There was a time when fans in northern Colorado had two choices when it came to sports: go to an event at CSU or head to Denver.
Actually, that time was not long ago at all. Just five years ago there was little selection for those seeking a sports fix in the Fort Collins-Loveland-Greeley area.
But today is a whole new ballgame – literally. An influx of minor-league professional sports teams has hit the area since 2003, changing the face of sports and entertainment in the region.
One of the most recent additions to that mix, the United Indoor Football league’s Colorado Ice, opened its second season Friday with an exhibition game against the Denver Titans at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland.
“Northern Colorado has a very bright future in sports,” said Ice owner Danny DeGrande. “It’s been proven here: if people see you win, they’ll come out.”
Those who did come out Friday- an estimated 2,500 in the 5,200-capacity BEC – got a taste of that future in watching the Ice crush the Titans (a semi-professional team out of the Colorado Football Conference) 52-21.
One of those in attendance was Bryan White, a northern Colorado native, who said he has become a die-hard supporter of the Ice and the Central Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles.
“I was born and raised here, I’m a native,” White said. “My family just loves coming to these games. We do the Ice, the Eagles… we do it all. It’s a ton of fun.”
White said having pro sports locally is an opportunity both he and his family don’t take for granted.
“We had season tickets to the Broncos, I’ve had season tickets to the Avalanche, I gave them all up and now we’re up here,” White said. “I’d rather help out these teams up north.”
White said what also attracts him to Ice games is the affordability. Ticket prices range from $10 to $30.
For one of his son’s friends, Dustin, the reason for coming is a bit simpler.
“The cheerleaders,” he said.
And that brings up a point that DeGrande, as well as owners of many minor-league sports teams in Colorado, have come to find out: it takes more than just the sport to bring people to the games.
“We try to make it fun for our fans, give them a lot of reasons to come support us,” said DeGrande.
For some, perhaps, it is the football itself that brings them out to Ice games. The eight-team UIF employs rules allowing high-scoring, high-speed football.
The field itself aids in this mission: it is only 50 yards long and 28 yards wide. Goal posts are only 9 feet wide, as opposed to over 18 feet in college and the NFL. Only eight players take the field for each team at one time, and two offensive players can be in motion as opposed to one, traditionally.
Against the Titans, the Ice brought the crowd to its feet with repeated long-field bombs to their speedy receivers, including a 30-yard touchdown strike to former CSU wideout George Hill – one of four former Rams on the Ice squad.
Beside the game itself, Ice fans get constant entertainment: boisterous music plays in between nearly every snap. Fans are selected to participate in contests during breaks. The “Icicles” cheerleading squad dances just feet away from fans and “ball babes,” as they are called, frequently throw out T-shirts to the crowd.
Oh, and if a football ends up in the seats (something that happens quite often, as there is no glass as there is in hockey) the fans get to take it home.
“It’s up-tempo and exciting,” said Randall Janda, a Titans fan who came to the game from Thornton. “There’s always something going on, it’s definitely an up-and-coming thing.”
While Janda said “lower beer prices” would help attract more people – especially at the young adult demographic – he believed the sport’s future will come down to simple marketing.
“They’ve got something here, they’ve just got to get the word out,” Janda said.
Sarah Andreano, who came to the Ice-Titans game from Brighton, said she didn’t even know the Ice existed until a friend invited her.
“This is so much fun,” she said. “I guarantee you a lot more people would come to these games if they knew they were here.”
DeGrande said the team is working to get the word out, but that it has had a limited budget dueto low attendance and disappointments in sponsorships.
“It didn’t go quite as we planned,” DeGrande said of the Ice’s inaugural season, when the team averaged around 3,200 in attendance. “We want the place to be filled. We want people standing in line to get in. What hurt us is that we didn’t get all the sponsorships we were hoping to get.”
But DeGrande remains optimistic that as more people hear about the team, they’ll be enticed to buy in to the Ice the way they have to the Eagles, who have sold out nearly every home game since their arrival in 2003.
DeGrande is clearly impressed with the model of the Eagles. He even worked to create the Ice’s schedule so it wouldn’t conflict with the hockey team (the Ice don’t play another home game until April 11 against the Billings Outlaws). Tori Holt, who has done radio and television play-by-play for the Eagles since 2003, said a big part of the success of the CHL team is due to on-ice results.
“The Eagles were able to piggyback on what (the Avalanche) had done,” Holt said. “But what has kept it successful is the care that’s put into this franchise by management. And when you continue to win, fans want to come out and support you.”
DeGrande agreed, saying the success or failure of the Ice and other professional sports in northern Colorado will depend on how the team actually performs.
“I think fans in this area are great, but I think we have to put a winning team on the field,” he said. “I think we’re going through what a lot of other teams are in the area. I mean, take a look at the numbers for CSU and (University of Northern Colorado) sporting events, they’re struggling to fill their venues, too.”
But DeGrande believes the entertainment value of his team, coupled with improved success, will make the Ice a long-term fixture in northern Colorado sports.
And with the ball babes, the music and the take-home footballs, it seems as though some fans are already buying into the concept.
“Plus, the Broncos aren’t playing, so what the hell?” she said. “You’ve gotta have football.”
Sports writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at sports@ collegian.com.