Griffins’ front office ready to top last year


    Although the Grand Rapids Griffins didn’t win the Calder Cup last season, the American League Hockey franchise did capture two significant business-service awards for the 2008-09 campaign.

    The AHL cited the Griffins as first in the Western Conference for overall ticket sales and for community service. The local team topped 13 other conference teams for both honors and was the only franchise in the 29-team league to win two awards.

    As for the community service award, the Griffins


    first among all franchises in funds raised for and donated to charities last season. The team raised $323,416 over the 40-game home campaign for schools, organizations and nonprofits.

    “I think it’s an example of how giving people are in this community. I’ve lived in several places and worked for sports teams in those communities and I’ve never seen anything like West Michigan. Nothing else is close,” said Bob Kaser, vice president of community relations and broadcasting, and president of the Griffins Youth Foundation.

    “It’s incredible the number of people that I talk to that support so many of the different programs that we have to offer and the various charities that those programs assist. So without what I characterize as amazing support from the business community — and even individuals, we don’t reach those levels and we don’t impact the lives of as many people,” he added.

    Just one person whose life has been positively impacted is Tyler Anderson, an 18-year-old who lives in Jenison. Anderson has played the past eight seasons for the Grand Rapids Sled Wings, a hockey team for young people with physical disabilities sponsored by the Griffins Youth Foundation and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.

    Anderson was named to the 2009-10 U.S. National Junior Sled Hockey Team and is the only new player being added to the 15-player roster this year. “He is just a well-rounded, great ambassador for the program and for the youth foundation,” said Kaser.

    Kaser pointed out that without the cooperation of the coaches and players, who make plenty of public appearances during a season, the fundraising effort wouldn’t have had as much success. Although pleased with the result from last season, Kaser said he wishes the team could do more to reach nonprofits and people like Anderson.

    “There is only so much time in a day and we have only so many people to spread around. As for my goal, I’ve always had this $500,000 figure in my mind. Until I get there, I’m not completely satisfied.”

    Senior Vice President of Business Operations Tim Gortsema feels the same. Although he is delighted with the overall ticket sales award for drawing 297,905 to Van Andel Arena last season — an 8 percent hike from the previous year — he would like the franchise to top the 300,000 mark this year, something it hasn’t done since the 2000-01 season.

    “It’s either hard work or cheap beer,” said Gortsema with a laugh, referring to the $1 dog/ $1 beer promotion on Fridays that helped boost attendance. “I think both contributed to it.

    “Our single-game sales were up significantly over a year ago; probably a big chunk of that relates to the concession promotion. But a lot of our other categories were up, as well, from game-plan sales to group sales. Ultimately, that is entirely reflective of effort and our people being relentless in following up with folks and trying to uncover new leads and new buyers, and it paid off.”

    Despite the economy, Gortsema feels most people still need an affordable entertainment outlet, and he is looking at the upcoming season as potentially the fourth straight year for an increase in attendance because he said the Griffins remain a cost-effective option.

    “We’re optimistic and certainly planning on ratcheting up our attendance,” he said. “Last year was three years in a row, which we’ve never done in the history of our franchise. We’ve done three, so why not four?”

    Two factors to raising that number again are group sales and promotions. Gortsema said group sales jumped a hefty 11.5 percent from last year, and the promotional calendar — which featured celebrities signing autographs and merchandise giveaways — also helped fill seats.

    Gortsema said he was “knee deep” in putting the new calendar together, having just returned from a league meeting that focused on what promotions were growing in appeal and what is new this year. Now his staff is trying to figure out which items hold the most promise for a solid return.

    Season-ticket packages are on sale, and it’s a tougher sell than a few years ago when economic conditions were much more stable. The franchise is trying to remove some of the fear from making what some might see as a sizeable purchase at a unstable time with the “Griffins Promise,” a new program for season-ticket buyers.

    “If you make your full season investment and then you have some sort of unforeseen major financial adjustment — maybe like a job loss, a major medical expense, get transferred out of the region, personal bankruptcy, any of those — we’ll buy back your tickets,” explained Gortsema.

    “So if you’re a month into the season and you’ve got four or five months left of hockey tickets, give us back whatever you haven’t used and we’ll cut you a check — so you’re protected in the event you have a financial downturn.”

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