Entrepreneurs with three things in common – a love of sports, a deep commitment to community and a vision– were the catalysts that helped make greater Grand Rapids the Sports Business Journal 2019 No. 1 minor league market.
A minor league market with a major league heart
Like much of Grand Rapids, the area’s minor league sports teams were born of an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to building a vibrant community. In the early to mid-‘90s, the founders of the West Michigan Whitecaps and the Grand Rapids Griffins saw what could be a thriving sports town and never gave up that pursuit.
Founders of the two newest teams in the region, the Grand Rapids Gold (formerly the Grand Rapids Drive) and Grand Rapids FC, followed suit in 2014, capitalizing on the enthusiasm that their predecessors helped foster.
Their collective vision and determination – along with private investment, patience and a loyal and passionate fan base – are what led to Grand Rapids-Comstock Park being named Sports Business Journal’s (SBJ) 2019 No. 1 minor league market.
“Those of us who live here know Grand Rapids is a sports town,” says Mike Guswiler, president of the West Michigan Sports Commission. “We’ve experienced the AHL Calder Cup finals. We continue to see packed stands for Whitecaps baseball. We experienced the 30-minute sell-out when Michigan State University held a pre-season game v. Georgia at Van Andel Arena – so we know. However, the SBJ ranking that places Grand Rapids and our minor teams at #1 legitimizes this to the rest of the sports world.”
Swinging for the fences
The West Michigan Whitecaps, the Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, were first up in the market.
Back in the mid-80’s, recent law school graduate and then-executive in his family’s Grand Rapids-based steel and supply business, Lew Chamberlin, and Michigan State University grad and Muskegon-native, Denny Baxter, had a parallel vision. To bring a minor league baseball team to West Michigan.
As Chamberlin told Sports Business Journal, “Our visions were really aligned: same approach, same philosophies, complementary skills. We decided to throw it in together.”
Those complementary skills and a lot of perseverance paid off. Chamberlin, Baxter and a group of 26 limited partners secured private financing for the construction of what is now Lake Michigan Credit Union Ballpark (LMCU Ballpark) in Comstock Park, about seven miles north of Grand Rapids. It’s notable that the stadium was constructed entirely with private funds, making it one of only a handful of professional baseball stadiums in the country to be built without taxpayer dollars. And with the Madison Muskies' move to the market, West Michigan was ready to play ball.
Opening day was April 12, 1994, marking the first time professional baseball was played in Grand Rapids since the Chicks – Grand Rapids’ All American Girls Professional Baseball League team – played their last game in 1954.
From day one, West Michigan fans embraced the team. In their opening season, the Whitecaps broke the all-time Class A attendance record set in 1949, logging over 472,000 fans by the end of the regular season. The team broke the record again in 1995 and 1996. And in 1999, Baseball America named the Whitecaps the Class A Organization of the Decade.
The Grand Rapids Griffins are a professional hockey team in the American Hockey League. They are the AHL affiliate to the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League, and are the 2013 and 2017 Calder Cup Champions.
Photo by Grand Rapids Griffins
A fire that destroyed the entire first-base side of the ballpark in January 2014 only strengthened the resolve of team owners and support from the community. On April 8, just 95 days after the devastating blaze, the team played their home opener against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in front of an enthusiastic crowd of over 7,100.
Fans remain loyal. Sixty-two of the original Whitecaps season-ticket holders maintain that status today. And by mid-2020, the team expects to welcome its 11 millionth fan to LMCU Ballpark.
Charity begins at home plate
Beyond great baseball, the Whitecaps organization is deeply engaged in the community. Guided by the slogan, “Enriching lives, one play at a time,” the Whitecaps Community Foundation oversees all charitable activity for the organization.
The centerpiece of the foundation is the Inner City Youth Baseball & Softball program. The program is designed to teach kids the fundamentals of baseball, sportsmanship, and the positive values of respect, responsibility, honesty and caring. Since 1995, more than a quarter of a million dollars has been pledged to the program, giving more than 35,000 children the opportunity to participate.
Entrepreneur led, fan fed
The Grand Rapids Griffins, an American Hockey League affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, was next to score, facing off against the Indianapolis Ice for their inaugural game in 1996. Since then, the team has clinched the Calder Cup Championship in 2013 and 2017.
Like the Whitecaps, the team was the inspiration of two West Michigan entrepreneurs. Team founders David Van Andel and Dan DeVos formed West Michigan Hockey, Inc., in January 1995 with the intent of securing a minor league hockey franchise to play at the soon-to-open, 10,000-seat Van Andel Arena.
While initially engaged in discussions about relocating a team to Grand Rapids, West Michigan Hockey was granted a franchise for $7 million after the International Hockey league waived its expansion criteria that the city's metropolitan area comprises at least one million people. Fan support – evidenced by over 8,000 season ticket requests – and a fully financed arena apparently swayed IHL officials.
Less than one year later, they were on the ice and have been growing strong ever since. Fan and community support has continued to be off the charts. In fact, club president, Tim Gortsema, told Sports Business Journal that the club’s total revenue has increased for nine consecutive seasons, setting franchise records in each of the last two.
The West Michigan Whitecaps are a Class A Minor League Baseball team, affiliated with the Detroit Tigers, that plays in the Midwest League.
Photo by West Michigan Whitecaps.
The Journal reports, “Ticket sales revenue has increased for nine consecutive seasons; full-season renewal percentage stands at 90%; and sponsorship revenue has increased for 11 consecutive years, setting franchise records in each of the last five seasons. Additionally, the club ranked first in the AHL in both average and total turnstile count last season and has drawn more than 300,000 fans per season for six straight seasons.”
Making an impact on and off the ice
The Griffins are also deeply engaged in community development. The Griffins Youth Foundation was established in 1995 – one year before the team took to the ice – by team co-founder Dan DeVos and his wife, Pamella. The foundation promotes academic excellence, community involvement and healthy lifestyles through free hockey and ice-related sports programs for hundreds of West Michigan youth – many of whom are underprivileged, at-risk, underserved or have other special needs.
Driving a dream
Two rejections from the NBA didn’t deter Grand Rapids Gold's owner, Steve Jbara, from pursuing his dream to bring a minor league basketball team to West Michigan.
When the Springfield Armor became available in 2013, the hunt was on for an arena and investors. With 90 days left to raise $4.5 million to purchase the team, Jbara and business partner Wes Weir were brainstorming over beer at Founders Brewing in January 2014. The talk and timing were fortuitous.
As Sports Business Journal reports, “Jeff Royce, the then-director of a local business incubator, overheard the conversation. Royce set them up with the first of what would become a roster of nearly 100 investors, and the sale went through.”
The Armor moved to West Michigan and then Grand Rapids Drive, an NBA G-League affiliate of the Detroit Pistons, played its first game at the DeltaPlex Arena in 2014. In 2021, the team announced a new affiliation partnership wtih the Denver Nuggets. The team's name and colors reflect the mining heritage of its NBA counterpart in Colorado.
Like its more established counterparts, the Gold has quickly gained a loyal fan base. The team welcomes an average of almost 3,000 fans per game and, last season, realized 20 percent higher attendance than in its inaugural year.
While the roster of investors has since consolidated to 22, it now includes basketball great Ben Wallace.
Jbara’s commitment to West Michigan-based minor league ball is unrelenting, despite the Detroit Piston’s 2019 announcement that they will move their G League team to a new arena on Wayne State University’s campus in Detroit starting in the 2021/2022 season.
He underscored that commitment when speaking with the Sports Business Journal: “The team was invested in by the community, community companies have all backed the team, and fans have supported us and believed in us when it was just a concept. We owe it to the community to stay put and continue being an asset to West Michigan.”
The Grand Rapids Drive are an American professional basketball team of the NBA G League and an affiliate of the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association.
While the Grand Rapids Football Club wasn’t considered in the Sports Business Journal designation, it’s no less a fan favorite. In fact, a group of community supporters, led by Matt Roberts, founded the European football – or soccer – team in 2014. Supporters purchased memberships to cover operating expenses, and local sponsors kicked in.
The team played its first season as a member of the Great Lakes Premier League in 2015. After finishing second place for the season and drawing an average of more than 4,500 fans per game, Grand Rapids FC was accepted into the National Premier Soccer League in 2016 and has continued to grow its presence – and its fan base – in the community.
In 2019 Roberts left his position and the club created a new lifetime membership program to allow GRFC fans the opportunity to have a say in its future. In 2020 the club joined the United Soccer League Two (USL) and moved its home matches from Grand Rapids Public School's (GRPS) Houseman Field to the Midwest Soccer Complex in Kentwood.
Still the club continues its partnership with GRPS and has donated tens of thousands from concession sales to the Grand Rapids local school district.
“Our deal is we make sure the concession money goes back to their budget, athletics and building funds,” Roberts told the Grand Rapids Business Journal. “We want to make sure our partnership is great and to give back to the community and take care of as many people as we can.”
Guswiler sees Grand Rapids FC as a great community asset, as well.
“It’s interesting that in Grand Rapids and many other destinations, the local football club is often overlooked when people assess the minor league sports scene,” observes Guswiler. “But the Grand Rapids FC exceeded National Premier Soccer League average league attendance in its inaugural season! With the soccer craze in this country only growing stronger, this is another team to watch in Grand Rapids.”
Value for visitors and residents alike
Guswiler cites both economic and quality of life benefits to being the nation’s #1 minor league market.
“At the West Michigan Sports Commission, we promote our region as a premier sports destination,” he explains. “The SBJ ranking helps us sell that aspect to event organizers looking to bring their sporting event to a thriving and active sports community where residents embrace the sports scene. The added value to visitors and residents alike is that our minor league teams – the Whitecaps, Griffins, Gold and GRFC – all offer an exciting sports experience and a great way to take in a game.”
“A Grand Investment” is an ongoing series exploring the business landscape of Grand Rapids. Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, Grand Rapids is fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investment. This series highlights leading sectors of the local economy and underscores the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings.
This story was originally published in 2019 and has been updated to reflect current information.