Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2003 | 9:52 a.m.
Las Vegas Wranglers president Matthew Riley knows all about bottom lines and business plans that make minor-league sports franchises successful.
Riley earned West Coast Hockey League executive-of-the-year honors for his work with the Bakersfield Condors in 2000, and he is also well aware of factors that contribute to a team's demise.
The Las Vegas Thunder of the defunct International Hockey League played most of the 1990s at the Thomas & Mack Center.
"They averaged 7,000 to 8,000 a game, and that works, right?" Riley said. "Well, it doesn't work when your frickin' player payroll is $2 million a year."
Riley, his front office and Orleans Arena officials believe they have a foolproof formula that will make the Wranglers a success story from the moment they drop their first puck in the ultra-modern arena in October.
"We're not the National Hockey League, and we don't pretend to be the National Hockey League," Riley said. "We will have young, fast and exciting players who want to hit and want to skate. Some day, they'll be in the National Hockey League. But they're minor-league hockey players and they're going to get paid like minor-league hockey players.
"They aren't going to get rich. They play for the love of the sport. They don't play it for the money, and that's better for the fans because they'll see a 100 percent effort each night. And it's better for the business because we can actually stay in business."
The Wranglers will play in a 40-team East Coast Hockey League that will be renamed, and reconfigured, by the time they play their first game next fall. More than 200 ECHL players have graduated to the NHL.
The team is currently independent, but Riley did not rule out potential affiliation with either Phoenix, Anaheim or Los Angeles by the start of the 2003-04 season.
Tuesday afternoon, with workers drilling in the background of a chilly Orleans Arena that is about 80 percent completed and will ultimately cost $65 million to build, Riley, Wranglers vice president Billy Johnson and Chandar Sports chairman Charles Davenport beamed about the Wranglers' future.
Chandar Sports purchased the rights to a WCHL franchise in Las Vegas in 1998 and bought the Fresno Falcons, also of the WCHL, almost three years ago. The ECHL approved applications for both teams for '03-04.
Most important to Davenport, and the longevity of the Wranglers, is having the right people in the right positions.
"For people in the front office, it's not six months of hockey and then six months of vacation," Davenport said. "That other six months, they're selling the hockey. So it can be a grind, but guys like Matthew and Billy, they have proven track records. They've done this before.
"I learned very quickly, in Fresno, if you make do with what you have, you're going to be in trouble. You need to always be working to attract talented people."
Johnson broke into sports as the mascot Billy Bird for the Class AAA Louisville Redbirds in 1984, and he worked his way through the minor-league baseball ranks to become the first general manager of the Nashua (N.H.) Pride in 1997.
He was named the Atlantic League executive of the year in 2000.
"It's simply the right time for hockey to succeed in Las Vegas," Johnson said. "The fun factor will be off the charts. It will be a three-ring circus when the Wranglers take the ice."
As of Monday, only 20 of 220 choice season-ticket club seats remained. The 16 VIP suites have been sold out for six months, and eight people are now on that waiting list.
Of the 30 NHL teams, 27 use the state-of-the-art ice system that the Orleans Arena will employ. The 7,000-seat arena will feature 90 42-inch plasma television screens around its concourse, a 700-foot LED advertising and highlight screen inside its bowl, 21-inch-wide padded chairs, marble floors, granite countertops, $3 dollar beers, ample restrooms and free parking.
"It will be on par with any building in North America, minor or major league," Davenport said. "It's unheard of. Nobody else will have this. I think people in Vegas should feel fortunate. It's what Vegas should have. It's going to be unique.
"It's going to be one-of-a-kind."
Riley vowed that Wranglers players and the team mascot will be very visible in the community, from reading to children in schools to donating time and money to charities and non-profit organizations to auctions involving jerseys and other merchandise.
The bottom line for an owner is dollars, but that comes with an established product and requires up-front expenses that will guarantee a return.
"So you kind of have to go a little backward," Riley said. "Sometimes, it's tough to convince an owner of that. But these owners have bought into it because they've seen the success we've had at other places."
Riley knows no place is like Las Vegas.
"Every market is unique," he said. "They all have their little quirks. You can't take a model and force it, exactly, into another community. However, we have a model here, with the ECHL, that works, and it works because it's all about fun and entertainment.
"It works because we have our expenses under control. When the Thunder was here, they had real good fan support, I think, and I think it was a good show. It was good hockey. But their expenses weren't under control."