DOWNWARD SPIRAL: The short-lived Las Vegas Posse rode into the (Canadian) football sunset on Nov. 5, 1994
It’s right there in the name. The Canadian Football League (CFL).
You might think that would confine the sport north of the border, but in the halcyon days of the early-to-mid 1990s, the CFL was expansion-minded. The league dipped its toe into the United States in 1993 by placing a franchise in Sacramento, Calif., and a year later Canadian football would come to three more American cities: Shreveport, La., Baltimore — and Las Vegas.
It was a heady time for pro sports in Las Vegas. The Thunder of the International Hockey League had come onto the scene in ‘93, and ‘94 saw three more pro teams activate in the Continental Indoor Soccer League, Roller Hockey International and the young Arena Football League. But despite the oddity of being an American team, the Las Vegas Posse were the best positioned group of the bunch, belonging to the longstanding and well-established Canadian league.
Being the favorite, though, as any Las Vegan can tell you, doesn’t mean you’re going to walk away with the cash.
Nick Mileti, a Cleveland businessman who in 1970 brought the Cavaliers to the NBA and in 1972 added the Indians to his portfolio, ushered in the Posse — a publicly owned team that sold stock shares to help fund the operation. Mileti was full of flash, with the instincts to play to a Las Vegas crowd. To announce the team name, he brought in G-string-wearing magician Melinda Saxe to clamber into a cannon at the Lady Luck Casino. In an explosion of confetti, she popped out of a nearby box holding a sign that said “Posse.”
Head coach Ron Meyer, formerly of UNLV, and two-time AFC Coach of the Year with the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, presided over a training camp split between the home-field Sam Boyd Stadium and a former parking lot at the Riviera, where a sign proclaimed it the “Field of ImPOSSEable Dreams.” With a season that ran from early July to early November, that meant camp was in the dead of summer. Meyer and his coaching staff could be spotted shirtless on the sidelines. Not, perhaps, the skin Mileti wanted to showcase.
At a June 29 exhibition game, Mileti invited reporters and surprised them with a group of cheerleaders sitting on blocks of ice, and offensive lineman Roy Hart smashing a pair of thermometers with a sledgehammer to show how the Vegas summer wasn’t an obstacle. Maybe the idea was if you couldn’t see the mercury at 115 degrees, you wouldn’t notice.
In the middle of this circus, there was cause for optimism. Favorable expansion draft terms from the CFL and a couple of preseason wins left people feeling good about the Posse’s chances. And Mileti’s plan to Vegas-ify the proceedings wouldn’t have felt out of place now. Top-end tickets cost $75 for primo seats at Sam Boyd and included cocktail service.
But it just didn’t play in 1994.
Only 12,000 fans came out to the first home game July 16, and the anthem singer, Dennis Casey Parks, so badly butchered the Canadian national anthem, “O Canada” that Mileti had to send a written apology to the Canadian government and then-Vice President Al Gore mentioned the incident to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. The team hit the high-water mark on Aug. 20, with nearly 14,500 there to see the championship-bound BC (British Columbia) Lions.
By that point the Posse fell to 3-4, and the bottom fell out of the franchise. Ticket prices plummeted. Cheerleaders culled from the showgirl ranks cavorted in bikinis on the sidelines, sometimes running into the crowd to hose down fans with spray bottles. The Posse Nine, a group of horses and riders, romped during pregame and halftime and, uh, left their mark. A cleanup crew had to shovel that mark away during the games.
It came to light that the Posse had a $2.24 million operating loss through June 30 — a day before the start of the regular season — with just $2 million remaining, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Team stock, starting at $6 a share, was worth $1.25 by Sept. 1.
Mileti’s ouster was announced that same day. Los Angeles investment bankers Glenn Golenberg and Marshall Geller stepped in and gave the Posse a $1 million cash infusion, but slashed the extravagant promotions budget.
Relocation rumors swirled, first centering on Montreal, then on Jackson, Miss. By the time the Posse took on Winnipeg on Oct. 15, only 2,350 souls made the trek to Sam Boyd. It was such disarray that even one bettor at El Cortez tried to get action down before the game but was refused because the casino mistakenly thought the game had already started. Everyone around the team knew what was coming, too.
“Take a picture of it,” Meyer told the Review-Journal. “I guess we play Edmonton here and that’s it.”
It didn’t even get that far. The league stepped in and moved the final Nov. 5 home game from Las Vegas to Edmonton, where 14,000 at least came out to see the Eskimos thrash the Posse, 51-10. A crew of Edmontonians who’d already booked travel to Las Vegas before the game was moved had to settle for watching the tilt at an Imperial Palace ballroom.
Maybe it was hubris, maybe it was the heat, maybe it was that, in the end, no one cared about Canadian football or that Las Vegas wasn’t ready for pro sports. But the Posse ended not with a bang, but with Alberta.
To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.