It’s no secret that the Greater Des Moines area has seen significant growth in recent years — dare we say, it’s even become cool. Forbes Magazine voted it the No. 1 city in America for young professionals in 2011, and we haven’t stopped gloating since in that ever-so-humble way that only Midwesterners can. The nation is taking notice of just how far Des Moines has come.
It’s been said that Des Moines wants to be like its big sister, Chicago, and it seems the city has grown to offer nearly everything a major city can. Almost everything, that is. When it comes to sports, fans rooting for their favorite teams and the natural rivalries that come with that, Des Moines relies a lot on its neighbors to the north, east and south. But the question remains: Will Iowa ever get its own major league team like the Minnesota Twins or the NFL franchise Chicago Bears, for example?
Major league teams help contribute to the identity of their home cities, but it would be inaccurate to insinuate that Des Moines doesn’t have its own identity without them. The culture and character of this metropolis is undeniable.
But to many avid sports enthusiasts, Iowa has a void left to be filled by a major league sports team. To them, it’s that last little bit of spark the city needs to not only give Iowans their own team to root for at the national major league pro level, but to bring the city a celebrity factor it’s only known through the arts and fleeting sporting events in the past. Instead, rich and famous athletes would be living in metro neighborhoods, shopping at local stores and dropping their kids off at area schools.
“Imagine going to eat at Centro on a balmy spring night and LeBron James is with Dwayne Wade at the table next to you, in town for a game against our Des Moines team,” said Ryan Peterson, a 21-year-old sports fanatic from Urbandale. “How about shopping for a nice steak to grill out tonight at Hy-Vee and waiting in line with Adrian Peterson trading barbecue secrets,” he fantasized.
Does it sound too good to be true? Perhaps. But could it happen?
“No way; you’d have to be smoking something,” said Michael Gartner, owner of the Triple-A minor league baseball team the Iowa Cubs.
He said the No. 1 thing holding the city back from the having its own major sports team is size. And with larger markets ahead of Des Moines in the pecking order for top-tier professional sports franchises, the harsh reality is that it will likely never happen. But there are those who believe that if we build it, they will come.
Des Moines proper has a population of 206,000, which increases to almost 600,000 when the rest of the metro is factored in, making it one of the smallest of the “small markets” (a small market is considered a metro population of less than 3.7 million people) already sustaining such teams. That’s not to say a team can’t work in a small market, however.
New Midwest NBA franchise Oklahoma City Thunder (city population: 579,999, metro: 1,252,987) has seen an unprecedented amount of success. Since its inaugural 2008-2009 season, the team has made it to the playoffs the past four years and made it to the finals last year. Aside from talent, which can be bought for the right price, the team’s success has largely been driven by its avid fanbase.
The Thunder’s home court, Chesapeake Energy Arena, is regularly filled to capacity and has one of the top attendance records in the NBA, according to ESPN online. Diehard fans show up to cheer on Russell Westbrook and company; the city loves the team, and the team loves the city.
Arguably the most notable small market sensation of all time is the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Green Bay is currently the smallest city in the United States laying claim to a major professional sports team, with a population of 104,057 and a metro of 306,241. Since 1919, its unique, community-owned franchise and fiercely dedicated Cheeseheads have made the team’s achievements at Lambeau Field those of almost mythical proportions. Season tickets, for example, have been sold out since 1960, according to a 2011 article printed in Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel. To add one’s name to the list for season tickets will get you a wait of about 955 years, give or take.
“Green Bay is pretty much an anomaly,” said Pat Kelly vice president/director of sales for the Iowa Energy, an NBA Development League or D-League.
So what about Des Moines, then? Could Des Moines be one of those rare situations of a big team thriving in a small city?
“It’s possible,” said Greg Boyd with clear skepticism in his voice. Boyd is director of marketing/game operations for the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers.
Local experts agree that right now a major league team isn’t in the cards for Iowa, but if and when the time comes, they say that if any sport were to make it in Des Moines, it would be basketball.
“Football only has eight home games, so from a fan perspective it’s the easiest,” said Iowa Energy general manager Chris Makris. “But with cost and barriers, basketball makes the most sense.”
Another reason basketball is the most feasible is that the city already has what the team first needs: a place to play.
“Wells Fargo is an NBA-caliber arena,” Kelly said.
A team also needs fans, though, and ticket prices are another issue.
“There would be an initial sticker shock to major league prices,” Kelly added.
For example, the best season ticket seat in the house at an Iowa Energy game will cost $1,499. Compare that to an NBA Chicago Bulls season-ticket price of $8,100 for a court-side seat in the United Center in Chicago.
As with most every industry, it boils down to money and whether or not anyone with it is willing to take the risk to shell out the $100 million-plus it takes to buy a team on the hopes that there’s enough public support for it to survive. Des Moines’ minor league teams, such as the Iowa Cubs, Iowa Barnstormers and Iowa Energy, have shown that there is indeed a strong fan base in Des Moines, even though it is considered a “small market.”
“It’s not just a successful small market; it’s a very successful market, period,” Gartner asserted.
So is that enough to entice fat wallets to unfold?
Several successful seasons were enough to attract buyers to the Iowa Barnstormers. Unfortunately the wallets belonged to New Yorkers. The team left Iowa because it gained popularity among New Yorkers who recognized the team’s prominence and wanted in, according to the team’s website. For seven years, the Iowa Barnstormers were known to the league as the New York Dragons. Football fans rejoiced when the Barnstormers returned in 2008 in the AF2.
The Barnstormers ended its return season with a record of 6-10 that year but were second in the league in attendance, averaging 9,000 fans per game, according to TheIowaBarnstormers.com. The 2009 season gave hope that the Barnstormers would continue to grow and improve, as the team posted a 13-5 record along with a trip to a second-round playoff game.
By 2010 the Barnstormers had ascended to the top tier of arena football once again. Although not every season is a winning one, the Barnstormers have averaged more than 8,500 fans per home game, according to Boyd. The season runs from April through July with an 18-game schedule, nine of which are at home, with playoffs in August.
Although the Barnstormers organization has made a return to Des Moines and the Arena Football League and has been rebuilding its fan base since, there’s one team that’s been here all along and is as much of a staple as the Iowa State Fair: the Iowa Cubs, a Chicago Cubs affiliate since 1981.
“Des Moines has supported baseball for over 100 years. It’s been established here. Des Moines loves baseball. We have a beautiful park and a great location,” Gartner said from his office overlooking the field at Principal Park.
While two hockey teams have come and gone (with a third, the recently-announced Iowa Wild, on the way next fall), an arena football team that left and returned, and a basketball team that continues to gain some momentum, the Iowa Cubs have been the only true constant. The Cubs have become the successful big brother that other Des Moines sports teams look to for cues for their own success. The games are on every good central Iowan’s summer to-do list, and for most locals, nothing says summer like downing cold beers and peanuts on a hot, sunny day at a crowded ballpark. Ticket prices are still affordable at around $8 general admission — “cheaper than a movie,” as Gartner puts it — which helps keep the franchise in the top 10 in attendance each year of the 30 Triple-A teams in the United States, he said.
Following in the success of minor-league baseball, and the Energy is on track to join the Cubs’ legacy in Iowa sports. The Energy serves as the minor league affiliate of four NBA teams: Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards. Since its inception in 2007, the team has been a success on the court, winning conference champions in 2009, 2010 and went on to take home the D-League crown in 2011.
Despite a poor 2012-13 season, devoted fans still turned out to support the team, giving the franchise its highest attendance marks yet, according to its website. It was enough, in fact, to make starting guard/forward Othyus Jeffers take notice. The Energy’s passionate fans are one of the Chicago native’s favorite things about playing here.
“No other fanfare is better than Des Moines,” Jeffers said.
It’s been four years since minor league hockey packed up and left Des Moines, which made the swift and sudden April announcement of the arrival of a new AHL hockey team, the Iowa Wild, all the more surprising. The Houston Aeros was the AHL affiliate of the NHL Minnesota Wild for more than 10 years, before a lease disagreement prompted a move to Des Moines. Now the Aeros have been given a makeover and rebranded the Iowa Wild.
With baseball, football and basketball all having some level of success in Des Moines, local sports fans find it peculiar that hockey has not.
“It’s a sport the population isn’t familiar with,” Makris said.
Hockey at Wells Fargo Arena has failed twice since 2005, first as NHL Dallas Stars-affiliate Iowa Stars and then as NHL Anaheim Ducks-affiliate Iowa Chops, which left town in 2009. Boyd was the manager of game operations for the Iowa Stars for two years before local hockey took its hiatus.
“The owners weren’t very hands-on or in control; it wasn’t a great situation,” he explained.
Initially there was sound fan support, Boyd claims, but the team later ran into issues such as bad scheduling (some games were held on back-to-back nights) and a season that went on too long. Be that as it may, the sport flopping twice in the last 10 years doesn’t seem to be of concern this time around.
“This time they’re doing it right. They’re committed to develop good talent and understand it’s tough to make money,” Boyd said.
Many are happy to see the sport return, especially the notoriously rowdy hockey fans, who think it can only add to Des Moines’ boom in growth and appeal. Other team owners and managers agree, too.
“It’s good for us. The more (options in local sports) there are, builds the atmosphere,” Gartner said.
“Any addition to the Des Moines sports scene is positive if it can succeed and not negatively impact other teams,” Makris added.
Wells Fargo Arena is currently home to both the Energy and Barnstormers. While the Barnstormers won’t experience much conflict in scheduling, the Wild and Energy will.
“The biggest thing is that there are fewer dates to go around. Our seasons overlap, and everyone wants the coveted weekend dates,” Makris admitted, also noting that it will be harder to schedule concerts and other large events at the venue.
Scheduling is a concern, but Chicago’s United Center and Los Angeles’ Staples Center have shown that it can be done. Locals are optimistic overall about bringing hockey back to town.
As for a LeBron and Dwayne sighting at Centro?
“Never say never,” Boyd said with a smile. CV