Hardwood Courts In Session

February 3, 2003
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BYRON CENTER — About a half-million people should make their way through a pair of courthouses this year. Some will be players. Others will be spectators. None will be arraigned. But most will be impressed with what they find.

These courthouses are the Courthouse Athletic Centers (CAC). The Portage CAC has been open since 1997 and drew over 300,000 players and spectators last year. The Byron Center CAC just celebrated its first anniversary in January and expects to draw more than 200,000 through its doors this year.

Those are very significant numbers. Being in the business of renting court space, as the CACs do for basketball and volleyball, is normally a tough nut to crack. Usually businesses like these come and go, and almost no one notices. But the CACs are growing and one is expanding. So what makes the Courthouse Athletic Centers different?

Well, it appears that owners Mike Spontelli and Mark Marlowe have made their courts more about business than sport. Spontelli told the Business Journal that he and Marlowe have the same love for the games that others in this field have held, but felt they have invested more of their time and effort into the business end of the sporting business.

Instead of using an ‘open the doors and let’s see what happens’ philosophy — an attitude that many lovers of the game bring into this business — Spontelli and Marlowe have kept a close eye on who was coming through those doors and an open mind to making changes.

“We’ve had a game plan all along, but we’ve allowed for flexibility,” said Spontelli, CAC president and general manager of Businesscards Plus.

“Quite honestly, we’ve changed our direction 360 degrees from what we thought it was going to be when we first opened up,” he added. “We thought it was going to be all adult-driven programs and it’s just the opposite. It’s all kids-driven.”

Elementary and middle school students have turned out to be their key customers, a market that also has drawn parents, relatives and friends to the facilities. Spontelli said the Portage center was open for about 18 months when they switched their focus from adult recreation leagues to kids.

“The adult stuff has been rock steady for us, but it hasn’t necessarily grown. There are a certain number of people that want to play basketball and volleyball, but you don’t have the numbers that you do with kids, especially through the fourth and ninth grades.”

But that secondary market of adults was strong enough to inspire Spontelli and Marlowe to add a fitness center to the Byron Center building, as one wasn’t readily available in the area. Now when some parents bring their kids to the center, they work out while their children play.

“We feel that is going to make a big difference in what we do,” said Spontelli. “But the training and fitness end of it is really geared toward showing kids how to do it the right way, and we are also attracting adults to the fitness center that just want a place to work out.”

Spontelli said another key to their success was they made sure they were well capitalized before they opened the doors. He noted they knew going in that it would take at least two years before they began seeing a return on their investment. It takes that long just to get the word out when you don’t have an ad budget the size of Wal-Mart’s to convince people that they should pay you a visit.

“Once people come through the building, we feel very confident they’ll come back. But it takes a while because there have been a lot of other people in Grand Rapids ahead of us that have put together either a poor product, or they didn’t stay in business long enough, or they didn’t take care of their facility,” said Spontelli.

Another reason why others may have failed is that they tried to fit the business into an existing building. Spontelli and Marlowe, however, spent more and built both centers to their specifications. The Portage CAC is 22,000 square feet, while the one in Byron Center is 30,000.

They plan to expand the Portage building this year and add a fitness center to it. Spontelli said he wasn’t sure whether they would tack on 8,000 square feet or build a new 30,000-square-foot structure there. He did say that a decision on which way they would go would be made when the bids come in this spring. He also said that they’re looking at going into other cities, and, right now, Ann Arbor tops their list.

“Part of our fallback was, if the business didn’t work we always had a good, solid building in an industrial setting that we could sell to somebody,” said Spontelli.

That point is another key to their success. Spontelli said they initially had hoped to locate the Byron Center facility closer to 44th Street instead of near 84th Street. But to get there Spontelli said they would have had to build an industrial-type building in a retail sector. And if the business had fizzled, they would have had a rough time selling their building.

Well, they haven’t had to worry about that. Spontelli and Marlowe are happy with their location. Access to it is easy; it’s just west of Exit 76 on U.S. 131. And the area has grown, which has given the CAC more exposure.

“I guess we’ve taken a different approach to it and it seems to have worked. My partner does a wonderful job. We’ve got a good manager (Dan Stahr) in Kalamazoo,” said Spontelli. “And really, I think the other thing is, is the people that we’ve got working for us and some of the programs that we’ve put together.”           

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