As the overseer of business operations for the Griffins, Tim Gortsema is one busy guy.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
When Tim Gortsema interviewed with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 1995 after a stint in the audit department at Deloitte & Touche, little did he know that he would wind up counting buns instead of beans.
The one-time Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is now senior vice president of business operations for the Griffins, which means that he gets to wear a lot of different hats – not an uncommon situation in the world of minor league sports.
“Over the years, you do everything,” said Gortsema, one of two employees who has worked in the Griffins’ office since the franchise’s inception 17 years ago (Lisa Vedder, director of accounting and tax, is the other).
“I’ve had the pleasure of passing out copies of Griffiti, selling merchandise in the stands and dropping coupons from the catwalk above the ice – things that all of us end up doing at some point,” he said.
One of his more unique duties, he claims, is “hot dog consumption prognosticator,” a responsibility he assumed not long after the Griffins introduced their popular dollar beer and hot dog promotion in the middle of the 2007-08 season.
Gortsema maintains a spreadsheet on his computer in order to take the guessing game out of the gastronomical. Determining the number of hot dogs that might be consumed on a given Friday is neither art nor science, but this Griffins office veteran is a pundit with purpose.
Curiously, the dog-and-suds promotion started almost on a whim.
“We wanted to inject some energy and life into the building,” Gortsema said, explaining the rationale behind the popular promotion. “We weren’t looking to attract a rowdy crowd that would create a ruckus, but we wanted to create an environment that was more conducive to hockey.”
On too many nights, the building seemed almost church-like – critics had come to dub it Saint Van Andel – and the Griffins hoped the promotion would change the atmosphere.
“From the beginning we felt like it was a success,” he said. “Not only did it help create new life and excitement, it also introduced us to a new demographic of fans.”
The “beer crowd” was initially seen as being largely college students, but Gortsema has seen the fan base grow to include more young professionals – people that come for the Buds and stay to watch exciting hockey with their buds.
“It’s not a case of cheap beer and sayonara,” Gortsema said. “In short order, we’ve seen many of them become fans. You see them on the concourse during the first period, but by the second period they’re flooding into the arena and they end up staying for the whole game. They’re standing on their feet during the shootout, yelling and cheering the team on to victory. It’s really a win-win for everyone.”
The dollar promotion is just one element that has helped the Griffins secure attendance increases in five of the last six seasons.
“I’m very proud of our staff because they have put in a lot of hard work to make that happen,” Gortsema said. “It’s particularly gratifying because it’s been accomplished in a rather challenging economic environment where people have fewer discretionary funds and are more discerning in terms of how they spend their hard-earned money.”
Unlike most minor league organizations, the Griffins have enjoyed continuity among their staff with a number of long-tenured personnel who have stayed with the team for close to a decade or more. “Our continuity is extremely rare in the world of minor league sports,” he said.
Gortsema points to owners Dan DeVos and David Van Andel as the prime movers who keep the behind-the-scenes team together.
“When I first interviewed, I thought it was a great organization with great ownership, and that hasn’t changed – in fact, it’s something that has continued to validate itself over the years,” Gortsema said.
To illustrate his point, Gortsema suggests that DeVos is not your typical sports owner who is forever meddling in the operations.
“I believe he subscribes to the same mantra that I do: you hire the right people and you let them do their job,” Gortsema said. “I think it’s why we’ve been able to build a great staff and management team.”
Working in the Griffins office is not a run-of-the-mill operation.
“We’re not selling widgets. We’re selling sports and entertainment. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of hours – a lot of nights and weekends – but we’re selling fun. That’s one notion that we try to impress upon our staff every year, the fact that we work where people play.”
Indeed, the organization is determined to sell a top-notch experience every time the Griffins take the ice.
“People come to the arena to have a good time,” he said. “It may be one of 38 games for us, but it may be the only game a person will see this season. We want to do everything in our power to give them a positive experience, whether it’s a family outing, guys getting together with buddies or the ladies’ night out.
“After 17 years and 16 seasons with the Griffins, I’ve had the pleasure to meet many great hockey fans and have seen several of our best supporters literally grow up and now have kids of their own that also enjoy Griffins hockey,” he added.
Every hockey game, Gortsema contends, is a chance to make an impression.
“Everyone can harken back to one or two memories of attending sporting events over the years, where you remember the experience and how you felt. Those are things that are locked long-term into your memory, and we have that opportunity every night. We cannot control what happens on the ice – there’s a bad break, the goalie lets in a bad goal or the team clanks three shots off the crossbar – but we have the ability to influence the overall off-the-ice experience.”
Many of the Griffins’ promotions have developed through trial and error. Over the years, the organization has successfully branded a number of nights on the schedule.
Fridays, behind the strength of the dollar hot dogs and beers promotion, attract a younger crowd. Saturdays are popular with groups, thanks to giveaways, celebrity appearances and unique entertainment offerings. Sundays attract families, with Pepsi soft drinks for a dollar and, new this year, ice cream for a dollar. “With our four o’clock starts on Sundays, families can enjoy the game and still gets the kids home and to bed at a good time,” Gortsema said.
Winning Wednesdays have proven to be a hit with the casual sports fan. When the Griffins win at home on Wednesday, each fan in attendance receives a free ticket to the next Wednesday game.
“Our overall record hasn’t been the best the past couple of seasons, but we’ve been really good on Wednesdays,” Gortsema said. “We’ve had people come for one game and they end up seeing several games, and when that happens, you’ve potentially cultivated a new fan. They start to recognize the roster and gain a familiarity with the team just from coming every Wednesday.”
On Wednesdays, fans become even more invested in the game.
“When the score is 2-2 late in a game on a Wednesday, they’re really cheering for that goal,” Gortsema said. “A shootout is suddenly a lot more meaningful.”
Not every promotion is a success. “We don’t do everything right – we make mistakes along the way, but that’s what is great about sports. You have a chance to start fresh every season, that opportunity to begin anew with the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. There’s a certain appeal to being able to start over each year.”
For Gortsema, it’s a challenge that he relishes and a job like none other.
“When I can look at a player’s jersey card and see my signature on the back as proof of authenticity, that’s pretty neat,” he said. “I get to work in a job that my kids think is cool, and that’s something you can’t put a price on.”