GRAND RAPIDS — This Saturday, the Grand Rapids Thunder will seek to bring home the region’s first semiprofessional national championship. But whatever the outcome, the 2-year-old minor league football team has high hopes that its success to date will attract sponsors and partners for the 2006 season.
“West Michigan loves sports,” said Thunder co-owner, captain and halfback Daimond Dixon. “This was a shoestring thing when we started it. We’ve built it enough and have a good reputation and a solid track record that we hope to attract some more sponsors.”
The Thunder’s 2006 sponsorship package will boast a pair of undefeated regular seasons in the fledgling Minor League Football Association, two Great Lakes Division Championships and a 2005 Eastern Conference Championship.
All Thunder home games are broadcast on Comcast Local, and the team has generated a surprising amount of media attention despite competition from the Grand Rapids Rampage and West Michigan Whitecaps.
Going into Saturday’s 7 p.m. match-up against the defending champion Daly City (Calif.) Renegades at Comstock Park High School, the Thunder has only one loss in two seasons (22-1-1) and was only five points away from a championship berth last season. The squad has fast become a powerhouse in the 27-team MLFA, which also launched in 2004.
As Dixon explained, going into the first two seasons the team had no history or players that it could market. It was Grand Rapids’ third semipro football franchise to launch in as many years.
Since the Grand Rapids Crush folded nearly a decade ago, the Holland Huskies, Grand Rapids Huskies and Rivertown Rams have all come and gone.
In the wake of those failed ventures, the Thunder had a lot to prove, not just to the community but also to its players.
“This is different than any other organization that’s been around,” said Thunder president and co-owner Tony Kellogg. “A lot of the players have played for other teams and they see the difference; it’s run like a business.”
Kellogg is a 16-year semipro veteran, first with the Crush and then the Holland Huskies, who later moved to Grand Rapids. He met Dixon as a Husky in 1996. Kellogg is the son of a former NFL athlete, and Dixon played on the 1991 NCAA national champion University of Miami Hurricanes squad. When the Huskies dissolved in 2002, Kellogg moved to Arizona for a year, while Dixon found a spot on the Rams.
“We’ve played together for years, and we’ve seen all the things you shouldn’t do in semipro football,” Dixon said.
He said the worst approach is to build a team around talent.
“We don’t pay players; that means any time year-to-year you have an influx of players coming in. You don’t know if you’ll be able to get to the same place next year,” Dixon said.
The best approach is to build a system based on fundamentals that can work independently of who plays each week.
“You’re more successful when you depend on the team and not superstars,” he said. “It’s a system that has brought us closer together.”
Much of the Thunder’s success has been based on faith and relationship building. To date, no Thunder employee gets a paycheck. The owners both have full-time jobs. Kellogg is a long-haul truck driver; Dixon is the principal of Athlete Performance Sports, a youth athletic training company. None of the coaches get paid either, which is why the team was happy to hear that head coach Mike Bitson might leave the team next year to take over a new Arena Football League 3 franchise in Battle Creek.
“We want them to use us like that,” Kellogg said. “Even our players, if they want to go pro or back to college, I want them to use us to get where they want to go.”
As for funding, the team has relied on its owners’ shallow pockets, a $100 per player annual fee, and its primary sponsor, the South Kent Recreational Association (SKRA).
SKRA provides practice and game uniforms, duffle bags and a bus, in return for a five-year agreement to staff youth football camps.
Other than SKRA, the Thunder has no sponsors. The team did place ads of helpful companies in its program as a gesture of goodwill.
Kellogg is hoping that one of those firms, or another local company, will step up to defray the costs of the championship game, particularly the use of a video-editing truck for the broadcast. The championship game is a prime sponsorship opportunity, Kellogg believes, because of its national exposure.
Other major expenses include mandatory planning meetings in Las Vegas and the All-Star game in Salt Lake City.
“In the past, semipro football teams in Grand Rapids always played other Michigan teams,” Dixon said. “Some had some regional action in Ohio or Indiana, but never has a team played one from across the country like this.
“It’s a pretty big deal for us. All the way in California people know who the Thunder is.”