The Smell of Victory

Remember when the best seat in the house wasn't in your house? Remember when being a fan of Southern California professional sports included a championship season or two from the home team?


We're waiting.

Well, maybe you don't remember, although it wasn't that long ago—only 1997, when the Anaheim Bullfrogs won the Roller Hockey International (RHI) world title. Actually, the Bullfrogs have four title banners hanging from the rafters of the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim—two for world championships and two for division crowns—and with a 4-1-1 record so far in this 26-game season, they're among the favorites to secure another.

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Don't scoff. No, the Bullfrogs are not the overrated Angels or the overmarketed Ducks—or even the so-very-overrated Clippers, who won't be dragging their sorry asses down from Los Angeles for big paydays in front of the local rubes anymore, now that they're moving into a big, pretty, corporately named arena of their own. No, Roller Hockey International is not Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League either. But don't say that as if it's a bad thing. The so-called major sports have expanded so relentlessly and changed cities and restructured divisions and altered rules so incessantly that their once-hallowed rivalries and traditions are virtually nonexistent.

There are two differences between the Anaheim Bullfrogs and the higher-profile pro teams in Orange County: 1) the Bullfrogs don't have a TV contract, so if you want to watch them play, you've got to put down the remote and go to the Pond, and 2) the Bullfrogs are the only living, breathing piece of winning tradition in Orange County pro sports. And those are two pretty good things. It's kind of cool to walk into the Pond and see those banners dangling high above the floor like huge party streamers. It's kind of vicariously intimidating to imagine how those fancy flags look to the members of the visiting team as they do their pregame drills below—probably like so many awaiting nooses. And it's certainly a switch to watch the home team take a big lead and hold on to it. The night we went, the Bullfrogs had a strangling 5-1 advantage against the Dallas Stallions by the end of the first period on the strength of three goals—and one of the quickest hat tricks in hockey history—from left winger Roman Hubalek. They won 12-5.

Yeah, that's a high score, but that's one of the enjoyable adjustments that come with getting used to roller hockey, which is to ice hockey what softball is to baseball. The basic idea is the same, and it's not too difficult for the players to move between them if they make a few adaptations. In fact, most of the Bullfrogs players play ice hockey during the winter. The biggest difference is the surface—ice vs. plastic—and the trade-off is that the plastic is smoother but harder on the knees and ankles, since turning is not accomplished with the slushy sliding available on ice.

Many of the differences in the rules make the new game higher-scoring. Roller hockey has one fewer player per side (five instead of six) and two fewer blue lines (that is, none), so there's more room to move and fewer offsides. The average roller-hockey game has about 90 shots on goal and 14 goals per game—double that of ice hockey.

But that's just the technical stuff, the things the athletes and the hardcore sports fans worry about. On the surface, which is where most of the appeal of pro sports lies these days, the Bullfrogs offer heaping helpings of everything that every other game has got. There are commercials playing on the message board during lulls in play; an announcer who can't contain his canned enthusiasm; a collection of aerobically correct, Jennifer Aniston-coifed cheerleaders wrapped so tightly in shiny cellophane that they look like they're straight out of a Bond movie (Goldfinger, I think); a blaring playlist of Top 40 music; and a hyperkinetic man in a mascot suit, the permanently grimacing bullfrog Zeus.

There's something for everybody, as the sports-marketing geniuses like to say. Except in this case, it's true: the Bullfrogs haven't forgotten the people who like to watch the scoreboard, either. The team wins. Observing all of this with satisfaction from a folding chair above the western end of the floor is Bullfrogs team president Bob Elder, who has obviously learned a lot about being a pro-sports executive in a very short time.

"Winning is essential for any team to make it in Southern California," Elder says with much gravity. "But the Anaheim Bullfrogs aren't really competing for fans with other sports franchises. We're competing for the audiences that go to movies and concerts and buy video games. We're competing for the entertainment dollar."

Elder recites these two commandments of pro-sports marketing as if he has been reeling off hackneyed clichs his whole career. Then again, he is a former TV sportscaster.

And maybe there is a cable-TV contract in the Anaheim Bullfrogs' future. Roller hockey makes a big point about how its game—which is typically played in about two hours—is better-suited to television than the usual 2-hour, 45-minute ice hockey game. And maybe surfing across a Bullfrogs game on cable won't be such a bad thing when it happens.

But just in case, you might want to get out to the Pond and catch a game now, while the smell of winning is still in the air.

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