Rampage Scores At The Turnstiles

July 7, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — When prices for basic consumer commodities such as gasoline and food rise dramatically in an economy that can be characterized as less than ideal, the first expense consumers normally cut back on is entertainment spending.

But that wasn’t the scenario this season for the Grand Rapids Rampage, as the Arena Football League franchise had nearly 10 percent more paying customers for the team’s regular home season than last year — and last year’s attendance was up by just under 10 percent from the previous season. Home attendance averaged 7,189 this past season, up from last season’s average of 6,549, despite a slight dip in season-ticket sales.

The team’s outlook has been further boosted by a good early showing in the post-season AFL playoffs, as the Rampage used an upset win a week ago on the road against Arizona to advance to this past weekend’s second round game at Chicago.

Rampage General Manager Scott Woodruff said the home attendance increase came from a striking rise in group-ticket sales, which were up by more than 2,000 from the 2007 season, and from walk-up sales for single-game tickets, which were up almost as much as group sales.

So why wasn’t there any attendance-loss doom accompanying the economic gloom?

The answer is positive thinking.

“There was a renewed optimism from the beginning of the season. I think a lot of that came from the change in the coaching staff that gave people hope there was a chance the team would be competitive. I think that is where it started,” said Woodruff of what he heard from both sales staff and ticket buyers.

Further evidence backing his theory can be found during a nine-game stretch when the team lost eight. Four of those were played on the Centennial Wireless Field at Van Andel Arena but attendance remained stable throughout the losing skid.

“Even when we got into that dry spell in the middle of the season and the team wasn’t winning, it still stayed OK. We didn’t have the fallout that we had in past years. It actually stayed strong, with the exception of a Sunday game, through the end of the year,” he said.

“I think with the economy being so tough, and unemployment, unfortunately, being higher than it should be, along with the other struggles that we’re facing across the country and particularly here in our region, sometimes there still is a demand for a healthy escape — whether it’s a movie, professional football or whatever.”

Arena management would agree with Woodruff’s evaluation.

The building had its fifth-best monthly margin in its 12-year history in May, a take of just under $500,000, and SMG Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan said people still have discretionary income to spend and some have decided to spend it at the arena instead of going elsewhere.

“I think Rich is wise. Because it’s more costly to travel now, I think people are looking for entertainment options closer to home. I think that’s probably dead on,” said Woodruff.

The marketing research the franchise does every other year shows that the average paying customer has a tad more discretionary income to spend than the average resident does, which also accounts for a portion of the increased ticket sales.

“Fans that come to Rampage games do earn higher incomes than the norm in our market.

“From there I think you can infer that they probably have a little more discretionary income than the average resident. So that is probably a factor,” said Woodruff.

The Rampage wasn’t the only DP Fox Ventures-owned pro sports franchise that had an attendance increase for the season in a tough economic climate. The Grand Rapids Griffins were also up last season and for the second consecutive year, too. The Griffins finished fifth in the American Hockey League attendance race this year, the franchise’s best placement in its seven AHL seasons.

Both franchises offered ticket buyers beers and hot dogs for $1 at the start of selected games, and the Rampage added soda to its dollar menu for the season finale. Woodruff said attendance for the two games that featured the $1 concession items was “much higher than normal.”

The West Michigan Whitecaps are holding steady at the turnstiles this season, too, ranking third in attendance in the 14-team Midwest League. The Single-A baseball franchise was averaging 5,032 paying customers per game last week with more than half the home season left. That attendance mark is just a few hundred below last year’s, which was the team’s best crowd number since 2004.

With two straight seasons of attendance growth under the Rampage’s belt, Woodruff said he and his sales staff have a fairly good idea of where their center of attention will be for next year’s ticket campaign.

“I think our main focus is going to be on the customer segment that didn’t grow and that’s the season-ticket base. That is our most important customer, no question about it, and what our focus is really going to be on is growing season tickets,” he said of the base that fell by about 100 from last season.

“Obviously, we will continue to try to grow groups and the single-game buyers, but really we’re going to have to put a renewed effort on growing the season-ticket base.”

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