Well enough of the history lesson, lets focus on the present. Right now West Michigan area has a small amount of minor league teams:
- West Michigan Whitecaps – Baseball
- Grand Rapids Griffins – Hockey
- Muskegon Lumberjacks – Hockey
- Kalamazoo K-Wings – Hockey
That isn’t much, especially considering that Grand Rapids was once known as “The Nation’s premiere minor-league destination” during the 1990′s, according to Grand Rapids Press sports writer David Mayo. Consider that in 2011 Grand Rapids was ranked as 178th on the Sports Business Journal’s list of the Top Minor League Market. Back in 2005 Grand Rapids was listed as high as 25th, though losing the Grand Rapids Rampage was a large cause for the drop. Even more shockingly is that back in 1997 Grand Rapids was ranked as one of the top ten markets with sufficient capacity for a potential expansion NBA team by the American City Business Journal.
So what happened West Michigan? Why have so many teams failed, especially after becoming a premiere minor league destination. It’s obvious that hockey is king in Michigan, and with the Grand Rapids Griffins winning the 2013 Turner Cup, I can only see them getting more popular in the region. In addition being an affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, greatly helps legitimatize the Griffins and helps Red Wing fans in this region have a stronger tie to the Red Wings. Some of the other hockey teams in the also have some affiliation, like the Kalamazoo K-Wings are like a AA affiliate to the Chicago Wolves (AAA) who are then an affiliate of the Vancuver Canucks (a NHL Hockey Team). Whereas the Muskegon Lumberjacks are just located in a type of player development league without any professional team affiliation.
But what about the national pastime of baseball? Baseball has had a particularly long and sad history in Grand Rapids until 1994 when the Whitecaps finally starting playing. The Whitecaps seem to be doing well in West Michigan, and one potential cause for this could also be that they are a minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. This is a genius idea of both the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers to base at least one of their minor league teams on the west side of the state, instead of having the team in some far away state. It’s a great way to build up fan support, and give people a connection to the professional team on the other side of the state.
One of my theories on why many minor league teams did not last in the region has to do with West Michigan’s love affair with high school sports. As a transplant to this region I was absolutely shocked, and dumbfounded by the attention that high school sports garnered, in the media, in the community, and in everything. It blew my mind that high school sports got any attention on regional news broadcasts, and front page treatment on sports sections in the newspapers, and even their own tv shows after the evening news. Even after living in the region for over 8 years I am still surprised by the attention high school sports get. Now granted I may change my tune in 10 years if my children start playing competitive sports in High School, but for right now I am sticking with my original convictions. Thinking about high school sports, I find that they would be competing for the same time and money that minor league sports would from potential fans/consumers. Attendance to high school sporting events, require admission fees, food vendor sales, same evening time-slots, especially on weekends. So minor league teams have to compete against normal time and money commitments of fans, but also against even more convenient sports entertainment from the local high school teams.
I most likely guilty as anyone for not supporting the teams that we do have. I can probably count on my hands how many games I have been too since moving to West Michigan, and to date I have only seen the Holland Blast, West Michigan Whitecaps, and Grand Rapids Griffins play. Though it would be nice to have a nice constant presence of some other teams like in basketball or soccer… you know to give me and the family options on a Friday night…at least until the kids are in high school.
Any other thoughts on theories on the lack of success of minor league sports in West Michigan? Let me know.