When Home is Away

January 29, 2015
With student-athletes on board, this high school transformed an away venue into a home-field advantage.
By Stephanie Hare

Stephanie Hare is Athletic Supervisor at Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she will be starting her third year this fall. She can be reached at: share@fhps.net.

In the fall of 2012, I was approached by the West Michigan Whitecaps, a nearby Class A minor league baseball team, with an intriguing proposition. The management at its facility, Fifth Third Ballpark, asked if it could host one of our Forest Hills Northern High School home football games during the 2013 season. They wanted to promote the ballpark experience and thought we'd enjoy the chance to play in the stadium.

Many questions immediately arose. How hard would it be to transport all aspects of a home game from our school to the park? Would coaches, boosters, and fans balk at the idea? Would we lose revenue? Based on my initial brainstorming, I was hesitant.

Before thinking any further about the negatives, I decided to find out how the players felt. That night at a home volleyball game, I asked the captain of the football team for his feedback on the possibility of playing at Fifth Third Ballpark. His eyes lit up right away. He was excited about the opportunity, and everyone else on the squad began pulling for it as well.

It has always been our school's philosophy that anything students put enthusiasm behind can and will be successful. So, I threw my hesitations out the window and determined we would make a home game at an away facility a reality.

Putting the Pieces Together
Fifth Third Ballpark has been renovated several times in its 19-year history and features updated amenities for spectators, such as a video board, suites, and great concessions. It's no surprise our football team wanted to play in such a professional venue.

But there were a lot of details to work out before I could make their dreams come true. The financial weight of giving up the concession sales and gate of a home game could be detrimental to our boosters and athletic department. A school can only absorb so much loss of revenue while making a memorable event for students.

Fortunately, my financial fears were put to rest after a first meeting with Fifth Third Ballpark. They offered to split all profits from the game, including revenue streams we don't normally tap into, such as parking fees, suite rentals, and banner and video advertising. In term of advertising, the ballpark would take care of all the selling so we could just sit back and enjoy the shared profits.

For our booster club, this made it an easy sell. They would not have to work a home game and they'd still get a significant concession check.

My next step was talking with our opponent for that date, Greenville High School. It turns out that Greenville had played a game at Fifth Third Ballpark previously and had a very positive experience, so they were excited about the opportunity to do it again.

Moving all the hoopla and atmosphere of one of our home games to Fifth Third was another hurdle. This would include transporting our team, athletic trainer, band, cheer and dance squads, and all of their necessary equipment, and making sure no important detail is left at home. With enough preplanning, I felt we could pull it off. Just as important, I quickly gained confidence in the Ballpark's management team to do their part, noting their efficiency and attention to detail.

One last obstacle was our coaches. Initially, they had some hesitations about playing in a venue they were not familiar with. But this was fairly easily remedied by the excitement of the players and parents. In addition, the Ballpark is allowing us to practice in the facility the day before the game to get more comfortable with the field.

A Community Event
With everyone on board, we are now working on making the game something our community will support and attend. Our job over the next few months is to promote the game to help bring in revenue and create an atmosphere the student-athletes will always remember.

Our approach is to get fans excited by selling the same things our athletes were pumped up about--a rare chance to watch their high school football team in a professional stadium. We are encouraging our supporters to purchase suites to watch the game from, which will allow them to order food and (non-alcoholic) drinks brought directly to their box. We also hope that watching a game from a suite during the month of October in Michigan will appeal to fair-weather fans.

Another way we are involving the community in this event is through acknowledging our youth football program. At halftime, each youth team will be introduced and will run out onto the field. We do this yearly at our home stadium, but Fifth Third should enhance the experience.

Our band members and our dance and cheer teams will also play a big part in this special night with pregame and halftime performances. Their parents are very excited to see them perform at Fifth Third.

One last challenge is making sure fans understand their individual costs will increase. The price of a ticket is slightly higher, no season passes will be accepted, and fans will be charged for parking. We are communicating these changes ahead of time through e-mail and the school's Web site. Coaches, band directors, and students are also being asked to share this information with their families so there are no surprises.

With most of the pieces in place, we are looking forward to watching our student-athletes take the field at Fifth Third on Oct. 11. I am excited to see our players and their supporters on the big screen and a huge crowd enjoying the atmosphere of a professional park. We hope for good weather and the community to show up in droves. But we are very confident the number one goal--a positive experience for our students--will be realized.
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