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Official Review by Paul Swaney, Stadium Journey Co-Founder
In April 2014, Steve Jbara purchased the Springfield Armor of the NBA Developmental League with the intention of moving the team to Grand Rapids for the 2014-2015 season. The organization held a naming contest and settled on the moniker “Drive” in June 2014.
The Grand Rapids Drive are affiliated primarily with the Detroit Pistons, who oversee personnel decisions. The Pistons formerly had an affiliate relationship with the Ft Wayne Mad Ants.
With the addition of the Drive, the city of Grand Rapids (the second largest city in the state of Michigan) now as minor league affiliations with the Detroit Red Wings (Grand Rapids Griffins), and Detroit Tigers (West Michigan Whitecaps). It’s a great geographic fit with Grand Rapids being far enough away from Detroit that these teams allow fans of Michigan professional sports teams to feel more closely associated with the parent clubs.
The Drive play their home games at the DeltaPlex Arena, a cavernous building that looks like a warehouse from the outside. The arena is located about five miles north of downtown Grand Rapids in the suburb of Walker.
The Deltaplex was opened in 1952 and has been used for trade shows and conventions, as well as sporting events and concerts. Two different members of the now defunct International Hockey League (IHL) called the Deltaplex home (the Grand Rapids Rockets and Grand Rapids Owls). The venue has also hosted indoor football (West Michigan ThunderHawks of the IFL), and the ABA basketball club, the Grand Rapids Flight.
The arena offers a no frills experience, but the club does its best to provide a good overall basketball venue.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concession selection is vast, but it is hardly inspiring. With so many great dining options in downtown Grand Rapids, you should plan to eat before the game. If you do come to the game feeling peckish, you can find the usual assortment of hot dogs ($3), nachos ($3.50-$6), cheeseburgers ($5.50), pizza ($5.50), and soft pretzels ($4).
Pepsi is the soft drink provider ($2-$3), and you can also find Gatorade ($3), Kickstart and other energy drinks ($3-$4), and bottled water ($3). Hot drinks include coffee, tea, cappuccino, and cocoa ($1-$2).
There are a few bar options inside the arena, offering a good variety of well and top shelf cocktails ($6-$8). Beer varieties include Coors Light ($6), Bell's Two Hearted Ale ($7), and the local Founders Pale Ale ($7) for a 20 ounce cup. Wednesday is dollar beer night, with smaller versions of the suds being poured for just a buck until the end of the second quarter. You can expect the crowd to skew toward the 20 somethings on hump day.
Approaching the arena, you may think you're headed to a boat show as the arena just appears to be a very large warehouse. Inside, the arena maintains that industrial feel, but there is also a wide open sense once you're in your seat.
You'll find the usual gimmicks of contests on the court during time outs, cheerleaders on the sideline opposite the benches, and a cadre of staff who try to fire the crowd up through giveaways like "tees for threes" after a shot from beyond the arc.
Music plays throughout the game action, as it does for many other NBA and Developmental League venues. I personally find this rather annoying, and would much rather hear the bounce of the ball, squeak of the shoes, and the natural crowd noise rather than the expected selection of hip hop snippets.
All of the seats can be found along the sidelines. They are all green plastic chairback seats with less than average leg room, and no cup holders. The seats face straight ahead, so you'll want as close to the center as possible (sections 104-105 face the benches or 112-133 behind the benches).
There's a Kid's Zone, and also a Coors Light Party Deck (strategically placed side by side so parents can have a cocktail while the kids play). There is also a VIP section found under the basket nearest the visiting team's bench, complete with a bar, bar tables, and black leather sofas.
Courtside suite rentals are $500 per game and includes free parking, wait service, access to the VIP lounge, and an opportunity for business owners to promote their brand.
The scoreboard is center hung, but rather basic. It is so high up that it can be a little tough to see from the front few rows. There is also a video screen at one end of the arena above the VIP section which shows live game action and promotions.
Grand Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Michigan with just shy of 200,000 inhabitants, so there is plenty to be found in the city. The immediate area however is a bit lacking. You can find several chain options however along Alpine Ave, just a mile or so by car. You'll find a Buffalo Wild Wings, Olive Garden, Logan's Roadhouse, and just about every fast food option imaginable. There is an AMC movie theatre if you're looking to kill a couple of hours with a flick, and several hotels in this area as well, including a Hampton Inn and SpringHill Suites.
For more interesting options, make the 4-5 mile drive to downtown Grand Rapids. If you are a microbrew lover, then you will also want to be sure to make a trip to Founders Brewery, about 5 miles from the stadium. They serve sandwiches, but you are coming for some of the best brews in the world. Other recommendations include HopCat, the B.O.B., and Grand Rapids Brewing Company.
If you are in town for a few days, check the schedule for the AHL's Grand Rapid Griffins. The team plays at Van Andel Arena, which we at Stadium Journey have named as the best minor league hockey arena experience for 2012, 2013, and 2014.
The fans who attend Grand Rapids Drive games can best be described as casual and social. They are here to enjoy an evening out with friends in a sports setting. They'll cheer at the appropriate times, and mildly harass a bad call by the officials or heckle an air ball from a visiting player.
The staff who implore the crowd to make noise during visiting free throws and other critical moments is successful in getting folks on their feet. The arena can actually get quite loud, despite all of the open space.
You can expect some rush hour traffic around Grand Rapids in the hours leading off to the usual 7pm tip time for the Grand Rapid Drive. Use some common sense and give yourself some extra time and you shouldn't have any trouble making it to the game on time.
Parking is plentiful and fairly close to the arena, at a cost of $5. You really don't have any other option than this lot, as the arena is not really walkable from any nearby location. The price feels reasonable, although free parking might encourage a few more fans to come out to a game.
Inside the arena, you should be able to move around easily. Concourses are sufficiently wide, and restrooms are clean and big enough to handle the crowds that come out to games.
There is a wide range of ticket prices, starting at just $5 for general admission seats in the sideline corners. Ushers are not sticklers about checking tickets, so you can easily move to a more central section on most nights, even with the cheaper ticket stub. If you want to move over a section, then tickets cost a reasonable $10, and it is $22 for the center sections (row J-V), or $30 for the first eight rows of the center sections. Group discounts are available for parties of 10 or more.
Opt for the $5 ticket, skip the arena fare and eat downtown, and park for just $5 and you are in for a very affordable night of basketball that is played at a very high level.
The mascot for the Grand Rapids Drive is named "Buckets." He is basically a muscle-bound athlete with a basketball for a head. He does a good job of making his way around the arena, and interacting with fans of all ages. Every time I looked up he was in a different seating section.
The Drive adopted the team colors and basic logo of their parent club, the Detroit Pistons. It looks sharp and is an easy winner with fans.
One final extra point for the move to Grand Rapids. It is a premier minor league town, and as the NBA D-League continues to expand to its expected base of 30 teams, Grand Rapids is an excellent choice as a host city.
The NBA has done a good job of growing its minor league base, and that trend should continue for the foreseeable future. NBA D-League venues are beginning to draw decent crowds, and the product is very high. Games feature players who are hungry to take that next step, so you see tenacity and hustle mixed in with a bit of razzle dazzle. If you're in the Grand Rapids area and are looking for a game, a trip to the Deltaplex to see the Drive is a worthwhile decision.
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