Arts & Entertainment, Economic Development, and Sports Business

Minor-league sports thriving in Grand Rapids

Despite good attendance numbers, franchises struggle with season ticket sales.

October 21, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Grand Rapids Griffins
The Grand Rapids Griffins are one of several minor league teams in West Michigan that enjoy a solid fan base and financial success. Courtesy Grand Rapids Griffins

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Grand Rapids is establishing its presence in minor-league sports circles.

Discussions about the success might lead to potential major-league talk, but Grand Rapids might be best to stay a minor-league city, said Tim Gortsema, president of the Grand Rapids Griffins.

“West Michigan is big enough to support multiple franchises,” Gortsema said of the success of the Griffins, basketball’s Grand Rapids Drive, baseball’s West Michigan Whitecaps and soccer’s Grand Rapids Football Club. “As a family guy myself, I don’t think it’s a huge deal to a kid if they go to a Griffins game or a (Detroit) Red Wings game.

“Grand Rapids and West Michigan, it’s fiscally conservative, and we have the best of all worlds. You have the full spectrum of sports and at family-friendly prices.”

To jump up to a major-league sport, Gortsema said the region would need to significantly invest in new and larger facilities, along with garnering an uptick in sponsorship support and attendance figures.

Balancing the likely increase in ticket prices and the “fiscally conservative” but “rabid” fan base also could get tricky.

Gortsema isn’t surprised the teams currently calling Grand Rapids home have solid attendance figures, including the Griffins and the Drive, both of which now are entering their seasons.

The Griffins won their first two games Oct. 14-15, and the Drive begin their season Nov. 11.

“You don’t have to go further than a Friday night at local high school stadium,” he said of West Michigan athletic fans. “I don’t see any negative impacts (of having all four sports), maybe we chase after some of the same sponsorship dollars, but in attendance, I don’t see it.”

Last season, the Griffins were among the top five in American Hockey League attendance, averaging in the mid-8,000s — the best mark for the team since its third or fourth season, Gortsema said.

He said the franchise dropped to a low in season ticket packages about six years ago — the team is in its 21st season — but has risen again in the past several years because of success on the ice. Still, he said the team is focusing on selling group sales and smaller ticket packages.

Gortsema said he believes time and money are the two major reasons season tickets aren’t as big of a sell as they once were.

“It’s a lifestyle commitment,” he said.

The Drive are trying to attract ticket sales outside the season packages, said Wes Weir, president of business operations for the Drive. Weir said the Drive have added to their internship program and group sales team to boost those ticket sales specifically.

“Season tickets are important and vital, but to commit to every home game, that idea is slowing down,” Weir said. “That’s where the importance of group sales comes in and focusing on that. I really expect that to help our attendance figures.”

Selling the courtside seat and tables for season tickets hasn’t been a problem for the Drive, with a 95 percent renewal rate for those tickets that make up a bulk of ticket revenue for the season, he said. To grow the revenue numbers, the Drive now must focus on corporate outings, along with youth groups, churches, schools and other organizations, Weir said.

As for sponsorships, Weir said the organization is concentrating on ensuring the founding sponsors, including Metro Health, Chemical Bank, Meijer, Experience Grand Rapids and Auto Owners Insurance, are getting the best value. He said the organization also will look to add several additional sponsors to help eclipse $500,000 in sponsorship revenue.

The Drive also hope to increase their media exposure with new deals that include public address announcer Eric Zane and Cumulus Radio for broadcasts. Weir believes the new coach, Rex Walters, will help with media exposure, as former head coach Otis Smith was promoted to the coaching staff of the Detroit Pistons, the National Basketball League parent affiliate of the Drive.

The rest of the Drive’s offseason focus was concentrated on making game days more fluid and enjoyable for fans, Weir said.

He hopes attendance continues to grow, and the team makes its first playoff run in its short existence.

“We’re excited. We put in a lot of work this offseason and should be poised for a boost to our bottom line,” he said.

The Griffins, meanwhile, will look to continue their streak of recent playoff runs, including a close series loss in last season’s Central Division Finals to eventual AHL champion Lake Erie Monsters. All four losses came by one goal, and the six-game series was the only non-sweep the Monsters encountered en route to the AHL title.

This season, the Griffins will look to repeat the magic of the 2012-13 season, when the team won the Calder Cup Championship.

“We’ll try to chase an attendance increase and finish in the top five across the league again,” Gortsema said. “We’ll also chase a championship. I’ve been through it once in hockey and once (with the defunct Arena Football League Grand Rapids Rampage), a lot of things have to go right, puck luck, bounces go your way, maintain health, NHL parent needs to maintain health. Maybe win a game you shouldn’t.”

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