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Gladiators roll the dice toward Las Vegas

Marc Viquez
Friday December 27, 2002

What a strange past few days it has been for the AFL’s New Jersey Gladiators. One moment it looked like the season was just around the corner for the promising 2002 division winner, the next, the Gladiators from New Jersey were waking up in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The team will now be called, drum roll please, The Las Vegas Gladiators. No official announcement has been made, but owner Jim Ferraro’s team will be calling the Thomas & Mack Center home for the 2003 season. The strange part about the move, unlike recent city shifts with the NBA Charlotte Hornets and Vancouver Grizzlies, this appeared out of the clear blue sky. In fact, season ticket packages were still being offered on the teams’ official website this week.

“We went to the team offices ourselves and everything was packed up. They had Ryder trucks parked outside,” said team fan club member Bruce DiBisceglie who has had season tickets since the team’s inception. “The team was still sending out affordable ticket packages and now my wife wonders if that included air fare.”

It was no secret that the team suffered in attendance. It would have been nice to see 10,000 or more fans cheering their team on to victory during their first-ever home playoff game against the Orlando Predators this summer. However, the past two Gladiators’ seasons failed to make a dent in the saturated sports market of New York/New Jersey.

So ownership decided it was time for change. But is Las Vegas any better? Will fans pass up Siegfried & Roy for the Gladiators vs. Firebirds?

Las Vegas has had its share of professional teams during the past decade. There has been CFL and XFL football, indoor soccer, minor league hockey, and roller hockey. There were nine teams in all with an average lifespan of two years. The city had an Arenaball team called the Las Vegas Sting, but they lasted only two seasons before relocating to Anaheim after the 1995 season. The Gladiators come to the desert a mere six weeks before the start of the season, making marketing, sponsorship selling, and ticket sales even more ridiculous for 2003.

The puzzling part of all this is that the team was coming off a 9-5 and division championship season. The team improved from a 2-12 record the season before and hosted its first playoff game. The NBC contract resulted in the national airing of a large majority of games for the team. Core players were returning under Head coach Frank Haege and perhaps this could have been the season that more and more fans tuned into the Gladiators both on television and at the gates. It could have been a season where the team would have made a serious playoff run.

Nevertheless, the exodus from the Meadowlands has left a lot of questions and head-scratching. According to an AP story, the Gladatiors had signed a contract with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority for the upcoming season at $5,000 a game. Previously, the team had been playing rent-free for two seasons, but has not notified the NJSEA of their departure. Chief executive George Zoffinger is expecting the team to honor their contract, which is worth $40,000.

The team still owes between $3,000-$4,000 in services to Charles Rizzo, who owns a Flemington-based printing company. Then there are the 203 men who tried out last month for a chance to play for the team and the season ticket holders who were expecting to watch a team this season at the Meadowlands. Tickets were still being offered on the teams official website on Thursday night.

“We are all devastated,” said Bruce DiBisceglie who headed the team’s official fan club. “This is a black eye to the league and to the NBC contract. I cannot believe the league let them do this.”

It was fans like these that the Gladiators could have used a lot more of. Unfortunately, many probably never even knew the team existed. When I told a couple associates of mine about the teams’ departure they referred to the team as the Red Dogs, a name the team has not used in two seasons. The Gladiators rarely made the sports pages around in the area, but even that was changing last season.

Then there is the question of moving the team across to country to Las Vegas, which ultimately disturbs the cost-effective locality of the Eastern Division. The relocation of the team was simply a shock to many of its potential fans.

“This product was sold to kids,” DiBisceglie referring the number of youths in the fan club. “They do not know the difference between the Gladiators and the Yankees. These kids loved this team. When I told my son they moved, he cried.”

A fan of the sport since 1990 Marc has covered both the New Jersey Gladiators and Cincinnati Swarm (Af2) for Arenafan Online. Marc now resides in Indianapolis after graduating with a Masters in Sports Management from Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind. When not at a Firebirds game Marc can be found traveling the Midwest covering sports for various Internet and print publications.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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