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Friday, 17 August 2012 23:16

Whitecaps seek alternative revenue as attendance dips

Written by  Kelly Hill
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Whitecaps seek alternative revenue  as attendance dips Courtesy photo
GRAND RAPIDS — A dip in attendance of almost 10 percent is of no particular concern to West Michigan Whitecaps CEO and Managing Partner Lew Chamberlin.

The business end of the team has worked to counteract the lower attendance by pursuing a diversification strategy, namely other revenue sources realized by opening Fifth Third Ballpark to other, non-sporting events.

"Business is fine right now, but we are facing the same challenges that almost any business does in soft economic times," Chamberlin said. "We have to work hard and we have to work smarter, but by and large we are doing well."

The Whitecaps, whose final game of the regular season is scheduled for Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 3, drew 372,555 fans last year and drew 256,659 fans through their first 54 home dates this season. At an average of 4,753 fans per game this season, that is a projected seasonal attendance of 337,460.

While summer has been hot in West Michigan this year, the weather has been good for the business of baseball.

"Other than being a little too hot at times, the weather has cooperated nicely," Chamberlin said. "I can't remember going this late into the season without a rainout."

While the West Michigan Whitecaps, which is the Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, broke the 500,000 barrier in attendance its second season in 1995 and set a franchise attendance record of 547,401 in 1996, the team has averaged 367,432 fans per season over the last seven years.

In anticipation of the 2012 season, the Whitecaps installed a 1,540-square-foot (28 feet by 55 feet) video scoreboard in center field and in left field installed a manually operated scoreboard similar to that in center field at Wrigley Field in Chicago or at the base of the Green Monster in Boston's Fenway Park.

"The success of our franchise has allowed us to reinvest in the facility, which we think is the key to keeping people coming back," Chamberlin said. "There is nothing that fans like better than seeing themselves on that high-definition screen out in center field. ... We have to continually reinvent ourselves and reinvest in ourselves."

A Grand Rapids native, Chamberlin partnered with Denny Baxter, the team's CFO and director of accounting, to bring the Whitecaps to West Michigan in time for the 1994 season. Chamberlin said he understands that in challenging economic times, businesses and private consumers are less willing to spend money on entertainment.

"When the economy goes soft like it has, the first thing people pull back on are season tickets that they had used to entertain clients, or they are less willing to have a company picnic," he said.

While the Whitecaps always have made an effort to communicate with their fans, current economic conditions have made that even more important.

"We have to be constantly vigilant to give people what they need, so we have to stay in contact with them," Chamberlin said.

Sometimes what people want, Chamberlin noted, are events other than baseball. That led the company to open Fifth Third Ballpark, which has a seating capacity of 10,071, to be used as a venue for a variety of other events.

"We have to look for additional revenue streams, and we do that by diversifying our efforts," Chamberlin said. "Given the fact that ours is a seasonal facility, we have to do as much as we can to diversify now. We have to bring events other than baseball."

Earlier this summer, Fifth Third Ballpark hosted WSNX's Party in the Park, in mid-July, as well as the Great Lakes Truck Show in late July. Since the three-day weekend truck show utilized strictly the ballpark's parking lot, the park also hosted a Billy Currington concert, presented by B-93, on the Friday night of the truck show.

Fifth Third Ballpark also hosted Grand Rapids Fight Night on Friday, Aug. 10 and is scheduled to host one of West Michigan's fiercest high-school football rivalries when Forest Hills Central hosts East Grand Rapids in OK White Conference action on Friday night, Sept. 21.

"We always like to host events at the facility that are not necessarily related to baseball," Chamberlin said. "We have to look at other revenue streams so we look at using the ballpark for concerts and high-school football games and other things like that. We will continue to look for those kinds of events because it helps us to diversify our revenue stream."

Entering the second week of August, it appeared that the Whitecaps were not likely to qualify for the 2012 Midwest League playoffs so the final baseball game at Fifth Third Ballpark is expected to be played on Labor Day.

Even with a decline of approximately 800 fans per game this season, the Whitecaps managing partner remains optimistic.

"I prefer to look at things like attendance at the end of the season," Chamberlin said. "I would like to see attendance continue to grow, and economic growth will make that easier. What I am most concerned with, though, is our revenue streams, and we are doing well with that."

Read 2419 times Last modified on Friday, 17 August 2012 23:22

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