Next Stop? Vegas, Please…

Orleans Arena, which hosts the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers.

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.”

Former Reading Royals goalie Michael Ouzas mans the pipes for the Wranglers these days...

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…)

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18 Responses to “Next Stop? Vegas, Please…”

  1. Hockey as of November 22, 2010 « Sports-Post.Com Says:

    [...] · View mashmore98: How hockey works in Vegas and what Trenton can do to get fans back: http://tdevils.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/next-stop-vegas-please/ 2010-11-22 08:48:49 · Reply · View flashyourbits: <3 #FlashYourBits RT [...]

  2. chiarams Says:

    Welcome back Mike – glad to see you got to follow some hockey with a pulse over the break.

  3. tdevils Says:

    I’m still out west…out in Denver. I’ll be back home Wednesday night, then I’m working the two T-Devils games against Alaska and Cincy. So the break still lives!

  4. Bob Smyth Says:

    This is a major problem, and taking away the Titans was a factor. Be that as it may, what is the solution? I can’t figure out why the team’s marketing people, as a beginning, don’t send questionnaires to all previous (there must be e-mail or mailing addresses) and current season ticketholders and ask for suggestions and what the team can do to get the people to come back. The fans are still out there – remember Bertoli Night? 6,000 + in the house.

  5. Shtikl Says:

    Hey Mike, do the Wranglers still have those huge billboards on all the approaches into Vegas, that say things like “Teeth: one more thing to lose in Vegas” ?

  6. chiarams Says:

    “I can’t figure out why the team’s marketing people, as a beginning, don’t send questionnaires to all previous (there must be e-mail or mailing addresses) and current season ticketholders and ask for suggestions and what the team can do to get the people to come back. ”

    Because the Devils are an unbelievably stubborn organization.

  7. NBDevilsfan Says:

    All the marketing in the world can’t doesn’t negate the fact that the Trenton Devils home rink is in a ghetto!!! We drove down last year for a weekend and it was a scary experience. Bullet holes in surrounding buildings etc. Why are the rinks in the slums???…cheap real estate and the hopes of revitalizing an area. Throw in a bad economy and you can advertise all the deals you want. People will not go where they do not feel safe. We have family on the team and often look for a hotel that is in walking distance to the rink so we can have a few beers. After we arrived we changed the reservation to the burbs of PA. Vegas is awesome and has alot of people from Canada and northern USA that vacation there and the games are cheaper than any of the big Vegas shows. We also did a trip to Kalamazoo and they had a huge crowd. Real home town hockey feel..nice area of town.

  8. tdevils Says:

    Good argument up until you realize they absolutely packed the place in the first few years. Yes, Trenton faces challenges by being in an urban market and whatnot…but there is proof, at least early on in the organization’s existence, that it didn’t matter.

  9. chiarams Says:

    But I can see the argument being more valid now – on a night when there are 4-5k people at the arena, there’s safety in those numbers walking between the parking lots and the arena.

    Now – when there’s 4-500 people there on a weeknight, I could see why it might be a bit daunting to make that same walk.

    It also helped 7-8 years ago when Urban Word and the Conduit at least brought some life to that area and at least gave fans a place somewhere to go before/after games. Now, not so much.

  10. titansman Says:

    Chiarams you dont go to the games, how would you know how many people are walking in the parking lot.

    I do agree though that the Conduit and Urban Word did make a bit of a difference. You could go have a drink go to the game and go home. The City and Mercer County really dropped the ball after they built the arena. Remember they were going to revamp the neighborhood, bring in a Tony Lukes and other businesses and unfortunately the stigma of Trenton causes some people to have fear of coming into the City even though the arena is right on the highway and you dont even have to go through the City. Bullet holes indeed.

  11. chiarams Says:

    I’m pretty sure anyone can make an educated guess as to how many folks are walking to the lots based on the attendance numbers. Does it really matter if it’s 200 or 500? Or 800? Or the “1100″ they get on weeknights?

    I’ve been to the arena when there were 7,500 and when there were 750 – the difference is pretty obvious.

    But – I’m not saying that there is a safety/security issue, I’m just pointing out that the idea of safety in numbers can’t exist if there are no numbers. When the lots are lively after the game, you can overlook the fact that you’re in Trenton. When they’re basically vacant, your surroundings become more apparent.

    The biggest failure was the construction of all of the surface lots, once they realized the ground couldn’t handle the construction of a garage. That pretty much doomed any spinoff development around the arena, since they wasted all of that land with asphalt.

  12. titans04 Says:

    Look at the brightside easy in easy out of all lots. Half or close to it of all the concession stands are closed for some games, no traffic on the concourse and pretty close to having private bathrooms now too.

    Even a hardcore Devils fan can’t honestly say the number of seats filled is even less than last season. Forget about having decent crowds 3500-4000 they can’t even stop the bleeding. Our section which use to have 25-30 sth’s in it is down to single digits and even some of them don’t show up for more than half the games.

    Sure the economy blows but we’re dead last again averaging less than half the league average. I’m pretty sure the economy sucks all over. The apathy for hockey in Trenton is continuing to grow with no signs of it even slowing down. In the end most of us that only care about trenton hockey and not affiliations lose.

    If there were 3-4000 people that we’re such hardcore fans that came out every game just to pay homage to the logo all would be well but even Vanderbeek admitted they seriously misjudged the value the logo would have and he also admitted the numbers were embarassing and unacceptable and that was before the season even started. So as much as you want to point fingers at everything but… the owner himself said they failed.

  13. Shtikl Says:

    Hey, titans04, you reminded me why I liked going to Lowell! I did indeed have my own stall in the klo! And on-street free parking a block away from the door, that was great! That plus some decent hockey, yeah, I do miss the Lowly Dweebles. At least youse in Trenton still have a team, enjoy it while it lasts! Happy Thanksgiving!

  14. Langhorne Devil Says:

    Anyone Fancy Strapping on the pads tomorrow night?? Looks Like Lergy has joined Caruso up in Albany.

  15. Shtikl Says:

    Yeah, I just heard from my spy that Lerg is the backup and Caruso is in net — I didn’t realize the T-Dweebs were in Moanchester tonight. I guess I should have bought a ticket, but that would mean going to Moanchester, and purple is *not* my favourite colour. Behind 0-2 already, Stoesz took an offensive zone x-check that led to goal #2. Poor Caruso, he’s busy tonight.

  16. titans04 Says:

    Dave held them to a touchdown. Sure looks like Mike Brown vs. Coleman tomorrow. Coleman rollling so far this season.

  17. Shtikl Says:

    Poor Killer. In the pre-game interview he said they’d have to skate fast and do the little things right if they wanted to win tonight. :P I can’t wait for my spy to get home so I can get a game report. But I caught the radio broadcast and I have to give qw(x.x)wp to the Allbunny Dweebs for all those DUMB penalties. I miss having hockey in Lowell, but not *THAT* kind of hockey. Bleh! They were down 0-4 before the game was half over, at that point it was hopeless so why not let Lerg eat some rubber? Or were they hoping to ship him back to NJ and have Tony Felice do EBUG duty in Albany tomorrow night against Bingo? (After all, it *is* a former Dweebles coach over there, so it’s not like Bingo should be scoring much, eh? :P )

  18. medicare Says:

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