The Bucks Stop Here

March 9, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Most people probably don’t believe that a dollar has much buying power anymore. But no one should count the Grand Rapids Griffins in that group.

Since the city’s American Hockey League franchise began selling its customers hot dogs and beers for one single greenback at Friday home games, attendance on those nights has soared. The normal turnstile count on Friday nights had been about 5,500, but for the past few Fridays attendance has been closer to 8,500.

Dollar brews and dogs, though, can’t take all the credit for selling an additional 3,000 tickets — worth somewhere around $30,000 — on those Fridays. Two of the $1 nights have also featured an autograph appearance at Van Andel Arena by Brandon Inge of the Detroit Tigers and the home debut of Detroit Red Wings forward Darren McCarty in a Griffins jersey.

But even McCarty told sports reporters that the huge turnout for his first home game might have had more to do with the low-cost beers and dogs the Griffins were offering than him taking his first shift on the arena’s ice. Whether McCarty, who has a history of deflecting attention from himself, was right or not doesn’t change the fact that Griffins management is convinced the $1 nights have paid off as a good investment.

“I would say, absolutely,” said Tim Gortsema, Griffins senior vice president of business operations.

“It has been partnered with other promotions that we’ve had going on. But having said that, that promotion in and of itself certainly seems to be reaching new fans, I would say, and probably different fans that we hadn’t been reaching before or at the same level that we’re reaching now.”

Gortsema said the proof that Friday $1 nights have been popular is lined up in the arena lobby. The doors open at 6 p.m. for the 7 p.m. puck drop, and the discounted beers and dogs are sold from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. When the doors open, SMG concession workers have dozens of beers poured and hot dogs wrapped to meet the initial rush of customers.

“It’s much busier much sooner,” said Gortsema. “Normally, it’s not going to be that busy at that time. But since we’ve been running this promotion, given that it’s designed to get people here sooner, it certainly has been successful in that effort, because that lobby is full before 6 o’clock.”

Some might think that selling beers and dogs for a buck might cut into the usual Friday revenue take at the arena, but that hasn’t been the case. SMG Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan said sales on $1 nights have hiked gross sales and per-capita spending.

“What we’re seeing, in essence, is we’re almost at the point where people are spending what they usually spend on a normal Friday night, plus they’re spending the hot-dog money. There is a true increment in sales,” he said.

“To put it in context, if we had 8,000 people for hockey that traditionally equated to $40,000 spent, or $5 per person. What we’ve seen is that $40,000 is still being spent, while additionally an extra $20,000 — or whatever the case may be — is being spent on these promotional items.”

The $1 night agreement is between the Griffins, the arena and the concessionaire, SMG Food and Beverage. MacKeigan said all three have seen decent returns, as the Griffins get an adjustable share of concession revenue based on total sales.

“The margins on the promotional items are small, undoubtedly. With that being said, though, it hasn’t impacted the other items where we do have our normal margins, and it has increased attendance. Therefore, we’ve got more volumes. So we feel, right now anyway, that it appears to have had a positive impact on the financials,” he said, adding that the final financial statement on the trio of $1 nights is being compiled.

The Grand Rapids Rampage, the city’s Arena Football League team, is opening its season this week by also selling brews and dogs for a buck. General Manager Scott Woodruff told the Business Journal that he wasn’t sure if the Rampage would have more dollar games this season.

He said the franchise would evaluate attendance and concession sales from the opener on Monday and then make a decision.

“I think if the model works on March 10, we’ll probably try it out later in the year, maybe for a Sunday game or a game that’s not played on a Friday or Saturday, because we do well with those games,” he said.

“I think it’s a great idea that the Griffins had. It definitely caught our attention,” he added.

The concessions contract the Rampage has with the CAA differs from the Griffins’ contract, even though the teams are the arena’s only tenants and DP Fox Sports and Entertainment owns a majority share in both. In a lease agreement that was amended nearly five years ago, the Rampage agreed to turn over 20 percent of its concession revenue to the CAA when home games top 8,000 in attendance.

“It’s a very, very small percentage,” said Woodruff of the team’s concessions share. “It really is insignificant, but we do get a small take on the concessions for the Rampage.”

So if the cheap eats and drinks sold at the opener don’t cover the expenses involved in selling the items, the Rampage will swallow the loss, and Woodruff said he expects one.

“What we will literally have to do is make up the difference between the normal retail price and a dollar, minus whatever the take on concessions is,” he said. “For every dollar beer and dog sold, we’ll take a hit on, but we will make it up in incremental ticket revenue.”

Gortsema said the Griffins approached SMG with the $1 idea because some of their paying customers remarked that concession prices were too high. So they came up the brews-and-dogs menu for a three-game run as an effort to increase traffic on Fridays. On the first Friday, it was an instant hit as it drew over 8,400, and similar-sized crowds showed up on the next two Fridays.

“It was phenomenally successful in terms of the sheer volume that the promotion drove,” said Gortsema.

Gortsema said he will meet with MacKeigan soon to talk about continuing dollar night for the three remaining Friday games the Griffins have left this season.

“I think for the most part, all parties — the Griffins, the landlord and the concessionaire — would say that it’s been favorable,” he added.

Favorable may be a bit of an understatement to describe the sensation the idea has generated, because dollar nights have even found a home at Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings — the Griffins’ affiliate and a team not widely known for having in-game promotions — has scheduled seven this month. But beer isn’t on that team’s $1 menu, just popcorn, hot dogs and soft pretzels.

If the concessions promotion continues to be successful at the arena, Gortsema said the Grifins wouldn’t be opposed to making every Friday night home game next season a $1 night.

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