If I owned a professional hockey team and had it playing about three-dozen home games at the Rio Rancho Events Center …
I don’t, of course, but here’s how I’d tackle that situation.
Filling the seats – or at least most of them – would be near the top of the list, along with having a winning team.
More important than having a winning team – after all, the Albuquerque Isotopes haven’t been above the .500 mark since May 20, 2019 – is putting a quality product on the ice. Hockey is an entertaining sport, and I can’t tell you how many times when entering the Rio Rancho Events Center and told someone: “I miss the electricity in this building from when the Scorpions were here.”
I covered the team, went to a majority of its home games, knew the coaches and a handful of players – defenseman Vladimir (not Putin) Hartinger was a favorite of mine and many fans – and enjoyed being there, win or lose.
Among my career highlights, hockey-wise, was covering a game from the penalty box.
Fans won’t get those opportunities, but they should be able to enjoy the athleticism of hockey players, precision passing, slap shots traveling more than 100 mph, hard checks into the boards and a fight or two along the way.
When I was a kid, the National Hockey League consisted of only six teams – four in the U.S. and two in Canada, and none farther west than Chicago. A couple decades later, there were teams as far west as California and as far south as Florida, neither known for having a winter. And teams going there acquired fans.
As Rio Rancho and much of Albuquerque is made up of people from other states, they should at least be familiar with the sport.
And, because Rio Rancho’s population has surpassed 104,000 and there are many thousands on Albuquerque’s West Side, I’d primarily market my hockey team to this side of the Rio Grande.
Many people in Albuquerque think a trip to Rio Rancho, especially the Events Center, is akin to making a trip to Saturn. So I wouldn’t relegate a lot of my advertising dollars east of the Rio Grande.
Glen Rosales of the Albuquerque Journal, and once a staff writer for the Observer, is a longtime hockey fan and knowledgeable about the Scorpions’ existence in the metro area. I asked him for his takes on a new team.
“I think the big issue – and it’s been the big issue from the beginning – is where the arena is located. I told (the Scorpions) from day one, people from Albuquerque are not going to come out there. Maybe for a game, but they’re not going to buy season tickets.”
Rosales agreed with me on marketing the team to this side of the Rio Grande.
“Make it the Rio Rancho hometown team,” he said, suggesting the team name being Rio Rancho Raptors instead of New Mexico Raptors. “If you’re going to sell tickets, you need to sell them to the hometown fans. … I would go hard after Bernalillo, too, and Placitas — they need to go after their local fans. You’ve got to sell it to the kids, too.”
The sport, he said, has “action end-to-end – it should be everything that a young sports fan likes these days.”
Former Scorpions coach Randy Murphy agreed: “Grow the game at the youth level. Getting into the schools is huge. Introduce the game,” he said, probably remembering when Rio Rancho school students were bused to a game.
Another idea from Rosales: “They need to look at each game as an event. The United does that. Try and make each game special, each game that will somehow attract people from Albuquerque. The thing is, hockey is such a fun sport and once you can get fans into the stands watching it, you’re going to win over fans and get people excited about it.”
Because I want my hockey team to be on people’s minds, I’d want its wins and losses shown on the local TV stations. I’ve already spoken to one local TV sports reporter, and he doubts the people doing local sports will be here regularly, unless they can combine it with video from a Cleveland, Cibola or Rio Rancho high school basketball game or two.
Thus – and this is something I recommended to the Scorpions when they were contemplating a move from Tingley Coliseum to Rio Rancho – I’d find a way to get a couple video highlights, such as a goal or two and maybe a fight, to all three Duke City TV stations on a regular basis.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the same highlight on each station – it’d be a local hockey highlight, saving their crews long trips here and back.
As for the fans, make the game experience a good one. Don’t play the music so loud that the fans can’t talk during play stoppages.
I would make players were available at times to sign autographs before and after games, because that younger market loves being up close to athletes. As far as availability, it’d be in their contracts to provide some community service – reading to elementary students in the schools, doing a massive clean-up in the community, even having a hockey instructional day.
I couldn’t have the ticket prices astronomical, and probably arrange for 5-game or 10-game deals to reduce the costs and keep people coming back.
But, as Murphy recalled: “It’s an uphill push, no matter what. … You need the right ownership and engagement in the community.”
Maybe Rosales said it best: “If you get people in the building, they’ll become fans.”