Tim Gortsema has guided the Griffins’ front office to a host of accolades and achievements during his tenure as head of the organization’s business operations.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Griffins president Tim Gortsema is a numbers guy, but he knows the success of the organization goes beyond simple arithmetic.
While his background is in accounting – he was a manager in the audit department of Deloitte & Touche prior to joining the Griffins’ original 1995 staff – his on-the-job experience at Van Andel Arena has enabled him to cipher that any executive euphoria is not measured in integers or fractions.
“This job is about creating memories,” said Gortsema, who was promoted to senior vice president of business operations in February 2007, becoming just the second person to direct the Griffins’ front office, before being named president of the franchise in June 2015.
“It’s about parents and their kids. It’s about families coming to games. It’s a church group or a school choir performing an anthem. It’s about kids riding the Zamboni. It’s kids getting on the video board and dancing. It’s businesses entertaining their clients and customers.”
As far as Gortsema is concerned, it’s all about the fan experience.
“For us, each game we host is one of many,” he said. “For some of our fans, it may be the one and only. They might be coming to one game a year, so it’s important that we create an atmosphere and excitement that make it a memorable experience.”
His tenure has been marked by incredible success. The Griffins may achieve an increase in attendance for the seventh straight year and ninth time in his 10 years at the helm. The franchise has won awards for broadcasting, community relations, corporate sales, digital media, fan presentation, public relations and ticket sales – some multiple times – and the organization as a whole has become a model of achievement for the AHL.
“Tim is one of the greatest success stories in our organization – someone who started with the team from the beginning as a young accountant and worked his way up over 20-plus years to president of the team,” said Scott Gorsline, vice president of DP Fox, the business enterprise in charge of the Griffins organization.
“He did it by earning the respect of our ownership, the American Hockey League, our employees and our fans. He empowers those around him to do their best, and it's led to the Griffins being one of the most innovative and respected teams in the AHL.”
Like the coach of a championship club, Gortsema gives credit to the people working around him.
“A lot of our organizational success is attributed to having the right people in the right jobs and keeping them here, and ultimately that comes down to ownership’s commitment to attracting – and, equally important, retaining – good people,” he said. “We are fortunate that we’ve attracted a group of high quality individuals – men and women of integrity – who enjoy what they do.”
Gortsema said the Griffins have benefitted from having a number of long-time managers who have been able to steer the organization in the right direction.
“When I look up and down our corridor of offices, I see that we easily have a dozen people who have been here a decade or longer, which is unheard of at this level of sports,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to not only retain a lot of our upper management, but our VPs continue to provide opportunities and challenges for their staffs so they can stay fulfilled and connected.”
Success starts at the top. “Tim leads by example,” Gorsline said. “He works hard but also has a lot of fun doing it.”
Gortsema believes attitude can be transformative.
“The reality is that we work where people play,” he said. “People come to hockey games to have fun and enjoy themselves, so my message is simple: put on a smile, interact with fans, high-five people after a goal is scored. Share the excitement.”
The Griffins began taking a different view of the fan experience when the number of season tickets, which was capped at 7,000 during the team’s inaugural 1996-97 season, slowly but surely started to shrink. Gortsema uses the word “radicalize” to describe the efforts that eventually found appeal with fans.
From concession specials – dollar dogs and dollar beers on Fridays was an immediate hit – to efforts to reach out to fans to create an environment that was more engaging, the Griffins under Gortsema have continued to look for fresh approaches.
“We dropped wearing our suits because it helped us appear more approachable,” he said. “We had a bunch of guys wearing dark suits, and frankly I think it made the arena’s ushers a bit nervous because we looked like a bunch of undertakers.”
Gortsema stresses that the organization should never rest on its laurels.
“We’ve done some great things in the past and achieved some terrific awards, which is pretty cool, but we still have to put forth the effort every day,” he said. “Just because we did something great two years ago doesn’t mean it’s going to translate to today.
“It’s similar to that investment disclaimer… ‘Past performance is not indicative of future results.’ Although our organization has enjoyed many past successes, I’ve challenged them to explore new ideas and new promotions that can help us win new fans.”
An example is Winning Wednesdays, a promotion that has allowed every fan in attendance to receive a free ticket to the next Wednesday game every time that the Griffins win at home on a Wednesday.
“We’ve had it happen more than a few times where one ticket has allowed people to attend multiple games in a row,” he said. “As a result, we’ve shifted people from casually attending games to actively cheering on the team, allowing us to cultivate and develop new fans.”
Social media is another place where the Griffins have been increasingly engaging not only hardcore supporters but also newly minted fans. The organization was one of the first in the AHL to employ a person dedicated solely to leveraging computer-mediated technologies.
“I’m not an expert in social media, but we have people who recognize what digital trends are likely emerging and what tools and technologies can make our fan experience better,” Gortsema said. “Through social media, we’re able to reach a much larger audience in a much quicker time and probably at a lower cost.”
With most people now owning a smart phone, Gortsema sees tremendous potential for new technologies and applications that will enable the Griffins to bring their fans even closer to the action and to their favorite team.
“From a technology standpoint, people are continually expecting and wanting more,” he said. “It might be getting game replays on their phones or being able to check out different camera angles. We have people who are more plugged into what’s trending and what’s happening next than I am, but I think there will be great opportunities ahead.”
Gortsema is happy that the arena has added wifi and LED lighting the past couple of years. He looks forward to the day that the building replaces the center ice matrix board – infamously known as Van Andel’s Lite Brite – with a real state-of-the-art video board.
One of his immediate concerns is working with Gorsline to negotiate a new affiliation agreement with the Red Wings. He feels it is a priority to extend a hockey relationship now in its 15th season.
“Hockey fans in Michigan are almost exclusively Red Wings fans and with players getting called up all the time to the NHL, our affiliation with Detroit allows our fans to stay connected when they leave Grand Rapids to play for the Wings,” he said.
Gortsema said a multi-year deal is likely to be struck sometime in the next few months. “Both sides recognize the mutual benefit of our relationship together,” he said. “I think both sides are firmly committed to getting a deal done.”
In the meantime, Gortsema will encourage his staff to continue to explore new ways to enhance the entertainment experience enjoyed by fans. Just as sports teams are fueled by training camp optimism at the beginning of every season, the Griffins’ front office has the chance to start fresh every year with new initiatives.
“I’m clearly biased, but I would stack our staff from top to bottom against any club in any league,” he said. “We have tremendously talented individuals who do their jobs as well or better than their contemporaries in the NHL, NFL or MLB, and I look forward to them helping us make the fan experience even better.”
Gorsline is confident that the organization is in good hands with Gortsema at the helm.
“Tim has a passion for the Griffins – for our fans, for our teams on and off the ice, for our impact on the community, for our history,” Gorsline said. “And that passion is contagious.”