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The Grand Rapids Griffins celebrate a victory in their home opener on Oct. 15. The Grand Rapids Griffins celebrate a victory in their home opener on Oct. 15. COURTESY PHOTO

Griffins, Gold gear up for new seasons after 18-month pandemic setback

BY Sunday, October 24, 2021 05:15pm

Tim Gortsema refers to last year’s American Hockey League season as “the stubby season.”

A year that was supposed to involve great fanfare to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Grand Rapids Griffins was torn apart by COVID-19. 

The abbreviated season kicked off several months late, and the Griffins could welcome just 750 fans per game — a financially crippling option since ticket sales are the organization’s primary revenue stream.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Gortsema, who has served as the Griffins’ president since 2015, said of this year’s season. “It’s been 19 months of the abnormal craziness that we’ve all been dealing with, and we’re ready to be back.”

However, some West Michigan-based sports organizations like the Kalamazoo Wings hockey team and the Grand Rapids Gold basketball team didn’t even have the luxury of a “stubby season” last year, and were forced to cancel their entire slate.

These teams are now returning to the ice and court for seasons with COVID as a far less disruptive force to their operations.

Cautious optimism

The Griffins kicked off the 2021-22 season on Oct. 15 in front of a sellout crowd. It was the first time welcoming fans of that proportion since March 2020 when the team and league were paused from the emergence of COVID-19. The AHL eventually scrapped the rest of the season.

While losing a few weeks of competition in the 2019-20 season was a financial setback, it paled in comparison to last season, which proved to be a financial nightmare for the organization. The Griffins look to make up ground this year.

“I think, at the end of the day, we just want to make the season all it can be. … Focus on the product we can control now,” Gortsema said. “What’s done is done as far as last year or year and a half. We’re just focusing on this season and making this season great.”

As a minor league hockey organization, which is absent of any sort of significant broadcasting deals, the Griffins’ primary revenue source comes from ticket sales. Sponsorship deals and concession and merchandise sales all hinge on getting fans into Van Andel Arena, where the Griffins play home games.

Facing no capacity restrictions this year, those revenue streams are poised to flow back.

“Our sponsorship numbers have been great,” Gortsema said. “And, that is based on speculation that we will largely be at, or close, to historical (attendance) numbers.”

Gortsema added that he is confident games will be well attended. Instead of squandering its 25th anniversary on last year’s “stubby season,” the Griffins now refer to that season as year 24.5 and have shifted the 25th anniversary festivities to this season.

“I think there are a lot of folks that are eager for normalcy,” Gortsema said. “They miss their sports fix and they miss being out and about, on the town and going out to dinner. We’re hoping that the pent-up demand more than offsets the reservations people have” around pandemic-related risks.

Juggling act

The Grand Rapids Gold (formerly Grand Rapids Drive) has not only been forced to contend with the setbacks from COVID-19, but the team has also juggled a complete change in name and branding when signing a new affiliate deal with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets after losing its affiliation with the Detroit Pistons.

Like the Griffins, the Gold’s 2019-20 season was cut short. Last year, the team sat out of action completely, opting not to participate in the league’s shortened season that was contained to one location.

“It’s kind of a double whammy for us: Two years without a game and sort of emerging as a new brand when we spent seven years trying to get people to recognize the Drive name and the G-League,” Gold President Steve Jbara told MiBiz. “It’s been tricky, but we’ve rolled out some pretty cool marketing stuff.”

Jbara said the Gold will chase down as much of its lost revenue from the last season as it can, and the organization is doing so with strong sponsorship dollars.

The Gold’s affiliation with the Pistons dissolved after the team refused to relocate to Detroit. That willingness to stay has helped to attract sponsorship dollars, Jbara said.

“Ultimately our decision to stay put has really ramped up our sponsorship quite a bit,” he said. “I think people respect our notion to stay around in Grand Rapids, and businesses have supported us more than we’ve seen in the past.”

The organization also received a cash infusion recently by adding “a few new parties” to its ownership group, the SSJ Group LLC. Jbara declined to identify the new members of the ownership group.

The Gold was forced into massive staff reductions throughout the pandemic, but Jbara hopes to build it back up to pre-pandemic levels this year.

Sustaining momentum

Reviving West Michigan sports teams to more typical operations began this spring when the West Michigan Whitecaps  started a season with capacity restrictions at LMCU Ballpark and eventually finished with full crowds. The organization estimated that it hosted 228,000 fans over the course of the year after missing out on the whole prior season.

The West Michigan Sports Commission also organized a round of events at its Meijer Sports Complex, where it hosts local and regional baseball and softball tournaments.

In 2021, the WMSC hosted 25 tournaments that included 684 teams, 8,892 athletes and led to 5,973 hotel stays.

Across the organization, the WMSC had 90 different events on its calendar, which includes a variety of sports events that it organizes and co-promotes. This was on par with a typical year for the organization, and up drastically from the 45 events in 2020, which was dominated by the pandemic.

“Depending on who you ask, some destinations are feeling good and that we’re back and we’re strong,” WMSC President Mike Guswiler said of whether the organization’s success might translate to sustained success for fall and winter sports.

“It’s a mixed bag,” he added. “I’ll talk to some of our other venues and they feel it is going to be a softer fall and winter season. I think we’ll do OK.”

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