Fourteen years ago, then-Augusta Mayor Bob Young stood at the riverwalk announcing the start of the East District Sports Festival – the prelude to the state’s Georgia Games.
Young pointed out the city’s progress as a sports destination. The Augusta GreenJackets, a minor league baseball team, were thriving. The Augusta Lynx, a minor league hockey team, had just started to plenty of fanfare. And an arenafootball2 franchise, the Augusta Stallions, was on the way the following year.
“(Augusta) is the city that majors in minor sports,” Young said.
The Augusta RiverHawks announced Tuesday that they plan to go dormant for a season, threatening to become a distant memory like the other hockey team (the Lynx) and the arena football squads (Stallions, Colts and Spartans).
Despite being the second-largest city in Georgia, Augusta has just one remaining minor league franchise, the GreenJackets, and even that one could soon be saying adios.
Young, now the president and CEO at the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, said the lack of minor league sports doesn’t tarnish the city’s image.
“What’s the symphony like? What’s the library like? It all goes back to the quality of life,” he said. “I don’t know if you can still say we major in minors. We give it a try. That says a lot about the community. Maybe one day a franchise will click.”
Franchises are failing to click for two reasons: money and fan support. The Lynx played for 11 seasons and folded after seven games of the 2008-09 season, with attendance (2,722 average) next to last in the ECHL. The RiverHawks – started in 2010 – ended this season last in attendance in the Southern Professional Hockey League (1,830 average), and they played their final eight games at the Augusta Ice Sports Center after the $1 million ice system inside James Brown Arena broke.
The Augusta Stallions opened in 2000 at James Brown Arena to a sold-out crowd. Attendance started declining and owner Frank Lawrence pulled the plug after the 2002 season, asking the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority for financial concessions and a cleaner arena. He received neither.
Arena football returned in 2006 with the Augusta Spartans (which eventually became the Colts). After three seasons, the franchise folded.
The GreenJackets, a Class A San Francisco Giants affiliate, have bucked the trend of minor league franchises collapsing. Celebrating their 25th anniversary this season, the GreenJackets have become an Augusta staple.
However, the team has just changed ownership and is considering a move from Lake Olmstead Stadium to North Augusta, whose leaders are proposing a $150 million project that will feature a stadium, parking deck and conference center.
“I think the community has shown to some extent they support minor league sports,” Young said. “It’s been a question of whether these teams can sustain a fan base.
“Everybody at the end of the day has to recognize these are businesses.”
The Young Professionals of Augusta organization has actively supported minor league franchises for years. Losing those teams translates into fewer opportunities for residents, while also giving critics something else to complain about, YPA president Sean Frantom said.
“I hate the word ‘Disgusta’, but people use it in the community,” he said. “We have to have outlets for people to do things. It’s something for people to do during the week. Without that, there’s a gap in the community.”
There’s been a changing face on the sports scene since Young made his declaration in 1999. While just one minor league franchise remains, Augusta has become an events-driven city with plenty of annual staples. The Augusta Futurity, the largest cutting horse show east of the Mississippi River, held its 34th consecutive event in January. The Masters Tournament, the most popular golf tournament in the world, went on without a hitch in April. In July, the Nike Peach Jam basketball tournament returns to Riverview Park in North Augusta. In September, thousands of athletes will flood downtown Augusta for the fourth annual ESi Ironman 70.3 Augusta.
According to the Augusta Sports Council, 65 events in 2012 attracted more than $21 million in direct visitor spending, council CEO Brinsley Thigpen said.
“We want Augusta to be a sports destination – it already is in April,” said Thigpen, who said The Color Run 5k in October in downtown Augusta is expected to be a big draw. “There’s a lot we have that boost our economy and improve our quality of life.”
Frantom said if the GreenJackets move to North Augusta, downtown Augusta would still benefit, with fans attending bars and restaurants before and after games.
“I may buy a boat and start a water taxi,” he said with a laugh.
There’s rumors of potential arena football and professional basketball teams coming to town. Whether these franchises come and become fan favorites like the GreenJackets or fail to draw support remains to be seen.
“The Augusta Sports Council used to say Augusta wanted to major in minor league sports,” Young said. “I don’t think Augusta is any poorer because it’s tried.”