Enjoying a sunny day at Fifth Third Ballpark are members of the Whitecaps' braintrust, from left, Steve McCarthy, vice president of sales; Denny Baxter, CFO; Scott Lane, president; Lew Chamberlin, CEO/managing partner; Joe Chamberlain, director of finance; and Jim Jarecki, vice president. Photo by Jim Gebben
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Although the team failed to make the Midwest League playoffs, the West Michigan Whitecaps still had a good business year. The club’s game attendance and overall revenue rose in its 20th anniversary season from the previous year.
“From a business perspective, we had a really great year. Obviously, we didn’t play the best baseball. But in terms of the business end of things, we did really quite well,” said Lew Chamberlin, CEO and managing partner of the Whitecaps.
“We continue to be profitable and financially stable, and that’s all we really want because it allows us to continue to reinvest in the facility. It gives us the chance to continue to be involved in the community, which was the goal right from the get-go,” he added.
Chamberlin said ticket sales were strong throughout the season. At the beginning of the season, Whitecaps Vice President of Baseball Jim Jarecki told the Business Journal he hoped they would draw 380,000 fans for the year.
“If we can hit the 380,000 mark, that would be perfect,” he said in April.
Perfection was almost achieved; it’s likely it was missed only because of two rainouts. The club drew 377,948 fans through the turnstiles for 68 games, two fewer games than a full 70-game season and just a couple thousand short of Jarecki’s mark. The total was nearly 18,000 more than the 362,554 tickets the franchise sold in 2012.
The Whitecaps averaged 5,179 paying customers for each game the previous season, when the club had 70 home dates, and 5,558 for this past season. The club finished the season fourth in attendance in the 16-team league.
“We saw a significant per-game increase in our attendance,” said Chamberlin.
New seating arrangements made a debut this past year at Fifth Third Ballpark and played a factor in the increased ticket sales.
As part of management’s ongoing effort to improve the park and the experience of fans, the team turned three bleacher sections behind home plate into premium, padded seats; replaced the top two rows of bleachers with 18 half-moon tables with four swivel chairs, which became known as 4 Topps; and transformed three suites into a “super suite.”
“We saw great support for some of the new amenities we added, like the 4 Topps and the additional premiums seats and super suite. Those all went amazingly well — especially the 4 Topps,” said Chamberlin. “I think that helped drive ticket sales and drove food and beverage per-caps, as well.”
Advertising revenue took a nice jump, too.
“Everybody blew past their goals,” said Chamberlin of the team’s sales crew. “I’ve been taking them all out to dinner lately.”
Being able to achieve a profit means the team can reinvest in its product, something management already has begun, even though the offseason is only a month old.
Chamberlin admitted this year’s big project isn’t as sexy as, say, building the Pepsi Stadium Club or adding a huge video board, but it’s vital for the business.
“We’re redoing all of the parking lots, which are 20 years old. We’re getting those ready for the next 20 years. It’s still the kind of thing that has to be done,” he said. “A lot of the things we’re going to do this year have more to do with maintenance and preservation than adding new amenities. We’re resealing the ceiling of the concourse. … We are doing a lot of painting and concrete work that needs to be done.”
The work will be completed in time for opening day in April and for the league’s 2014 all-star game, which the Whitecaps will host. Next year’s June 17 contest will be the third time the team has been awarded the league’s premier game, having hosted it in 1995 and 2003.
But this time around is extra special because it’s the Midwest League’s 50th anniversary.
“This is a big deal for us,” said Whitecaps President Scott Lane. “We intend to put on a grand show for the fans, executives and players of the 16 teams in the league. We will showcase not only Fifth Third Ballpark during the two-day event but West Michigan, as well.”
Then there is the other side of the business: renting out the ballpark as a venue for events. Rock the Rapids returned to Fifth Third in August after two summers downtown. The Battle at the Ballpark boxing card was held there in July, and Greenville will face Forest Hills Northern in a high school football game at the ballpark Oct. 11, just to name a few.
Because the baseball business is seasonal, Chamberlin said the club needs to find as much revenue as it can before winter arrives.
“We need to do as much as we can with it. We started adding things like concerts. We now do company picnics in that facility even when the team is out of town. We have large groups there that have the run of the entire place,” he said.
“Now that we have the Pepsi Stadium Club, that gives us a bit of a year-round venue and we use that for business meetings, conferences and parties. We’ve even had weddings and wedding receptions there. All of that stuff contributes significantly now to our bottom line.”
Between now and the 2014 opening day, Whitecaps fans will have their favorite offseason event to look forward to this winter. The team will hold its fifth annual Whitecaps Food Contest, which delivers a new item to the ballpark menu each year. This season’s winner was the Baco, a taco in a specially made bacon shell. Fans made 150 menu suggestions.
The food contest, which was developed by the team’s marketing department, has brought the franchise and its menu national media attention during a time of year when baseball isn’t in the spotlight, and that’s important because the club’s concession sales account for roughly a third of its revenue.
The most noteworthy menu item might still be the one created in the team’s first season. The Squealing Pig made its debut in 1994; the sandwich, which features an eight-ounce, center-cut pork chop, remains a favorite.
“We had a guy who loves hot, spicy food who flew all the way from New Jersey just so he could have that sandwich. He was a great guy. He sent us an e-mail that was very complimentary and he had a wonderful time. He said he will probably come back for it, and we shouldn’t take it off the menu,” said Chamberlin with a laugh. “This food thing is expanding our fan base incredibly. We’re reaching a national audience.”
On the field, this past season’s team clubbed 90 home runs for only the second time in franchise history. Off the field, the business also had a healthy number of inside-the-park round trippers. But Chamberlin said he and his crew never take success for granted.
“As always, we’re incredibly indebted to the community that supports us because if they don’t turn out, then we’re not going to be stable and be able to reinvest and be part of the community,” he said. “This is a symbiotic relationship and one that we really appreciate very much.”