Titans, Rampage ownership group eye year-round entertainment for Cedar Rapids

Five-pronged unit nears completion of fifth indoor football season and first for indoor/outdoor pro soccer

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CEDAR RAPIDS – A big weekend on the horizon is merely part of the grander vision.

Saturday, the Cedar Rapids Titans will host an Indoor Football League playoff game for the first time. The following day, the first-place Cedar Rapids Rampage United welcome undefeated Milwaukee to town for a Premier League of America outdoor soccer tilt.

It is a showcase for two sister sports franchises under one ownership group, whose goal is to provide nearly year-round sports entertainment options for the Eastern Iowa community.

“It’s all about adding value,” franchise co-owner/general manager Chris Kokalis told The Gazette. “Whether it be for your season-ticket holders or your groups or your sponsors. You’ve always got to find that added value and that’s what we really try to do. We’re no longer a football team. We’re an entertainment organization.”

The organizational makeup is comprised of a varied, five-part ownership group. Business owners Ken Moninski (Seattle, Wash.) and Bob Sullivan of Milwaukee, Wis., are both based outside of the state, while local Cedar Rapids investor David Bradley is the other remaining party from the original outfit five years ago.

The Smith family of Marion (Barry, Toni and Alexis) – owners of several local property businesses – came aboard nearly two years ago.

“We’re a unique ownership group,” Kokalis said. “Everyone kind of fits into that mold of blue-collar, small-business enterprise individuals. … That’s what I appreciate most about our operation. We’re all in this together to build this, we know it takes a lot of hard work and effort. Nothing is going to come easy.”

Then there is Kokalis, who provides a face to the franchise and has the most significant sports management experience of the group. The Milwaukee native oversees the day-to-day operations with a staff that includes Director of Communications Adam Barnhardt and Travis Young (Director of Operations).

On game day, Kokalis excitedly buzzes around the arena with a walkie-talkie, providing constant direction with a vigor that closely resembles a stage production. Announcements, music, highlights – even postgame advertising banner removal – nothing falls outside the realm of responsibility to ensure a smooth product.

“That’s my environment,” Kokalis said. “When a player walks out on to that field, he’s in his zone. When I walk into that arena, I’m in my zone. … I love knowing that our organization is having a positive effect on the community. Like I said, there’s not a lot of money in this but what it brings to the community is what I believe in and what the partners believe in. As long as Cedar Rapids wishes to have us, we’re going to continue to build and work hard.”

Finding relative longevity in the volatile minor-league football and soccer landscape hasn’t come without its challenges. Kokalis, Moninski and Sullivan previously oversaw a failed two-year IFL stint in La Crosse, Wis., that unceremoniously ended in 2011. Even after the Titans’ launch in 2012, the league called on the group to assist a struggling Bemidji franchise find solid footing, which was ultimately sold and then folded after last season.

The group seems to have found a blend of sponsors and fan support (six sellouts in each of the first two seasons at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena) that, five years after La Crosse, has the Titans regarded as one of the model franchises in the IFL and provided the impetus for the addition of the Rampage indoor soccer team last year. Season tickets for the second season of the Rampage indoor team are now on sale.

In addition to housing provided by the Smiths and partnerships with local restaurants, the club has arranged for prompt, reliable medical treatment through St. Luke’s Hospital and athletic training from Aspen Athletic Clubs.

These are just the type of perks that help attract free agents and retain existing players.

“The organization works so hard to bring the high-caliber player there in such a small city, small market and they’re able to get the best out of guys there,” said IFL veteran Bryan Pray, who played for six IFL franchises, including three years (2013-15) in Cedar Rapids. “The housing is top-notch. … They have everything furnished there. Your paychecks are on time. Great food deals, 10-12 food vouchers a week. They do everything right.”

Kokalis and Co. also juggle significant expenses such as U.S. Cellular Center rental fees ($5,000 per game) and dueling payrolls ($225 per game for football, plus $25 community outreach bonus; $80,000 total per year combined for outdoor and indoor soccer). Head coaches are paid on salary, while assistants are compensated by the game.

“We have our losses, but I think if you go and you talk to any minor-league sports organization around the country, especially at this level, you’re going to get a lot of the same,” Kokalis said. “This is definitely about doing this for the community and to continue to grow and I think that’s what, if you go and you poll every other minor-league sports owner – not a lot of money in this business. You have to have a passion for what you do and you have to have a passion for the community.”

l Comments: douglas.miles@thegazette.com

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