By Jim Charshafian
In the sport of hockey, time goes by quickly. One game rolls into the next seamlessly. A new day, another practice. A new evening, another game. A new night, another hotel room. Fall turns to winter, winter becomes spring, and before you know it, the season comes to a close. For the San Antonio Rampage and their fans, 10 seasons have passed by since the “new hockey team in town” arrived in 2002. The flipping of the calendar to 2012 gives time for reflection as the franchise celebrates its first decade of play.
Many memories have been made along the way. In April of 2003, head coach John Torchetti led the team to the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs in their first season of existence. There was the 1-0 shootout win over the Cleveland Barons on Dec. 1, 2005 in the AHL’s 30,000th regular season game that featured Brian Boucher and Vesa Toskala turning aside every shot they faced through 65 minutes of play.
There was the night of March 9, 2007 when forwards Chris Ferraro and Donald MacLean each scored five points in the same game against the Peoria Rivermen. April 18, 2008 saw rookie Chad Kolarik lead San Antonio to their first-ever playoff win with a hat trick in a 6-3 victory over the Toronto Marlies. Just this past October, the Rampage began their season with the fastest goal to start a season in franchise history when center Bracken Kearns scored 27 seconds into their 3-2 shootout win over the Chicago Wolves.
Ten years after their first game, San Antonio, a non-traditional hockey market, ranks among the AHL’s top teams in attendance. It has been a building project sustained through the efforts of not only the players and coaches on the ice, but also through the efforts of the staff of their parent company, Spurs Sports & Entertainment.
Ryan Snider, who is in his sixth season as director of business operations with the Rampage, believes that while the team’s success is very important to the company, he and his staff have been able to build a fan base through concentrating on promoting the entertainment experience to the San Antonio community.
“It’s definitely a different approach,” Snider said. “In our marketing and communications department we don’t sell hockey, we don’t sell players, we don’t sell our record, we don’t sell the team. We sell the entertainment they’re going to have when they first get here.”
Snider believes that once the fans enter the arena for a Rampage hockey game for the first time, they’ll be hooked on the entertainment experience.
“Our challenge is to get someone here for the first time,” he said. “That’s what our entire marketing plan is built behind. It’s getting someone to experience the game live in our building because once they do, they’ll come back.”
Through promotions such as “Dollar Drink Night” and “Sunday Funday,” fans are aware of what event is being held at the AT&T Center on that given day.
“We’ve worked hard to develop some consistency to branding to our promotions,” he said. “So now, we have a ‘Dollar Drink Night’ every Friday, we have a ‘Sunday Funday’ every Sunday, we have a theme night every Saturday. It’s more consistent so the fans know what they’re getting.”
Snider’s goal is simply to get fans into the building to enjoy the experience firsthand.
“Maybe they’re coming because it’s ‘Dollar Drink Night’ or because they can skate on the ice before the game,” he said. “Maybe they’re coming because they are affiliated with the firefighters or the military. They’re coming for some other reason other than hockey, but once they get here and see the game live, in person, and see everything else we do within the game and the game experience that they have, then they’re going to come back.”
As evidenced by the attendance numbers, the plan has worked. Heading into January 2012, the Rampage were averaging over 6,500 fans per game at the AT&T Center.
Gloria Drash, who, along with her husband Wil, have been Rampage season ticket holders since the team’s inception, believes that the marketing efforts of Snider and his staff have played a large roll in the expansion of the hockey fan base in San Antonio.
“They started doing those (promotions) a few years ago and I think it’s really improved the attendance and gotten people out to the games,” she said. “Things like the ice skating before Sunday games is great for the kids and they really enjoy it.”
Another area of marketing that Snider believes is essential to fan growth is organizing events in the San Antonio community with the players and the coaches.
“It’s vital,” Snider said. “In games the players are covered up and a lot of people don’t get to see their faces and get to know their personalities so I think it’s very important that we get them out into the community. It’s even more important in a non-traditional hockey market that the fans can have that connection with our players and our players do a great job of it.”
Rampage head coach Chuck Weber, who is serving in his first year behind the bench with San Antonio, has gone out on many events within the community during his time with the team. This season the Rampage have made visits with child cancer patients at Christus Santa Rosa Hospital as part of their Face-Off Against Kids Cancer program, visited the San Antonio Fire Academy in advance of their “Salute to the Badges Night,” and traveled to Lackland Air Force Base for a training session.
“I think they’ve done a great job over the years here in getting out into the community and doing new things,” said Weber. “It’s not just hospital visits and things like that. They’ve started the Face-off Against Kids Cancer program. All the guys love to get out, whether they’re on their holiday break or their off days. It’s a credit to the players and the organization to make that commitment and have a positive impact, which is great to see.”
Kearns, who is in his second year with the team, has enjoyed his visits with members of the community.
“All of those things are really important,” Kearns said. “You go into hospitals and it’s more about seeing people and cheering them up. It’s a big eye-opener for them and us. We did the firefighter training and went out on the Air Force visit and we got to see how hard these guys work. It makes you think we don’t have it so bad as hockey players. It spreads the word that there is a hockey team in town and hopefully, it gets the team noticed.”
Patty Martin and her daughter, Jessica, both season ticket holders since the Rampage’s inaugural season, have enjoyed being able to meet the players through visits with the team.
“We had an event for the season ticket holders at the Hard Rock Café earlier this year and that was great because we got to talk to them and got to know the players better,” said Patty. “It’s nice to be able to identify the guys.”
Jessica has felt a similar connection with the players after meeting them in person.
“I like to find out about how they first started playing hockey and where they grew up,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed the experience a lot because I’ve gotten to know a lot of the players and I follow them after they leave the Rampage,”
Through the efforts of the Spurs Sports & Entertainment staff, the Rampage following has grown and the players have been able to recognize that while they are out on the ice during games.
Goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris, who is in his second stint with the team after playing with the Rampage during the 2005-06 season, believes there is a different feel inside the arena these days.
“It’s night and day,” Grumet-Morris said. “I don’t think there’s been less than 6,000 people at the arena in every game since I’ve been here and that’s fantastic. I really feel that the San Antonio Rampage have figured out how to get people to come see hockey here in Texas.
“We definitely feel the fans on the ice. We always seem to get off to a good start in the first period and I feel it’s attributed to the push we get from them.”
Team captain Nolan Yonkman, a defenseman in his second year with the Rampage, noticed how energized the San Antonio crowds were at the AT&T Center when he came into the building as a member of the opposing team.
“It’s only my second year here but it’s a great fan base,” Yonkman said. “I played here as a visiting player for five years and it’s definitely a building that’s filled with great energy and the fans are always behind us. That’s a big part of our success.”
Similar to Grumet-Morris, Yonkman believes there is a direct correlation with the interest level of the fans in attendance and the team’s performance on the ice.
“That energy is definitely something that can drive a team,” he said. “The fans understand the game and understand the importance of staying positive with us. They keep coming out and we’re always welcome to do anything we can to help them out.”
The very first ever Rampage season ticket holder, Tom Klimas, feels the fan base is becoming more familiar with the game of hockey with every contest.
“There’s a core crowd,” Klimas said. “They understand the game and they enjoy it. There’s all kinds of people wearing jerseys and enjoying themselves. Hockey’s well-established in San Antonio.”
As the Rampage turn the page on their first 10 years in San Antonio with a solid following, there are still goals that Snider and his team are eagerly trying to accomplish.
“The short-term goal of getting our attendance up has been realized,” Snider said. “For our future goals, it’s to continue to grow the property and continue to offer a first-class product when people come out to games and make sure the events are entertaining from beginning to end. We don’t ever want to lose sight of that.”
Quite simply, Snider believes there is more work to do.
On Saturday the Rampage payed tribute to their franchise history at 10-Year Anniversary Night and raised more than $40,000 to benefit Silver & Black Give Back and the San Antonio Youth Hockey Foundation from a postgame jersey auction. Rampage team captain Nolan Yonkman's jersey brought in a franchise-high $5,000. The team wore themed jerseys that featured the 10-year logo, and colors and logos that are reflective of the Rampage’s affiliation history with both Florida and Phoenix.
The Rampage also announced the 10 finalists that will compete in T-Bone’s 10-Year Tournament throughout the remainder of the season to win a pair of season tickets to Rampage games for the next 10 years. The finalists were randomly selected from a pool of applicants that applied in-game and online throughout the first part of the season. They will compete in a series of events including several in-game promotions, a fundraiser, scavenger hunt and trivia for 10 weeks with one participant being eliminated each week. The winner will be announced at the last regular season Rampage home game on Apr. 15.