GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Grand Rapids is known for many things and they can add one more to the list: best minor league sports market.
The Sports Business Journal named Grand Rapids-Comstock Park the best minor league market in the country. The area has the Grand Rapids Griffins hockey team, the West Michigan Whitecaps baseball team and the Grand Rapids Drive basketball team.
The Journal said minor league sports barely existed in West Michigan during the late 80s and early 90s. But that all changed when two local businessmen — Lew Chamberlin and Denny Baxter — bought the Class A Madison Muskies and moved the newly-named Whitecaps to the $6.5 million, privately financed Old Kent Park.
In January 2014, though, things changed after a fire destroyed half of the first base side of the ballpark. However, Baxter said the team would play on opening day.
“The fire was a defining moment for this community,” Jim Jarecki, the club’s vice president and general manager — one of five employees who have been with the team since the beginning — told the Journal. “The trades and contractors in the city dropped the other jobs they were doing and got us through the pains of that destruction. Ninety-five days later we played on Opening Day.”
The ballpark was eventually rebuilt and won Ballpark Digest's 2015 Best Ballpark Improvement award.
In 1996, Van Andel Arena opened for the Griffins inaugural season, and according to the Journal, the club had to cap the season ticket base at 7,000 because of high demand.
In the American Hockey League (AHL), the Griffins ranked first in both average and total turnstile count last season and has drawn more than 300,000 fans per season for six straight seasons, the Journal reports.
Billboard also named the arena the top-grossing venue of its size — capacity 10,001 to 15,000 — in North America, and No. 6 worldwide.
In 2012, Steve Jbara was told twice by the NBA that it had no interest in placing an NBA D-League team in West Michigan, according to the Journal. He signed a tentative agreement with Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo, but the arena was unplayable.
Jbara was confident the Grand Rapids market would support his team.
The Drive, which plays in the 5,000-seat DeltaPlex Arena, has been in Grand Rapids for five seasons. They average almost 3,000 fans per game and has seen 5-10% growth across all of its business metrics each year.
Other headlines from 13 ON YOUR SIDE:
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.