Stealth lacrosse team returns to Langley on a high

LANGLEY – Unlike most of his National Lacrosse League rivals, Doug Locker has no slick slogans or cheesy marketing campaigns for luring fans to Langley Events Centre.

In Calgary where it’s “Come for the party and stay for the game,” or in Denver where the sexed-up Wild Bunch cheerleaders and rinkside hot tub parties add extra spice to game days, the president and general manager of the Vancouver Stealth understands the local lacrosse landscape. To fill seats in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, free parking, poster giveaways, photos with the cheerleaders and affordable hotdogs are nice, but winning trumps everything.

“Like the late Al Davis and his Oakland Raiders, ‘Just win, baby!’ definitely applies here. And winning this season is critical,” said Locker, who has been with the Stealth for 12 years, including when San Jose, Calif., and Everett, Wash., were called home.

“Unlike San Jose, where people just showed up to party, the fans here understand box lacrosse. If you’re not offering quality action the job to fill the arena is much tougher, no

matter what other game-day promotions you have going on,” said Locker.

Stealth owner Denise Watkins, who lives in Washington state, holds a bachelor of science in mathematics from UC-Irvine and understands the numbers game in Langley.

“I’m hopeful this season, with a better and more exciting team, we can fill the (5,276-seat) arena for every game. In fact, from a business perspective, we need to fill it for every game,” said Watkins, who knows the Vancouver Ravens failed after three crowdlacking NLL seasons (2002-2004) playing at GM Place (now Rogers Arena).

“Doug and his team have done a great job with sponsorships, season-ticket drives, scouting, attracting media, community appearances and the game-day experience, but bottom line is if we don’t win, that really hurts us at the gate.”

Watkins, who bought the team in 2007 after it moved from Albany, N.Y., to San Jose, said it cost about $4 million a season to run the NLL club in California.

They reduced that cost with a move to Everett in 2010 and last year relocated to B.C. She estimated the annual cost of operating in Canada to be “roughly” $2 million.

“We have a great partnership with Langley Events Centre and having five games on TSN this season will really help us. To be seen as a legitimate sport you need to be on TV and the nightly sports wraps,” said Watkins.

Locker said pleasing the B.C. lacrosse fan base that’s steeped in tradition can be challenging at times.

The NLL circuit, which blends NBA-like hype, Las Vegas showmanship, Monster Truck volume and arena music into its game-day atmosphere, appeals to youth and young adults, but not always to the older fans.

“There’s a fine line and you always have to be respectful,” said Locker, who notes the team is well ahead of its 1,250 season-ticket sales from last year. “In some markets, they need the sex appeal and party atmosphere to bring out the fans. Here, in a lacrosse hotbed, quality games will do that for us. So you have to listen to your fans’ feedback. And you need to win.”

New Stealth assistant coach Kaleb Toth, who starred with the Calgary Roughnecks and Toronto Rock before retiring in 2012, said the NLL is an adrenalin-rush product.

“What was fun when I played in Calgary was that the NLL was new to the city. Fans fully embraced the game-day party and it was always fun at the Saddledome. There’s a little

bit of show business attached to the NLL that some purists may not like, but it’s attracting more fans, and more importantly for our sport, new and young fans.

“And being on TV won’t hurt this season.” Along with the televised games, the Stealth’s home games will be carried on TSN 1410 radio. And all games are streamed live on the NLL and team websites. The in-house production at LEC is slick, too.

The Stealth have a cheerleading team called the Bombshells, a fox mascot named Bomber, pre-and postgame parties at LEC and postgame photo and autograph sessions with the players.

Locker joked that a “bathtub ring” was all he had to show for last year’s 4-14 debacle, but feels the rare flop helped motivate everyone for this season – the 29th for the NLL – which got underway last weekend for all nine teams.

In Calgary on Saturday (Jan. 3), the Stealth survived the Roughnecks’ early assault and then steamrolled to an 18-14 season-opening win at Scotiabank Saddledome in front of 11,563 stunned fans.

The Stealth return home Saturday (Jan. 10) for a game against Toronto Rock, 7:30 p.m. start time at Langley Events Centre.

gkurenoff@vancouversun.com