PROGRESS: Gwinnett a strong, but tough sports crowd

It's been a decade since the Gwinnett Gladiators relocated from Mobile, Ala., and first played pro hockey here.

The things that attracted the ownership and management of the former Mysticks organization to Gwinnett still exist.

"It's a good market in the sense that there's a lot of people," said team president Steven Chapman, who came with the franchise from Mobile. "That's where it starts. It's the suburbs, it's where families live. It's people that are looking for things to do with their kids. It's people that maybe don't want to drive downtown all the time, looking for things to do."

The Gladiators paved the way for other minor-league pro teams, including the Gwinnett Braves, who are celebrating their fifth anniversary season. The Gladiators started playing at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in October of 2003, after nearly a year of planning and promoting.

But for all the advantages this county offers, it also comes with a couple of challenges.

"After 10 years you start to seep in more and more, but the challenge in Gwinnett is you don't have the media presence you do in a place like, and I'll use Greenville as an example," Chapman said. "When you're in Greenville, you dominate the marketplace. You're one of the lead stories on the evening news every night.

"When you're in the suburbs of Atlanta, we've got (the Daily Post) and past that, it's trying to carve your way into awareness around Atlanta. I'm still amazed to this day about people who don't even know there's an arena here, nevermind the Gladiators."

The other difficulty lies within the business community. On average, ECHL teams get 30 to 40 percent of their revenue from local businesses. Gwinnett gets less than 15 percent. Which means the team is supported almost entirely by individual fans.

"We are well supported from a community standpoint," Chapman said. "What we really need is for local businesses to say, 'Hey, we want these things here in Gwinnett. We want the Gladiators. We want the G-Braves.'

"You know what? Buy four season tickets to support it. That's the key in Gwinnett going forward."

Other pro teams have come and gone in the county, most notably, the Georgia Force arena football team.

"I'll tell you this, I think a lot of people look at our success, and you've seen a lot of things come through here and you'll probably see a lot more things try to come through here that don't work," Chapman said. "People think, oh, you just plop something down in Gwinnett and it's going to work. That's not the case at all. You have to work hard and you have to entwine yourself in the community."

In it's 10th season, Chapman sees that. The team held a weekend to honor the past seasons on Feb. 9-10.

"As it goes on, it seems more like a big family," Chapman said. "The Gladiators is bigger than the sum of its parts. It's a community asset and if the community continues to look at it that way and support it, I don't see why the Gladiators can't be here for 50 more years."

The Gladiators have always ranked among the ECHL leaders in attendance and have generally matched that success on the ice.G-BravesIt's still a work in progress at Coolray Field as the G-Braves enter Year 5 in Gwinnett.

For minor league baseball, wins are a secondary concern, nice side effect of player development and a stable major league organization. What the Gwinnett Braves, the Class AAA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, can control is the in-game environment and off-field environs. So far, the efforts haven't yielded the numbers other franchises in the International League draw.

In the first four years, the G-Braves have ranked in the bottom half in attendance in the league not sustaining even the new-team fad for more than opening weekend.

Ticket sales and growing interest across the county and beyond remain the primary focus of general manager North Johnson, who took over in the winter following the inaugural 2009 season. They have added ticket packages and giveaways, have worked on food discounts and this year have changed the start times to an hour earlier. Most Monday through Thursday games will begin at 6 p.m. this season rather than the usual 7 p.m. The weekend games, which the G-Braves do their best in terms of building a crowd, will still start at 7 p.m.

"It's another step in our evolution to make sure we are doing the best thing we can for our fans," Johnson said.

And at least they are still here. The arena football Georgia Force have tried Gwinnett on three separate occasions, once bolting for Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta and twice closing down operations under two different ownership groups.

Gwinnett is a big, but tough market to crack, no matter how much time a franchise invests.

"We have to adjust what we do to make sure our fans still have an opportunity to come out," Johnson said.