Sports

L.A. KISS planning a big party for home opener

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Tom Umberg still remembers the Ducks' inaugural game at Honda Center in 1993.

The Arrowhead Pond, as it was then called, was packed with more than 17,000 fans, all using their duck calls to accompany a Dixieland band in its rendition of "When the Ducks Go Marching In." At one point during the pregame show Wild Wing, the team's greater than life-sized duck mascot, flew into the arena from the rafters.

Umberg was in awe. So much so that almost 21 years later he remembers the pregame more than the final score.

"We beat the Red Wings, right?" Umberg said.

They didn't. The then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were beaten, 7-2, by Detroit in their first game, but the legacy of that night went down as a victory in the minds of Umberg and thousands of other fans because of the experience the team created.

"I felt like I was part of history," said Umberg, who was then a state legislator representing Orange County and still has a puck from that game saved in his son's room. "It was the first time Orange County pro hockey was being played."

Saturday, the L.A. KISS of the Arena Football League will be trying to create a similar memory at Honda Center.

The team is off to a good start. It won its first game in San Antonio and lost in overtime in Orlando in its second game. On the business end, season-ticket sales exceed 7,000 and the team says it expects to sell out all its home games.

But the team's owners, which include Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of the rock band that inspired the team name, have the pressure of wowing people in their first home game.

"We will bring it and we will bring it big," said Harlan Hendrickson, the KISS entertainment director. "It's going to be the biggest backyard party you've seen in your life."

The night will begin with a pregame show by heavy metal band Steel Panther and, according to team officials, "more pyro than you've ever seen before" throughout the game.

When the game starts, the team will play on a signature silver field. And Hendrickson said the KISS would continue in what seems to be a venue tradition of lowering people into the stadium from the ceiling.

"You only have one chance to make a great first impression," said Tim Ryan, president and chief executive of Anaheim Arena Management, who is helping the KISS prepare for this game.

"When you're dealing with an organization that is backed by the band KISS, they're going to make sure that Saturday night is a spectacle beyond what most people have ever experienced," Ryan said.

Joann Klonowski, a sports and event management veteran who has worked for the Cleveland Indians, 1994 World Cup and the Galaxy, thinks you need a strong plan in place early.

"It's all about creating that excitement," Klonowski said. "The setup is so important."

In the lead-up to the Ducks' first game, Umberg remembers how fans were offered tours of the newly built arena.

"There was a lot of buzz about what was going to go on," Umberg said. "They created some sense that there was going to be some surprises that contributed to the excitement."

The Ducks, then-owned by the Walt Disney Co., spent at least $450,000 on the pregame show, which included Lumiere, a popular character from "Beauty and the Beast;" an indoor fireworks display; and 100 costumed ice skaters.

But the spectacle is only part of the equation. The product on the field has to speak for itself, Klonowski said.

"You have to win," she said.

When the Galaxy played its first game at the Rose Bowl in 1996, the players didn't know what to expect.

"The thought was that we might get twenty or thirty thousand," said Cobi Jones, who played for the team for its first 11 years.

During warmups, officials told the players there were about 15,000 fans already in the stands. When they came out for the national anthem, the crowd had grown to 40,000 and more people were still trickling in.

"The hum [of the crowd] was crazy," Jones said. "It truly felt like a national team match in another country."

But the fan support meant nothing without a good product. Jones provided a moment with a shot into the back of the net in the 37th minute setting off a joyous reaction in the stands.

"I can remember that goal, the celebration with myself and [Chris] Armas," Jones said. "To get that first goal in Galaxy history … and having a packed house and fans going crazy. That's something that will never be repeated."

After that first game, which the Galaxy won, 2-1, some of the 69,255 fans jumped over a fence and onto the field to celebrate with the players, Jones said.

"It was incredible and every one of those [fans] took that home with them and helped spread the word," Jones said.

And that's what first games are all about, Klonowski said: creating memories.

james.barragan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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