The Griffins, along with the West Michigan Whitecaps and Grand Rapids Drive, attracted the attention of a national publication that named this area as the “Top Minor League Market” in the U.S.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Sam Iannamico
Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal has recognized what West Michigan fans have known for many years, recently naming Grand Rapids-Comstock Park, Mich., as the “Top Minor League Market” in the country.
The honor, which is based on teams’ tenure and attendance figures relative to local economics, was bestowed on the market, which includes the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins, the Midwest League’s West Michigan Whitecaps, and the NBA G League’s Grand Rapids Drive, for 2019. The market had finished sixth in the publication’s biennial rankings in 2017 after claiming the final spot in the top 10 in 2015.
“I think it’s a validation of what we’re doing here, the work that’s being done from a franchise level,” said Griffins president Tim Gortsema, a member of the organization even before the first puck dropped in 1996. “But it’s a larger validation for the community. It’s a reflection of the outpouring of support that West Michigan has had for the Griffins, the Whitecaps and the Drive for years.
“Growing up in West Michigan, I’ve seen all my life that this is a tremendously supportive community, from high school athletics to how vested fans are with their teams. It’s gratifying to get recognition on a national scope of what’ve known and appreciated locally for years.”
Having dethroned Des Moines, Iowa (the No. 1 honoree from 2017), Grand Rapids heads a list of five AHL markets earning top-15 recognition for 2019 that includes Des Moines (No. 5), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa. (No. 8), Hartford, Conn. (No. 14), and Springfield, Mass. (No. 15).
In an article dated Sept. 23, 2019 and entitled “Grand Rapids: Built to Last,” Sports Business Journal research director David Broughton described the bleak state of affairs for minor league sports in West Michigan during the late 1980s and early ’90s, and how a few dreamers with the necessary business acumen were able to create franchises that would become “as integral to the community as the Grand River that runs through it.”
Broughton writes, “Over the past quarter-century, these teams and their fans have faced obstacles the way a family does — together.”
With the arrival of the team’s 24th season, the Griffins will look to extend their recent achievements and maintain the winning ways that distinguish the organization as one of the top in the American Hockey League every year.
The Griffins ranked first in the AHL in both average and total turnstile attendance last season. In terms of announced attendance, they finished fifth in the league with an average of 8,206. In addition to making a franchise-record seven straight playoff appearances, the Griffins have drawn more than 300,000 fans for a team-record six consecutive seasons.
The organization continues to experience success both on and off the ice.
Since winning their second Calder Cup in 2017, the Griffins have sent 14 players to the NHL over the last two seasons (and 179 during the team’s history). The Griffins have also sent young staffers and interns on to eight different sports organizations since 2017, including the Boston Bruins, Detroit Lions, Detroit Tigers, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Lynx, Bakersfield Condors, Chicago Wolves and Colorado Eagles.
Twelve members of the Griffins’ front office – owners, executive and staff – have been with the organization since at least 2001, a remarkable achievement given the nature of minor league professional sports.
But it’s the support of fans that is the real game-changer.
Symbolizing the West Michigan community’s support, Griffins ticket sales revenue has increased for nine consecutive seasons while sponsorship revenue has increased for 11 consecutive seasons (setting franchise records in each of the last five seasons).
The Griffins are fortunate to play in a market – popularly known as “Beer City USA” – that has garnered a number of top honors in 2019. Van Andel Arena, the home of the Griffins, was named the No. 1 Mid-Size Venue in North America (Billboard), while Grand Rapids earned praise as the No. 1 Mid-Sized Metro for Economic Growth Potential (Business Facilities) and for having the No. 1 Hottest Neighborhood in America (Creston – Realtor.com).
This is the eighth time Sports Business Journal has produced its ranking of the nation’s top minor league markets, the first coming in 2005 and then every other year since. This year’s project included a review of 211 markets, 34 leagues, 350 teams and 190.7 million in total attendance. Markets that are home to an MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, NHL, NWHL or WNBA franchise were not measured.
Grand Rapids earned No. 1 honors based on Sports Business Journalcalculations that give each market a total score – the majority of which comes from three category-specific measures: tenure rank, attendance rank and economic rank.
Tenure made up approximately two-thirds of each market’s score and takes into account such support measurements as a team’s length of presence in its market and commitment to maintaining the sports venues. The rest of a market’s score is based on the total and average attendance (regular and postseason) of all the teams that have played there in the past five seasons, the percentage of seats filled, and how those figures compared to the previous five seasons. Those fluctuations also were indexed against the region’s changes in unemployment, population and Total Personal Income.
When Sports Business Journal crunched all those numbers, Grand Rapids-Comstock Park had the highest point total, and all other markets were indexed against that number.
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