12/27/2002 12:00AM

Nineteenth time the charm for pro sports?


Let's play guess the name of this new Las Vegas sports team. Here are some clues: They'll play in a spring football league; the league will be televised nationally on NBC; the action will be wide-open rock 'em and sock 'em football; and attractive cheerleaders will roam the sidelines.

If you think this sounds like the old Las Vegas Outlaws of the extinct XFL, you're right. But it isn't. Our newest pro sports team will be the Las Vegas Gladiators of the Arena Football League. Opening night will be Feb. 2 versus the Los Angeles Avengers.

Minor league sports has had a colorful, though unsuccessful, history in Las Vegas. The XFL's Outlaws had the best chance for success, as the franchise's average attendance was nearly 23,000 fans per game. But the other XFL teams were not as well supported and the league folded after one season.

Eighteen pro sports teams have come and gone in the Las Vegas market: four in basketball, five in football, three in hockey, five in soccer, and one volleyball team.

On the docket are three new teams to begin play this year, the Gladiators in the AFL, the Wranglers of the West Coast Hockey League, and a yet to be named entry in the American Basketball Association.

Gladiators' owner James Ferraro said at the opening press conference that he'd like to average 10,000 fans to the Thomas & Mack Center. Considering he moved the team here from New Jersey a week ago and the season starts in one month, Ferraro would need to produce more miracles than Helen Keller's teacher.

Ferraro and George Zoffinger, chief executive of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, have traded barbs in recent days. The NJSEA operates The Meadowlands Arena, where last year the Gladiators averaged 5,700 fans per game.

Zoffinger claims the team left owing more than $100,000 and that Ferraro didn't return his phone calls. Ferraro blasted the NJSEA saying The Meadowlands was "one of the worst arenas in the country."

The AFL still lists New Jersey on its web site. Travel figures to be a nightmare as the team remains in the Eastern Division with Buffalo, Detroit, and New York.

If the Gladiators average attendance is 25 percent of what the Outlaws drew, it would match the draw in New Jersey. Single game ticket prices range from $8 to $58 and an eight-game season ticket costs from $64 to $400.

The Gladiators figure to be a good team. They were 9-5 last year and have most of their key players returning.

But the question begs - will Las Vegas fans support the Gladiators? For that matter, will they support the Wranglers or the ABA team, both of which begin play this fall. So far, it's been 18 up and 18 down, which is a sobering statistic for even the most optimistic team owner.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.