New Team New Mission

June 21, 2002
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WALKER — While Michael Jordan was collecting 24 points in a preseason game at Van Andel Arena, marketers for the Grand Rapids Hoops also were trying to score early.

The Hoops, which begin their first full home season under owners Joel and Bruce Langlois on Nov. 24 in a restructured Continental Basketball Association, were handing out schedules and talking up the new-look franchise to the capacity crowd who came to see His Airness soar on Oct. 18.

“We distributed about 10,000 pocket schedules outside of the arena to all those fans, and in and around the restaurants and bars. We’re going to work every angle we can to make this minor league franchise profitable and here for the long haul,” said Hoops GM Steve Project.

Langlois, who took over the Hoops last winter after the league folded in February under Isiah Thomas, hired Project in June to direct the business aspects of the club. Project came to the Hoops with a decade of corporate marketing experience under his belt, having spent seven of those years marketing sports for the Amway Corp.

Then Langlois and five other franchise owners bought the CBA name and the names of four teams in July for $22,000.

After that deal closed, Langlois came up with a business objective to make the Hoops the most desirable minor-league basketball destination in the world. He admits it’s a lofty goal. But at the same time, he feels it can be reached. Why? Because he also owns the building the Hoops play in, the DeltaPlex Entertainment and Expo Center in suburban Walker, and he believes that the dual ownership gives him a decided advantage.

“We have flexibility with this building,” said Langlois. “We’re not under a national management company or we’re not subject to the Downtown Development Authority or the arena authority committee dictating what we do or where we go. The independence of our building gives us the flexibility to do the things that we want to do.”

“Owning the building has tremendous advantages in terms of being a desirable franchise from the financial stability part of it, and that’s the bottom line of running this business,” added Project.

Langlois also wants to position the DeltaPlex as the area’s premier address for roundball at every level, from high school to professional. He feels that the popularity of the sport in the region fits the size of his building, which has about half the seats of the downtown arena where the Hoops once played to about a third of the building’s capacity.

To get where he wants to be, Langlois is counting on the club’s managerial experience, which includes the work Project and head coach Mark Hughes did in the sport overseas. He also feels that his group has to communicate more openly with businesses, fans and the media than the string of previous owners did.

“They’ve always kind of taken, in my opinion, almost an elitist position, that this is our team and we’ll tell you how we’re going to do it. I might have been the one who put up the money to keep the team in town, but I look at this team as belonging to West Michigan and not so much as belonging to me,” said Langlois, also president of Delta Properties.

Langlois is convinced that ticket buyers and business sponsors have to feel they hold a share in the Hoops to succeed. Convincing them that they do, however, may very well be his biggest challenge following the short-lived and dismal Thomas era.

“When Isiah bought the team he did a really good job of taking away any kind of ownership the people would have any feeling for at all. I think that was one of the reasons that he failed so miserably. People in town have to say this is our team and feel like its our team, and not that it’s Isiah’s team that plays in Grand Rapids.

“We have to let people know what is going on. That, obviously, comes through the media,” added Langlois. “Our sponsors are as big a part of this thing as is anyone else in its success.”

Project shoots point on communicating that message. He has sat with potential sponsors and fans on nearly a daily basis the past few months and has asked them what they would like from the Hoops this season. He said those talks have resulted in keeping the franchise name, creating some $4 seats and offering free game-night parking.

“We were able to get sponsors to sponsor the parking lot so we can afford to offer free parking for all of our Hoops games,” said Project. “The problem has always been how the business has been run and what you’re going to do to entertain the fans.

“I think there is a groundswell of interest that came from Joel saving this franchise when it was this close to going away from the marketplace, and that the DeltaPlex will be a better home for pro basketball in this market,” he said. “The sponsors signed on the dotted line even before we had a schedule with the new league.”

Langlois, who said he honored tickets and sponsorships from the Thomas-bankrupted Hoops last year when he took over the franchise in February, pointed out that a sponsor’s marketing dollar goes further at the DeltaPlex than it did at the arena.

“We’re a lot more affordable on all fronts, including the sponsorship dollars. Some of these people told us that they had already planned on not doing anything more with the Hoops last year, and now they are saying we’re going to do something with the Hoops. They threw up their hands last year because they weren’t consulted. That has changed.”

Discounts on season tickets are still available, saving buyers 15 percent on the packages. The Hoops also are offering 10-game mini-packages, group discounts and a ticket fundraising program. Most single game tickets run from $4 to $16, but the “Jack Nicholson” courtside seats are higher. More information is available at (616) 559-7935.

The franchise is being marketed as a survivor that refuses to be booted off the island. The marketing slogan for the first few weeks of the season is “a new team on a new mission with a new attitude.” After the first of the year, it changes to “one team on one mission with one attitude.” Clearly, management feels the Hoops will be a winner, not only at the gate but also with area businesses.

“We’re going to come up with some creative ways for sponsors to promote their products in the building,” said Langlois. “We’ve got the flexibility to do that and we want to make it fun for the sponsors and the spectators.”

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