats 12,000 fans and has 45 luxury suites. The stadium is in downtown Des Moines, near the newly-constructed Iowa Events Center, where the Iowa Stars of the AHL play their games.

This year, both an arena football team and an NBA Development team will join the mix.

The center includes an auditorium, a performing arts facility, a convention center and a sports arena. At $217 million, it was the largest publicly funded project in Iowa history.

And there’s at least one example of an outstanding downtown baseball stadium which was financed entirely with private funds: Autozone Park in Memphis.

Located in the heart of downtown Memphis, Autozone Park has been attracting sellout crowds since it opened in 2000, drawing more fans on a per-game basis in 2002 than the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins.

The team and the stadium are owned by a nonprofit foundation, the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, which provided most of the $46 million construction cost.

Local mindset

Any potential franchise owner would, Moran said, have to be able to withstand the Springs’ “lukewarm” sports climate.

“The local mindset just kills us,” he said. “Sometimes it just seems as if we’re a Denver bedroom community, without any identity of our own. It’s very frustrating to those of us who would like to broaden things.”

But Lischick at The World Arena is more optimistic. While acknowledging that a downtown sports complex might be desirable, she doesn’t think it would necessarily change things.

“It would bring synergies and energy downtown, but that’s just a piece of it, not all of it,” she said. “Even if everyone who lives and works downtown supports (the teams), there aren’t that many people there. You have to have parking, accessibility, a product that people all over the city want, good marketing, good employees — and that’s not so easy.”

Colorado Springs is, Lischick said, a unique city — a small town with easy access to a big city with big city sports, and it hasn’t really forged its own, separate identity.

“We’re a small city that’s growing up — out of booties, into shoes,” she said. “But right now, we need to appreciate who we are, and go from there.”

John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com