The khaki-colored seats are starting to get packed at the Cow Palace for a mid-January matinée. The archaic, icy-cold barn is filling up with an estimated 4,257 fans; impressive turnout for a Sunday afternoon.
But then again, The City’s freshman hockey team, the San Francisco Bulls, has seen its crowds steadily increase as the season has progressed.
The stands are peppered with parents, kids, couples, you name it. Fans can be seen sporting bright orange Bulls jerseys under Giants bombers, and — not 24 hours after a victorious NFC Divisional Playoff game — 49ers “Forever Faithful” scarves.
Such is the scene for Bulls games, created with the help of the Matadors, Bulls’ booster and fan club.
And the Matadors, much like the young team they represent, have continued to gain momentum.
Rocky Barbanica, the Matadors club president, was clad in a Bulls jersey and wearing a huge smile as he waxed enthusiastically about the growth of the club during intermission:
“We estimate having 50 or so members by the time the season is over. We’re gaining momentum, and a lot of interest.”
The Matadors, as their Facebook page so aptly states, was formed by “fanatic season ticket holders” and other fans that simply love the team. The group formed early last year, before a single player had even been signed to the team.
Ever since, Barbanica and company have been actively contacting other local team booster clubs to see how they operate and plan events, he says.
Consisting of a core group of about 10 members — including a a VP, secretary and historian — the club meets one Tuesday every month to in addition to games and events.
From showing up to the team signings to supporting Bulls broadcaster Jason Lockhart for the SF Bulls Weekly radio special at Pedro’s Cantina, the Matadors are helping to shape the Bulls’ fan base.
Not to say that the recent state of hockey hasn’t also been a factor in the Matadors’ success. With an NHL lockout that spanned for 119 days, San Jose Sharks fans have needed more than repeat games on TV to get their hockey fix.
Barbanica, a Menlo Park native and Sharks fan, admitted that the lockout has subsequently brought more fans to the Cow Palace, particularly after the exhibition game they played at the HP Pavilion back on December 19:
“You know, people need their hockey. We’ve definitely seen a growing number of people interested after the game in San Jose. And we continue to see a lot of the same faces in the crowd come back to games.”
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In the middle of this crowd is super fan Jay Bergers; a six-foot-something gentleman dressed in a bright orange one-see to make himself into — you guessed it — a bull.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he had been hired by the team as a demi-mascot to help pump up the Cow Palace crowd.
In fact, Bergers is a newly-anointed hockey fan:
“I had never been a huge fan of any sports team in my life. My friends were like, ‘Monday Night Football, blah blah blah.’ And then I went to the first Bulls game, the exhibition game before the home opener on October 12. And I was completely hooked.”
Bergers is one of the newest members of the Matadors, conducting feats such as posting up in costume down in the Financial District to help spread the word about the new team. He said of helping to draw even bigger crowds:
“I was telling Rocky, when you go out to eat and you pay the bill, leave a tip and leave a couple Bulls schedules.”
At the end of the day, of course, it’s all about the guys out there skating their hearts out every game. The Matadors have done everything from setting up dinners for the players to making them individual stockings for Christmas. Barbanica said:
“A lot of these guys aren’t from around here. We want them to feel welcome, and let them know how excited we are that they’re here.”