Before the first puck had dropped at the ATT Center, there already was the feeling that this was going to be a special night.
The arena’s upper and lower bowls were filling fast. The concourse was packed. An unmistakable buzz filled the air.
A crowd of 16,151 — the first sellout in franchise history — turned out to see the Rampage play the Lake Erie Monsters. The date was Feb. 3, 2012.
“It felt like a Spurs game,” said Ryan Snider, the team’s director of business operations.
Ten years ago, such a notion would have been considered pure fantasy.
Then, the Rampage were new in town, and San Antonio’s fan base was still battered and bruised from the hockey wars of a few years earlier.
It hasn’t always been smooth skating, but as they prepare to open their 11th season Saturday against the Texas Stars at the ATT Center, the Rampage appear to be on solid ice.
“I would like to think that people who were cynical 10 years ago would feel differently now,” said Rick Pych, president of business operations for Spurs Sports Entertainment, which owns the Rampage.
“I think it demonstrates if you stick with it and make the right adjustments, San Antonio is a great hockey market.”
The Rampage celebrated their 10th anniversary season in style, achieving franchise highs on and off the ice.
The team, under coach Chuck Weber, made the postseason in its first year as a Florida Panthers affiliate and won a playoff series for the first time.
The Rampage achieved success at the ticket office, too, averaging 7,134 fans a game, another franchise best. That figure ranked seventh in the 30-team American Hockey League. The team averaged 5,038 fans a game during its first season in 2002-03.
Although still viewed as third banana to the Spurs and Silver Stars, the top two teams in the SSE portfolio that also includes the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League, the Rampage appear to be forming their own identity.
But on the crowded local sports landscape, it seems the Rampage always will be fighting for headlines.
In San Antonio, football and the Spurs rule.
“There’s a lot of competition,” Snider acknowledged. “But it’s what we’re used to. We know what the challenges are. I think we’ve found our niche.”
Jordan Kobritz, a professor of sports management at State University of New York at Cortland, said the plight of the Rampage is similar to that of other minor-league teams in non-traditional hockey markets.
“I’m not sure how popular the sport will ever be in a Sun Belt city,” Kobritz said. “But you don’t have to be top dog to be successful and make a contribution to the community. As long as they’re successful, the Rampage will continue to be relevant.”
SELLING THE EXPERIENCE
Having the marketing muscle of the Spurs behind them helps.
In 2008, SSE reorganized its front office. Now, instead of all of the company’s sports and entertainment entities being marketed as one, a separate staff is dedicated to each.
The change has paid huge dividends. Pych said the Rampage, like the Spurs and Silver Stars, are profitable.
But there are obstacles. Unlike with the Spurs and the Silver Stars, there are no marquee names, such as a Tim Duncan or a Becky Hammon, for the Rampage to build marketing campaigns around.
Typical of the minor leagues, Rampage players come and go. Their roster changes dramatically from one season to the next.
“Our focus is on selling the experience,” Snider said. “And we want that experience to be top level every time you come out.”
He said many fans attend games as part of group promotions. The sellout in February came on the team’s annual “Pink in the Rink Night” to promote breast cancer awareness.
“Hockey is fast. It’s an exciting game to watch in person,” Snider said. “We figure if we can get people in the door once, for any reason, they’ll come back.”
S.A.’S HOCKEY ROOTS
The Rampage aren’t the first professional hockey team to call San Antonio home — just the most successful.
The first was the Iguanas, who made their debut in the fall of 1994.
The team played in the Central Hockey League, a low-level division of minor-league hockey that was known more for its colorful characters and fighting than skill.
The Iguanas played at Freeman Coliseum, averaging 4,795 fans per game their first three seasons. They advanced to the championship round of the CHL playoffs the first two seasons under their charismatic coach, John Torchetti.
That success prompted the now-defunct IHL to bring the Dragons to San Antonio in 1996, forcing fans to choose between the two franchises.
Vying for ice time, locker room space and fan base, the Iguanas struggled against the perceived “better brand of hockey.”
The team persevered through a third season — averaging 2,924 fans a game to the Dragons’ 4,931 — before ceasing operations.
The Dragons played through 1998, then went away, too. The Iguanas came back that same year and played four more seasons, the best coming in 1999-2000 when they averaged 4,977 fans.
But by April 2002, the Spurs announced plans to bring an AHL team to the new SBC (now ATT) Center, blindsiding the Iguanas’ rabid faithful.
Not long after the AHL awarded the Spurs a franchise in May 2002, the Iguanas suspended operations.
But their success paved the way for the Rampage. The passionate Iguanas fans became Rampage fans.
Pych, who played hockey in college, said he used to attend Iguanas games with his son and witnessed the enthusiasm first-hand.
“I remember bringing him to the games and the place was packed,” Pych recalled. “I was convinced that not only did I love the sport but that there was a market here.”
Still, he added, “we felt the unease of the fans when we started.”
“I think there was a pervasive view that, ‘Oh, no, here we go again,’” he said. “‘We’ll have a team that will be here a couple years and then go away.’”
The Rampage stayed, surviving a rocky first three seasons as a Florida Panthers affiliate and six more so-so years as the top farm team of the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Rampage made the playoffs only two times in nine seasons.
“I would have thought we would have gotten to where we are now a little sooner,” Pych said. “But it’s worked out well for us. We stumbled along the way, but we’re where we need to be the last three years.”
GROWING THE SPORT
As one of the original and most popular Iguanas players of all time, Brian Shantz remembers the good old days.
Now a San Antonio realtor, Shantz said the hockey in the Alamo City is better than ever.
“The Rampage do a great job of marketing,” Shantz said. “But I’m still not sure that people realize this is the Triple-A of hockey, the highest level of hockey there is outside of the NHL.”
He said he’s seen the sport grow locally over the years but would like to see it develop even more.
The Rampage-sponsored junior hockey leagues number close to 200 players ages 7-18, but that figure is not likely to increase much in the next several years.
Currently, there’s only one ice rink in town other than the ATT Center for Rampage games.
The privately owned Ice Center at Northwoods has only one sheet of ice after converting their other one to an indoor soccer field two years ago.
Officials there cite economic reasons for the change, explaining that soccer is the more popular sport.
Competition for ice time is fierce. In addition to youth and adult leagues, the Rampage also use the facility, renting ice time for practices when the ATT Center is not available.
In 2009, SSE won preliminary approval for a $4 million taxpayer-funded, mixed-use public facility near the ATT Center but couldn’t come to an agreement with the San Antonio Livestock Exposition and Coliseum Advisory Board on a site.
Building such a facility is “still on our radar,” Pych said.
In the meantime, the Rampage focus on growing the sport in other ways. They’ve already sold 1,300 season tickets for this season, most in the league.
So, where do the Rampage go from here?
“From a business standpoint, we’re going in the right direction,” Pych said. “We need to keep doing what we’re doing, providing good affordable family entertainment for our fans.”
An NHL franchise, however, is not likely in the city’s future, he said.
The ultimate prize? That would be winning the Calder Cup, which goes to the AHL champions every year.
“That’s the goal of all of our sports teams, to bring championships to San Antonio,” Pych said.