Born: October 7, 2003 – Arena Football expansion franchise.
Died: September 2008 – The Wranglers cease operations.
Arena: Frank Erwin Center
The Austin Wranglers were an expansion franchise added to the booming Arena Football League in September of 2003. The Wranglers came in at the ass end of a giant speculative bubble in Arena Football franchises, sparked by investment from NFL owners and a network television contract with NBC in the early 2000′s. Original Wranglers majority owner Greg Feste and his partners – who included NFL super agent Leigh Steinberg and half a dozen then-current and former NFL players – paid a reported $16.2 million expansion fee according to The Orlando Sentinel, the third highest price ever paid for an indoor football franchise. (Other sources pegged the price tag at $12.0 million).
Feste was a controversial figure in Austin and in pro football circles. At the time the Wranglers were formed, Feste was a failed former stockbroker who ran afoul of federal regulators, a real estate developer who fell into bankruptcy and, equally briefly, an agent and financial advisor to Christian pro football players. Feste’s player representation activities and ties to an organization called Champions For Christ were the subject of an NFL investigation in 1998.
None of these activities are mentioned in Feste’s lengthy two-page bio in the Wrangler’s inaugural media guide in 2004. Instead, Feste is credited solely as the founder of FesteCapital, which portrays the 43-year old Texan as a “leader, entrepreneur and visionary” in the field of virtually everything: ”consulting, realty, development, franchise management, mortgage banking, private equity, aviation services, finance and sports enterprises”.
A U.S. Magistrate Judge named Andrew Austin would later find that FesteCapital had “no assets” and existed solely to control a lease agreement for a couple of dozen private jet rentals that Feste used in the winter of 2003-04 while the Wranglers were ramping up. The matter came to the court’s attention when Feste neglected to pay for the flights.
Despite Feste’s history of failed ventures, both the Wranglers and Arena Football League Commissioner David Baker bragged that the Wranglers expansion application was approved in record time, just over 60 days after Feste’s initial inquiry to the league office. In early 2004, Feste described his business plan to an Austin American Statesman reporter: “Buy it for $12 million, sell it for $40 million.” But unbeknownst to Feste and his partners, they’d bought in at the top of the market. The AFL’s expansion binge crested in 2003 and the league would sell only one new franchise (Kansas City for a record expansion fee of $18.0 million in 2005) before folding in 2009. Dr. Robert Nucci, a disgruntled late era owner who paid a record $18.8 million for the Tampa Bay Storm franchise in 2007, would later compare the league’s business model to a “Ponzi scheme” reliant on continuous infusions of expansion fee cash.
On the carpet, the Wranglers finished their first season at .500 with an 8-8 record, narrowly missing the playoffs. Austin claimed an average gate of 11,140 fans per game, which was just below the league average of 12,019. Greg Feste’s partners forced him out of the organization at the end of the Wranglers’ debut season. He was replaced as managing partner by Doug MacGregor, a former Dell Computers executive and Wranglers’ season ticket holder during the team’s inaugural season.
Doug MacGregor turned out to be a true believer in the sport of Arena Football and his holdings eventually grew to include not just the Wranglers, but numerous franchises in Arena Football 2, a developmental league for smaller markets.
The Wranglers endured three more money-losing seasons in the AFL. The highlight was 2006, when the team finished 10-6 and earned their only playoff appearance, losing at home in the first round to the Philadelphia Soul.
At the end of the 2007 season, the Wranglers declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and re-organized. MacGregor continued to own the club, but pulled the team out of the Arena Football League and self-relegated down to the lower-budget Arena Football 2. The move to AF2 coincided with a dramatic crash in fan interest, as average crowds dropped from over 12,000 per game in 2007 to just 3,458 in 2008. MacGregor and his partners folded the club in September 2008.
The Austin Wranglers are the only Arena Football League franchise that ever dropped down into Arena Football 2. Both leagues went out of business in 2009, although the Arena Football League was later revived in 2010 after its name and intellectual property were purchased in bankruptcy court.
Greg Feste resurfaced in Austin as a restaurateur in 2006, but his Cheesecake Kitchen went bust the following year, leaving dozens of workers unpaid and protesting in front of his house. Mark Brunell, the former Jacksonville Jaguars Pro Bowl quarterback, born again Christian, and Austin Wranglers investor, declared bankruptcy in 2011. During Feste’s late 1990′s NFL adventures with Champions For Christ, he represented Brunell’s commercial interests. Feste later recruited Brunell into at least two failed investment schemes – the Wranglers and a group of Whataburger fast food franchises in Jacksonville, Florida.
==Wranglers Games on Fun While It Lasted==
|2004||2/22/2004||vs. Tampa Bay Storm||W 56-48||Program|
|2005||5/14/2005||@ New Orleans Voodoo||L 69-68||Program|
|2008||7/26/2008||vs. Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings||L 65-54||Program|