GR Lands The Flight

April 8, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — It was only halftime of his first-ever preseason game when Tyler Whitcomb wondered what he had done.

As his collection of former college players trailed by 21 points at the break, he anxiously worried whether he had made a whopper of a financial mistake by landing the Flight, an International Basketball League franchise, in Grand Rapids.

“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Man, I might have really messed up here,’” he said.

But to his relief, and for the sake of his sanity, the Flight wasn’t grounded. His fledgling team soared back in the second half to score 93 points and flew past Battle Creek, 153-149.

“We were pretty pumped. On the ride home we were all really excited,” he said.

Whitcomb may very well be the youngest owner of a professional sports franchise on the planet, at least in the northern hemisphere. He is the inaugural owner of an inaugural team in an inaugural league, and his club just played its first two for-real games last weekend.

Owning a pro basketball franchise is something Whitcomb — who, by the way, is only 26 years old — has wanted to do for, well, almost all of his life. His background is hoops driven. He played the game in high school, was a student assistant to the Grand Rapids Community College team, coached freshmen at Catholic Central High School, and did the same for the junior varsity at Union High School.

“After that I started a family. I worked fulltime and went to school fulltime, so I sort of stepped out of basketball and just coached AAU and helped recruit a little bit. I applied for a couple of varsity jobs once things settled down,” he said.

“But I ended up getting turned down on three different varsity jobs,” he added. “Then this opportunity came up, and I made it work.”

That opportunity arose last June when league founder and commissioner Mikal Duilio held a press conference at the GVSU Eberhard Center. As part of his Midwest tour, Duilio laid out his game plan and business plan before the media, and then promised to locate a franchise here.

“I want to make a team come here. The city is important,” he said at the time.

The IBL opened last weekend with 17 franchises, including the Flight, five more than Duilio hoped to have. Four are located in Michigan and the Flight played two of those last weekend.

“I don’t regret it. I think we’re doing well. I think it’s going to take off and I think it’s real exciting for Grand Rapids,” said Whitcomb. “With the way the business plan is set up and with the league structure, I really think we’re going to be around for years to come.”

When Duilio was here, he said the annual operating cost for a franchise should run about $90,000. Whitcomb expressed a lot of confidence in the league’s business plan and called it affordable, even for a young guy with a wife and two kids.

“The league tries to keep the expenses down to where you’re paying players from $30 to $100 a game. The yearly fees are only about $18,000. Everything is real affordable,” he said.

Whitcomb figures that his Flight has to land 500 to 600 paying customers for each of his 10 home games to break even. Compare that number to the 2,000 fans each Continental Basketball Association game needs to lure.

“They’re drawing in about 1,200 fans and if we can get that same fan base, we will be successful,” he said.

Flight tickets are affordable, too. Single games are $6 for adults and $4 for those age 17 and under. The team is home the next two Fridays playing Battle Creek and Macomb County. Both games start at 7:30. All home games are played at Wyoming Park High School.

The Flight has its team office on Ottawa Beach Road in Holland. But Whitcomb plots most of his strategy in his Grandville home that he shares with his wife, Annie, and their two kids, Jonathan and Katelyn.

Whitcomb is the team president and has two investors working with him. Tom Moore is general manager of the Flight and Fred Vander Ploeg serves as director of public relations, media and marketing. Gary Gabrielse handles corporate sponsorships and some are still available.

The Flight also has room for a few more investors, and making an investment can be very affordable. Whitcomb said just $10,000 can get someone 5 percent of the franchise, and an investor can be someone who has never worked up a sweat trying to hit a three-pointer.

“They don’t have to have a love for basketball. I think it’s a great investment opportunity because if you were to look at what someone bought a minor pro team for 10 years ago and look at what it’s worth today, there’s actually a tremendous difference,” said Whitcomb, who is the guy to contact.

“With sponsors and other investors, we’re looking at sitting nice for the next two years.”    

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