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Stevens: Gladiators’ Toughest Task? Fickle Fans

Stevens: Gladiators’ Toughest Task? Fickle Fans

“I think Albuquerque is a town that wants to back something special: a winner."

Gladiators’ Toughest Task? Holding on to ABQ’s Fickle Fans

BY RICHARD STEVENS

The Albuquerque Graveyard for pro sports has a few openings. The cold dirt has widened its maw. The “vacancy” sign is blinking and beckoning. The Six Guns, the Chaparrals, the Lasers, the T-Birds – the list is long – need some new mates. These ghosts are lonely.

The holes have been dug and The Graveyard looks to the Santa Ana Star Center and Tingley Coliseum for its next victims. So far, the Albuquerque-area indoor football teams – the Stars at Santa Ana and the Gladiators at Tingley are resisting. They have a pulse. They are scratching for life and ignoring the call of The Graveyard.

But for how long?

It’s curious, slightly perplexing, that a region seemingly dedicated only to the Lobos and maybe to Isotopes Park would have two minor-league franchises from the same sport battling for survival at the same time.

This is an area that buries minor-league franchises with the same consistency that Lobo basketball buries Sweet 16 dreams. It is a place where minor-league teams go to die – not to thrive.

But both the Stars and the Gladiators will open their indoor seasons in March. John Lopez, co-owner and chief financial officer for the Gladiators, says his team takes to the coliseum with high hopes – and cheap ($10) tickets.

“I think Albuquerque is ready to embrace something that is fun,” said Lopez as his Gladiators head toward their second season with seven home games starting March 5th at Tingley.

“We feel there is a chance for greater fan support. What we have seen is that Albuquerque has embraced several pro teams, but too many leave Albuquerque to go to the facility in Rio Rancho (Star Center),” Lopez said. “I think Rio Rancho will come to Albuquerque, but Albuquerque won’t go to Rio Rancho.”

A key issue in the survival of pro franchises in Albuquerque is the venue. The Star Center is outstanding, but for too many Albuquerque fans, its location might as well be in Grants.

Tingley is centrally located, but it is old and fading. It is a decrepit rodeo palace whose benign neglect led it to lose its best tenants, the Arabians and half-Arabian horses (and their rich owners), to a snazzy new venue in Oklahoma. Lopez pushed a memorial at this year’s Legislature to get a multipurpose arena built in Albuquerque’s Downtown. That idea as been expressed, pushed and tabled for many years. But the current mayor has keen interest.

One problem in New Mexico is that it is not a rich state. Another problem is the political leaders are better at ordering late-night pizzas than they are at progressive thinking. But would a state-of-the-art venue create stronger pulses – and support – for non-Lobo teams?

“I think it goes beyond the venue,” said Greg Archuleta, a former Albuquerque Journal sportswriter of 17 years. “I think it’s Lobo basketball, and everyone else is in a dogfight for the business dollar. The Isotopes survive because people go there for the atmosphere, being outdoors on a summer night. But do they really care that much about the game or the score?

 “I think Albuquerque is a town that wants to back something special: a winner. Look at Lobo women’s basketball under Don Flanagan or Lobo men’s soccer under Jeremy Fishbein. I don’t know if a new facility would sustain the support (for indoor football).”

The general impression of indoor football is that it is a league of washed-out Lobos, over-the-hill collegiates or NFL wannabes. Actually, it’s better than that, but is it a sport that can be embraced by the fickle Albuquerque community?

Joe O’Neill is one of the more savvy marketing experts in Albuquerque. He was one of the top advertising sales people for KKOB-770 AM radio and has turned ESPN Radio’s 101.7-FM “The Team” into one of the more vibrant stations in New Mexico. He said a good product in a modern arena in a logical location would be successful in Albuquerque.

“The best example to show the correlation between a successful franchise and a modern venue is the Isotopes,” O’Neill said. “The Dukes were dropping in attendance when that franchise folded.”

O’Neill notes that the heartbeat of Albuquerque sports might be basketball. The T-Birds (basketball) were one of the more appealing franchises to come through Albuquerque. They failed in Tingley.

So far, the biggest winner has been The Graveyard. Again, it waits. Its appetite insatiable – but patient – while the Gladiators suit up, girding themselves for battle.

Richard Stevens is a former sports writer for The Albuquerque Tribune. More recently, he was an insider at the Lobo athletic department. Reach him at rstev50@gmail.com.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.