Luck of the draw

Bruce Urban, owner of Edmonton's new lacrosse team, talks to the media at Rexall Place Thursday....

Bruce Urban, owner of Edmonton's new lacrosse team, talks to the media at Rexall Place Thursday. (Edmonton Sun/Perry Mah)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:35 AM ET

In a winter market that has long been cornered by the Edmonton Oilers, with leftovers going to the Road Runners, how can a lacrosse team owned by a Calgary businessman hope to survive here?

No need to be shy about asking Bruce Urban the tough questions, he just spent the last 48 hours being grilled by the National Lacrosse League governors on those very issues.

He told them what he told Edmonton yesterday when the NLL officially granted him an expansion team for Rexall Place - with a solid product, a realistic business plan, a sweetheart lease deal from Northlands and a bankroll big enough to choke a hippo, there's no way it can't survive.

"The Edmonton factor is at play here, we're in one of the great sports cities," said Urban, who's based in Calgary but has numerous business and real estate interests here.

THEY'LL LOVE IT

"I feel no risk. People are asking me 'aren't you a little nervous because it hasn't worked in other cities.' Absolutely not. People will embrace this sport and they will love it. We plan to make Edmonton proud."

While the NLL has taken off like a shot in Calgary and Toronto, Edmonton does not have a history of warming up to newcomers.

It's been a graveyard for startup franchises like the Skyhawks, Sled Dogs, Drillers, Eagles, Aviators and an alleged arena football team. If you're not Copper and Blue or Green and Gold, it's a long, tough road that almost always ends in foreclosures.

The difference this time, say Urban and NLL commissioner Jim Jennings, is the product. College buddies aren't going to watch soccer players fake shin injuries, but they've been gravitating to the physical, rock-and-roll atmosphere of lacrosse.

"I'm confident in the game," said Jennings. "In Colorado we go up against the Avalanche, Nuggets and Arena Football.We're usually the fourth tenant in most of our buildings and we've been very successful."

Colorado's had crowds over 18,000 this year, as has Toronto. Calgary sold out the Saddledome for last year's championship game and this year's final, May 14 between Toronto and Wayne Gretzky's Arizona Sting, is going out live on NBC.

Once a mom-and-pop league, NLL franchises are now in the hands of the Avalanche, Sharks, Sabres, Flyers, Wild and a handful of NBA owners, adding instant credibility. Lacrosse ratings dwarf those of the NHL.

Of course, none of it matters if Edmonton's yet-to-be named entry, which begins its 16-game season in January, doesn't draw. Urban is certain it will.

"It has a cool factor to it unlike any other sport," said the 39-year-old. "And you're going to see how refreshing it is to see guys who are out there for the passion of the game, not making a lot of money, and loving it."

BILLIONAIRE OWNERS

The NLL has been trying to get a team here for four years but couldn't find anyone with the money or vision to make it work.

"Now that we have billionaire owners and mostly NHL owners, they're more strict on who they want as a partner," said Jennings, adding candidates need $10 million US in cash, aside from their business assets, before they'll even look at you.

What impressed the NLL about Urban, other than his money, is he knows it'll take time to cultivate a fan base and has a plan in place to deal with that, including a lease deal that slides according to attendance.

"It'll do well here if you set our goals modest," said Jennings. "And they've set their goals modest, between 4,000 and 5,000 a night to make it work and then build from there. And the deal they've structured with Northlands is the best we have in our league."

Urban's plan is miles better than the other dead teams that tried to win Edmonton over, and if the city takes to the game, this thing might just work.

"If Edmonton has half the success that Calgary's had in our league," said Jennings. "The people in Edmonton are in for a wild ride."


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