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Glad to be here: Arena team’s gamble OK

Apr 1, 2003 5:32 AM

Mary Ellen Garling, GM of the Arena Football League’s Las Vegas Gladiators, says she’s no Martha Burk and doesn’t want to be.

"Don’t compare me to her," Garling said from the team’s Las Vegas office. "My goal is to simply bring the Arena Football League up to the next level. We are entrepreneurs, not political voices."

Garling and team owner Jim Ferraro are also gutsy, choosing to move from low-interest New Jersey to high-risk Las Vegas in a 45-day span and make the new Arena Football League team float amid the first-ever national network TV package.

"It’s no secret that other sports leagues have shied away from Las Vegas due to gaming," said Garling, who had served as Arena Football’s executive vice president of league development.

"Vegas has such a solid foundation compared to a decade ago," she said. "The city is right for a pro team. We now have Pop Warner teams, little leagues and dance camp cheerleading. I see this community growing and the potential for success is unlimited."

NBC and Las Vegas have crossed paths before ”” remember the XFL? Las Vegas received a bad rap for the X-tinct blowout when it really was the failure of New York and Chicago that forced Vinny Mac and the Peacock to fold the tent after one perilous year.

"Fortunately, Arena football is not throwing pixie dust like the XFL," Garling said. "The XFL tampered with the rules of the game and damaged the product. We don’t try to replicate the NFL. Our product has survived the blood, sweat, tears and a ton of mistakes over 17 years. We have a phenomenal game that is high scoring, full of action and competitive.

The Gladiators are 5-4 after nine games this year, averaging 9,265 at home at the re-configured 15,000-seat Thomas & Mack Center. The team was forced into honoring New Jersey’s schedule, which meant playing at home on dates that clashed with NASCAR and the drag races. Saturday’s 46-41 victory over Georgia drew an announced crowd of 9,618.

"Our best turnout was over 12,000 on opening night," Garling said. "I am sure we will improve upon that as we become more established in Vegas and have additional time to make things right in future seasons."

The National Football League has become a major player in the league, thanks to the storybook development of Kurt Warner along with having Jerry Jones and John Elway as AFL owners. Yet the NFL wants nothing to do with sports betting, while Garling and Co. knowingly and willingly have accepted Las Vegas for what makes the city tick.

"This city was built on gambling and it would be foolish to fight it," Garling said. "In fact, Terrible’s is our official casino and have been one heck of a partner. They take great care of our visiting teams and the officials. We’re glad Terrible’s wanted to be a local partner, which is exactly what we wanted."

While the Las Vegas franchise has not embraced gaming, management has not spoken out against it. Quietly, the marriage works.

"Fortunately in our 17 years of Arena football experience, there has never been any gambling problem that involved coaches or players," Garling said. "Gambling is more regulated here than any other city. We have hired a security individual that meets with each visiting team and home team about casinos and sports books. We know how to handle it."

Garling said the Gladiators have at least a three-year commitment to Las Vegas, but that ownership wants this to be a permanent site.

"Jim wants to be in Las Vegas for the duration," she said. "He would like to see his kids take over the team. I know I’m very glad to have made the decision to come out here."

Where else would a gambler go?