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Economic slump takes toll on ECHL

The nation’s economic downturn has forced two ECHL franchises — the Augusta (Ga.) Lynx and Fresno (Calif.) Falcons — to fold this season, but midway through their sixth season in Las Vegas, the Wranglers appear to be on solid ground.

Las Vegas’ average home attendance at the Orleans Arena has dropped from 4,970 last season to 4,275 this year — a dip of about 14 percent — but Wranglers owner Charles Davenport said the team won’t be leaving town anytime soon.

“I can’t make a 100 percent promise we’ll be here forever, but I certainly wouldn’t put us in the same category as Fresno or Augusta,” Davenport said this week. “If you look at our crowds and sponsorships, we still have a lot of strength there.

“We’re in a solid position, but we definitely have some work to do. There’s no doubt about it.”

Davenport estimated economic woes have caused his team’s revenues to drop by up to 10 percent or more from last season.

“We’ve been hurt by the economy. Season tickets are down, and group sales are down,” he said. “It’s definitely been a bump in the road this year, but we’ll keep adapting. You can’t stand pat and hope things will get better.”

Davenport said the team has discussed adding additional midnight games and other promotions in an effort to increase attendance.

Wranglers president Billy Johnson met with other league executives this week in Reading, Pa. — where the Eastern Conference beat the National Conference 11-5 in Wednesday’s ECHL All-Star Game — to explore ways to survive the economic crisis.

“The economy is impacting us, but the good news is we have good ownership and they’re committed,” Johnson said. “The other good news is I think we’re smart people.

“We have to spend money to make money, but we have to be a lot more careful how we do it.”

Johnson said the team has been hurt the most in new season-ticket sales and group sales, where it has started offering discounts to entice first-time buyers.

“In many respects, it’s like going back to our first year. It’s like a startup, that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re OK, and there’s no threat of us going under at all, but we’ve got our challenges.”

Overall, the league’s attendance is down more than 5 percent from last year, falling from 4,174 fans per game to 3,949.

Augusta averaged 2,722 fans this season before ceasing operations Dec. 2, becoming the first team in the ECHL’s 21-year history to fold during the season.

Fresno, which led the Pacific Division with an 18-10-2 record when it folded Dec. 22, suffered a 35 percent drop in attendance, falling from 5,035 fans per game last season to 3,284 this season.

“The horrific economy and the resulting decrease in revenue from season tickets, corporate sponsorships and overall attendance has created a situation this year which is not sustainable, and we simply cannot continue to operate,” Fresno managing general partner Chris Cummings said in a statement.

But Johnson and Davenport said Fresno’s departure had more to do with mismanagement than with the economy.

“It wasn’t necessarily the best-run organization, but the economy kind of pushed them over the cliff,” Johnson said.

The ECHL, which was comprised of 31 teams in the 2003-04 season and 25 squads last season, now has 21 teams, with Toledo (Ohio) scheduled to join next season.

Davenport doesn’t expect any other teams to fold this season.

“I think all the damage has been done,” he said.

NOTES — The Wranglers (16-16-3) will host the Victoria Salmon Kings (26-10-4) tonight, Saturday and Sunday. … The American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates signed Las Vegas goalie John DeCaro (10-4-0), and the AHL’s Quad City Flames assigned defenseman Dan Sprang to the Wranglers.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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