I didn’t understand it. There I was, spending my second of two days in Las Vegas earlier this month, and I couldn’t understand how the Wranglers were outdrawing the Trenton Devils by nearly 1,500 fans in average attendance.
There was so much to do, and to think I even explored one percent of Vegas in my two days there would be naive. And let’s be honest, I’ve probably explored all of Trenton that I care to.
So with the casinos, attractions and shows on the Vegas strip, how could it be that a minor league hockey team was still drawing nearly 3,500 fans a night? As it turns out, the same reason I thought might work against the Wranglers actually works for them: Location, location, location.
With the closest NHL teams relatively far away, the Orleans Arena — tucked into The Orleans casino — transforms into a melting pot of sorts for area hockey fans.
Take Ken Zabeo, for example, a 31-year-old Ducks fan and Las Vegas native clad in a Ryan Getzlaf jersey. When asked whether the appeal of the other Vegas entertainment could pull him away from the game, his answer was quick and honest.
“I’m more into sports, I think everyone here like sports,” said Zabeo, who often makes the 3 1/2 hour drive to Anaheim as well.
Zack Jones, an Illinois native who moved to Vegas several years ago, was a die-hard Chicago Blackhawks fan who was looking for a team to support. Now, he says, he considers himself a Las Vegas Wranglers fan. The appeals of most minor league events are what draws him to games at The Orleans.
“It’s reasonably priced, you get to have a good time and have a beer and watch hockey,” he said. “It’s something else to do. It’s actually a lot better than going to casinos. You actually get more entertainment for the money. You’re not losing money or wasting money. Plus, it’s something I enjoy, so it makes it that much better.”
Frank and Sean Anderson were clad in New York Islanders gear in their seats before warmups started. Originally from Long Island, they used to frequently attend games at Nassau Coliseum before moving out to Vegas in 1998. Without an NHL team nearby, they too adopted the Wranglers as their new team.
“I don’t like casinos, I don’t gamble really,” says Frank. “Losing your money is not an appealing thing to me. Watching hockey is. It’s like being home almost.”
For Sean, getting a chance to see players before they become stars — as opposed to seeing the stars on the strip — is what keeps him coming back.
“You get to see some of the players that you might get to see later on in the NHL, which is cool,” he said.
“And it’s reasonably priced. The prices aren’t as high as they might be at a regular NHL game.”
Thing is, tickets in Trenton are reasonably priced as well, and the Titans/Devils have certainly sent their fair share of players to the NHL in their history. The reasons why attendance in the capital city have gone down every season since the franchise’s inception, however, are numerous and have been beaten to death. While an effort is being made to turn things around — arguably either not enough of one or too little, too late — Trenton doesn’t have the unique challenges that Las Vegas does when it comes to putting butts in seats.
According to Wranglers account executive Rick Muszynski, who has been with the organization since its second season, the pricing of hockey tickets in comparison to the other entertainment options available is what draws in fans.
“It’s kid friendly, but I’d say the pricing is the main thing,” said Muszynski of the tickets, which range from $17.50 to $38.
“The shows in Vegas, everything’s so expensive. The locals can’t afford it, so they come here.”
For all the glitz and glamour you see in Vegas, you might be surprised to learn that the area is in economic turmoil. Las Vegas leads the nation in home foreclosures and is dealing with a record-high unemployment rate. Like most areas, if you stray too far away from the main drag, you might be in for a rough evening in Vegas.
Attendance at Wranglers games has gone down over the past several seasons as well, and there were strong rumors that the team would fold last season.
“I talk to customers and businesses and it’s basically the economy that’s been keeping people away. They just can’t afford it,” Muszynski told me.
“But we’ve lowered our ticket prices a little bit. We try to reach out to groups and we try to do specials like military promotions and a lot of fundraising with schools and things like that. Things are harder now than they were a few years ago, put it that way. But this year’s been a good year, it’s picked up from last year.”
Walk around the arena long enough, and you’re bound to see at least one of nearly every NHL team’s jersey. Sure enough, a trip back to the press area yielded what I’d been looking for all night: A fan wearing a New Jersey Devils sweater.
45-year-old Owen Davis got into hockey in the mid 90′s and fell in love with the Devils thanks to their winning ways. A Las Vegas native, he echoed the sentiments of many fans and media types in the league: More variety in scheduling can lead to better attendance across the board.
“The thing I don’t like is you don’t see a wide variety of teams,” Davis said.
“We see the same teams over and over and over again. You get to know some of the players that way…but it would be nice to see some of the other up and coming new guys. You see the same teams, and you get bored of seeing the same guys. I’d like to see Trenton or anyone from the east coast, really. Those guys are up and coming, and there’s a lot more teams out there as well.”
But, like most fans I spoke to, Davis enjoys being able to see the game, whether it’s his favorite team or not.
“If you’re a hockey fan, this is a great place to come see a game,” he said.
“I’ve seen every single NHL jersey in this venue. You’re just coming to enjoy the game, whether you’re cheering for the Wranglers or your affiliate, it doesn’t matter. In all honesty, I’m more of a Wranglers fan when I’m here, because I don’t have the Devils out here to cheer for. If I had my team here, that’s who I’d cheer for, even against the Wranglers.”
And a hockey melting pot can’t really happen with the Devils branding of the Trenton franchise. While yes, the Coyotes are an affiliate of the Wranglers…and yes, attendance was heading south before the Titans name got dumped, the name change has kept many of the casual fans away.
Most of the fans that do show up — and with Trenton on pace to be last in the league in attendance, that certainly isn’t many — wear either Trenton or New Jersey Devils jerseys. Only a handful will show up in anything else, with the occasional Islanders, Flyers or Rangers sweater standing out in the seating bowl, not to mention the guy who wears a signed jersey of whatever opposing team happens to be in town.
So maybe it’s time. It’ll never happen, but maybe it’s time to undo what’s been done. Maybe it’s time to bring back the Titans. Attendance, you would have to think, has hit rock bottom at the Sun National Bank Center. The current 1,922 average (in a 7,605 seat arena) is largely boosted by an opening night attendance of 3,836. Outside of that, the team has drawn crowds of 1420, 1140, 1720, 1847, 1113 and 2379 that are often more like gatherings than anything resembling a crowd.
If hockey can succeed in Las Vegas, maybe it’s time to give it one last chance to succeed again in Trenton.
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com (Title an homage to this, by the way…)