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Minor leaguers enjoy major fan support


Minor leaguers enjoy major fan support
All three Grand Rapids professional minor-league sports franchises are prospering in the midst of the worst economic period since the Great Depression.

Impossible, right?

Wrong. The Grand Rapids Griffins, West Michigan Whitecaps and Grand Rapids Rampage continue to post significant increases in attendance, providing local fans with a much-needed break from the constant pressures of layoffs, home foreclosures, failing industries and plunging stock markets.

"People still need an escape," said Tim Gortsema, senior vice president of business operations for the Griffins. "There's so much negativity out there. I think people just want to get away from that and have some fun. Minor-league sports is a very cost-effective way to do that."

Fans are finding refuge at Griffins games this season.

The team, preparing for a run at the Calder Cup in the American Hockey League playoffs, ended the regular home season Friday having sold out its final four dates. That guarantees the Griffins their highest single-season attendance since the 2000-01 season and a third consecutive year of increased attendance for the first time in franchise history.

Overall, their attendance is up 13.7 percent since 2005-06. Meanwhile, the American Hockey League is slightly down in attendance over the same three years.

"I tell friends, 'I could pay $200 an hour for therapy or I could go to a Griffins game.' It's just a lot of fun. It's a really good value," said Joe Marion, 54, a longtime season ticket holder from Plainfield Township. "You get a chance to get away from the day-to-day grind of things and all the stresses of life. It's a chance to not think about the bills, just relax, have some fun."

The same trend applies to the Whitecaps and Rampage. Both have posted substantial attendance increases in the past two seasons.

"I think it's the whole sense of pride about the Whitecaps," said Laurie Beard, 57, president and chief executive officer of Founders Bank & Trust, a Whitecaps season ticket holder since the Baseball team's inception.

"It's our team. We can't solve everything else that's going on in the world, but we can support things locally."

Average attendance for the Whitecaps jumped 4.4 percent in 2007 and climbed an additional 1.8 percent last summer despite crumbling economic conditions. Those numbers mirror Midwest League attendance figures, which have steadily increased during the past three years.

"If you look back through difficult economic times, the things that have survived are Baseball and movie theaters," said Jim Jarecki, Whitecaps vice president of Baseball operations.

The Rampage, who say they expect to relaunch in 2010 following the Arena Football League's decision to cancel this season because of financial problems, posted a 19.7 percent attendance increase since 2006. The team seemed poised to continue that surge based on heightened fan interest and strong season-ticket renewals after reaching the American Conference finals in 2008.

Regionally, the Muskegon Fury posted a one-year gain in attendance after dipping, while the Kalamazoo Wings have seen falling attendance the past three years.

The three local franchises have used distinct, although familiar, approaches to help fans reconnect with them as affordable entertainment much closer to home than their big-league counterparts in Detroit and Chicago.

Their success stories:

Fun factor increased

A year ago, the Griffins decided to loosen things up.

"We got the staff out of suits and ties and into logo shirts." Gortsema said. "We just wanted to create a looser, more fun atmosphere."

The team opened a "spirit station" where fans create their own signs and focused on fan-friendly promotions.

The overwhelming response to their $1 hot dogs and $1 beers promotion Friday nights has pushed the Griffins to their largest percentage increase from one season to the next -- 8 percent this year -- in team history.

"In this market, people are looking for a deal. They're looking for value," Gortsema explained.

An affiliation with the Stanley Cup champs hasn't hurt, either.

The parent club Detroit Red Wings have sent players such as Chris Chelios, Curtis Joseph, Manny Legace, Darren McCarty and Chris Osgood to the Griffins on rehab assignments. Their appearances have boosted ticket sales.

Best of both worlds

The Whitecaps combine fun and championships.

The low Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers has claimed five Midwest League titles in 15 seasons. But its focus remains on the fans.

"We're in our 16th year, so the honeymoon is over," Whitecaps managing partner and chief executive officer Lew Chamberlin said. "What we do is we remind the fans that we're still here, we're still a great value and we're still a lot of fun."

Especially in depressed economic times.

The team relies on numerous promotions to lure fans: "Thrifty Thursdays" with $2 hot dogs, $2 soft drinks and $2 beers; " Tiger Fridays" with autograph sessions featuring former Tigers players; Saturday postgame fireworks; and Sunday matinee games where kids can run the bases afterward.

Its affiliation with the Tigers brought star players Curtis Granderson and Magglio Ordonez to West Michigan on rehab assignments last season. Their appearances helped produce huge crowds.

"We tried to get ( Tigers president and general manager Dave) Dombrowski to do 'Rehab Mondays' this year," Chamberlin said with a laugh. "I thought it was a great idea, but he didn't think it was that funny."

The team, which opened its season Thursday at home, has raised the prices of its box seats ($11) and reserved seats ($9.50) to keep up with rising costs. It has installed new wider, padded premium box seats behind home plate ($13).

Turnaround on hold

The Rampage hired an all-new coaching staff last season after a slump in playoff appearances and attendance.

The move paid off with a late-season winning streak that helped clinch an AFL playoff berth on the final weekend of the season, culminating in a trip to the conference championship game.

As a result, attendance shot up almost 10 percent last year.

"Our (bottom line) is more dependent on winning games than the Griffins or Whitecaps because we only have an eight-game home schedule," Rampage general manager Scott Woodruff said.

The AFL is expected to announce its return in 2010 by mid-April -- pending final approval of a revamped business plan by the players and the league's board of directors.

In the meantime, Rampage coach Steve Thonn and his staff remain on the payroll so the team might pick up where it left off at the end of 2008.

"We were one game from reaching the ArenaBowl last year," Woodruff said. "No less than an ArenaBowl championship next year? Why not?

"No question, that's our goal."


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 15, 2009

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