The Grand Rapids Drive is bullish heading into its second season.
The basketball team opens its second season against the Delaware 87ers at 7 p.m., Saturday, at the DeltaPlex Arena.
At the top of the list for the Drive will be a run to the playoffs, Drive President Steve Jbara said. In the team’s inaugural season, the team fell short with a 23-27 win-loss record, finishing fourth in the NBA Development League’s Central Division.
Fans will be crucial to the team’s success, Jbara said, and early signs point to an improved fan base following a solid foundational season last year.
“Last year was a great year,” Jbara said. “We learned a lot. This season we aren’t trying to sell a crazy idea we had.”
The team came out of the season disappointed at missing the playoffs, but happy with how the first season finished. Much of the summer was spent improving the Drive’s brand in the community.
“Before this summer, it was a lot of, ‘Who are you?’” Jbara said. “Now, ‘the Drive’ resonates with people. Now it’s, ‘When does the season start?’”
The team also has an increased marketing budget heading into the second season, which means fans and West Michigan residents might notice more branded Drive advertisements around town, including messages on billboards and affixed to The Rapid’s buses.
Early signs are pointing to the marketing efforts paying off, Jbara said, as sponsorships are up about 15 percent and early ticket sales climbed approximately 30 percent, according to Jbara. A lot of the ticket sales have come through group sales, he said, crediting vice president of business development Wes Weir with elevating his sales staff.
Sponsorship and ticket sales conversations have been much warmer now that the team has shown it is here to stay, he said.
“A lot of that early success is because we’ve had that time to develop those relationships,” Jbara said. “Now we can go to a group and ask them when they’re coming out, knowing they’re already interested.”
Jbara said the commitment of former NBA executive and second-year Drive head coach Otis Smith and his family to move to West Michigan permanently helps show the community the team wants to deepen its roots in the region.
“Anything he does reflects well on the team,” Jbara said of Smith’s philanthropic passions.
The team also received an early-season boost from its parent team, the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, Jbara said.
Last year, the Pistons finished near the bottom of the NBA with a 32-50 win-loss record.
This year, however, the Pistons have proven to be more competitive, starting the season with three straight wins and a 3-1 record through Nov. 5.
“When Pistons news is positive, people want to see things affiliated with the Pistons,” Jbara said. “Last year, it certainly seemed like people weren’t too interested with them.”
The Drive’s roster also will be helped by a younger team under second-year Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy, who now has more players he helped bring to Detroit.
“It was tough for him to get his people last year,” Jbara said. “This year, there’s a much younger roster and we’ll be able to utilize more of them, and that connection to Detroit will be even stronger.”
Among the team’s players who might be familiar to college basketball fans are University of Connecticut’s Ryan Boatright, West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks, Ohio State’s Sam Thompson and University of Southern California’s Renaldo Woolridge.
Also making a return is the Drive’s best player from last season, Adonis Thomas.
There are 24 home games at the DeltaPlex, with most having a tip-off time of 7 p.m. Several games also have a 4 p.m. start time: Dec. 6, Dec. 13 and Jan. 24. There are two Monday, eight Wednesday and 14 weekend games.
Jbara said the team will continue to offer several promotions:
- Monday — Buy one, get one free tickets
- Wednesday — $1 beer nights
- Friday — Pistons Tribute nights with former Pistons
- Saturday — Family 4-pack night
- Sunday — Souvenir Sundays
Fans will notice other differences from last year, as well, Jbara said. Some of the more notable changes include use of a better quality sound system and a new layout for concessions.
“We tightened a lot of things up,” he said. “Everything will flow a lot better.”