More Than A Ballpark

November 3, 2006
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COMSTOCK PARK — Some thought the bride might be inclined to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. But she stuck to tradition and instead tossed the wedding bouquet over her left shoulder.

And no one detected a yellowish-brown stain on her pitching hand after she flung the flowers at the first wedding reception ever held at Fifth Third Ballpark. The event took place recently inside the centerfield Stadium Club, which the West Michigan Whitecaps opened last April, marking a new business direction for the 2006 Midwest League champions.

Normally, the Whitecaps business season would have been over after the team won its fourth league championship in mid-September. But that’s not the case this year, as the Stadium Club allows the Whitecaps to conduct business throughout the winter months — when most minor-league franchises are hibernating.

The club was the focus of a $1 million renovation project that Whitecaps Professional Baseball undertook during the off-season last year. The company removed the bleachers it had added in 1996 to build the enclosed-glass structure that is climate controlled for year-round use and comfortably holds 200 guests.

“We have this enclosed space, which now allows us to go beyond just seasonal,” said Lew Chamberlin, CEO and managing partner.

“We are basically a seasonal business in terms of our ability to capture revenue. What we have come to understand over the years is we need to generate as much non-traditional, non-baseball revenue as we possibly can,” he added.

This year’s post-business season began when the Whitecaps started hosting parties to follow the Detroit Tigers, the team’s Major League affiliate, through the playoffs. The park was opened to all who wanted to watch the Tigers on the big screen in left field and the plasma screens in the Stadium Club. Those who came could also play a little catch or take some batting practice on the field.

The Whitecaps didn’t charge admission but did offer people all the “baseball food” they could eat for $10 all evening long and $1 draft beers for the first two hours. For the opening game of the World Series, Chamberlin said about 300 turned out. He opened all the suites to accommodate the crowd because that was the night the wedding reception was being held in the Stadium Club.

“By and large, it’s been really great,” he said of the attendance. “Everybody I’ve talked to that watched the games here has been very positive. They’ve said, ‘It’s much better than sitting at home by myself watching it on TV.’ It’s much better to watch a game in sort of a communal atmosphere.”

Chamberlin sees business meetings, luncheons and seminars in the club’s future. And being someone known for practicing what he preaches, Chamberlin said the Whitecaps held their two-day, season-ending retreat in the building a few weeks ago.

“What I think it offers for businesses is a very unique vantage point. You can look out of those windows and there is the ballpark. It’s an unusual setting and one that is truly unique. You can’t get this by going just anywhere and renting a room,” he said.

When the weather allows it and the Whitecaps are on the road, Chamberlin said access to the field can be included as part of a meeting.

“We’ll set it up so they can play softball. We’ll set up a little batting practice for them. So that provides sort of a unique amenity that we can offer,” he said.

Before the Stadium Club, the Whitecaps held RV shows, carnivals, concerts and other events to increase non-baseball revenue. One of those other events is an annual display of Christmas lights throughout the park. Chamberlin believes with the park all lit up, the Stadium Club can become a good place for a company Christmas party.

“It’s really a neat setting. You drive through the lights to the Stadium Club and you have your Christmas party there. We’re excited about that,” he said.

Chamberlin said he is even looking at turning the club into a part-time concert venue.

“You ball all that together and it’s a fairly significant amount of economic activity and revenue production for us. And we feel that we need to get as much use out of this building as we can while we can have it open,” he said.

“So by extending that philosophy, we decided we could create revenues beyond the October cutoff date for the stadium. We can have wedding receptions. We can have business meetings. We’re even talking about putting some music in here and using it as an occasional music venue. Hopefully, we’ll have something along those lines in the next month or two.”

And the Whitecaps can throw in plenty of parking.

Chamberlin believes replacing the centerfield bleachers with the Stadium Club was the right thing to do and is a decision that looks better every day, because it can accommodate the recreational consumer and the business professional.

It also can meet the Whitecaps’ need for revenue from activities other than baseball. But at the same time, the Stadium Club has also raised the franchise’s revenue from baseball.

“It really has paid off even better than we thought it would because it has had — and continues to have — a pretty dramatic effect on baseball-related revenue because of our ability to rent it out and what it does for our food per-caps and our tickets per-caps,” he said.

“There is just a higher perceived value than when it was just bleachers, and it’s given us a bump there.”    

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