Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Blame for Thrashers Move Starts, Ends With Owners

Tell the people behind Bird Watchers Anonymous that the Atlanta Thrashers didn't have any fans.

Tell those fans that they didn't do enough to support this team.

Tell them they don't get your sympathy, because Atlanta isn't a hockey town, and they don't deserve to have a team near them because they dare to live where the weather is warm.

Go ahead, because I'm not going to do that. I don't feel it's my place.

Atlanta has lost their team, and those fans are sad. They're also angry, and they have every right to be, for a number of reasons.

However, for many of them, the target of their anger is not necessarily the fair or just target. It's just the easy one.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman does himself no favors. I have never really been a fan of his, because I feel that he didn't do enough to save the 2004-2005 season, and I don't think he has any real appreciation for hockey's roots (generally, Canada) or the passion of the fans in Canada.

The sport has been Americanized in a way under Bettman, and it's gone a long way toward the NHL getting a real-life television contract with NBC and Versus recently. That's a win for the NHL, because it means increased exposure and more promotion for a sport that desperately needs it. It's not ESPN, but that's probably a good thing, because it's not like ESPN did anything positive for the NHL when they had it before, and their decision to virtually ignore the league during its recent renaissance shows once and for all that ESPN only gives a crap about the NHL when they think they have a chance at its broadcast rights.

Staying off ESPN wasn't necessarily a popular decision by Bettman and the NHL, but I believe it was the right one.

I also believe the league is doing the right thing here. It pains me that Atlanta didn't have the competent ownership and corporate support necessary to make a franchise work in a "non-traditional" market. But those things aren't Bettman's fault, and it's also not Bettman's fault that the on-ice product was run about as poorly as the off-ice product was.

Eleven years of futility, mediocrity and, in the end, indifference.

Apparently ignorant of how to build a fan base, ownership made no inroads in selling the game. It had no commitment to build a minor hockey program in Atlanta the way Dallas did when the Stars first moved there. There was nothing in Atlanta to compare to the grassroots initiatives in Anaheim, San Jose and Nashville.

In those markets, kids play the game, connect with the team, drag their parents and friends to games, buy merchandise and build a bond. Homegrown players' names from Texas and California and yes, Tennessee are called at NHL entry drafts every year. Ownership made sure of that in those markets, and if those teams left, there would be a scar on the community, a sense of loss.

In Atlanta, the Thrashers leave without creating a ripple on the surface of the community.

At a recent rally, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that a couple of hundred fans showed up. That isn't a market failing; that is a market that was failed by owners.

You don't win in a non-traditional market without ownership that understands how to grow the product, both the hockey team and the company.

Money is made through corporate connections and sponsorships. It's not necessarily made through ticket sales; those only augment everything else you're doing. Or should be doing, that is.

Simply put, Atlanta Spirit Group had a duty to promote their hockey team, build a fan base, build a competitive product, and turn losses into profits. They failed in all those areas, and now they don't have a hockey team anymore.

The Thrashers' loss is Winnipeg's gain. There could be similar problems in Manitoba, as it's not like there is a ton of available corporate money. They'll sell tickets, but the arena is small, and tickets can only be so expensive.

Fans there are justifiably excited, and they'll do what they can to support this team. But if the franchise can't get the hits in the corporate community that they need, they'll only be moderately successful -- at best -- as a business. That's just how it works. Maybe True North can live with the prospect of losses, but as we saw in Atlanta, the constant losses do add up, and Atlanta Spirit Group got sick of dealing with that.

Fans are mad that Bettman didn't fight for Atlanta the way he has fought for Arizona. They're simply not the same thing.

In Arizona, the old owner tried to sell the team to a maverick, a guy the league wanted nothing to do with. The league had to fight in court for the right to seize control of the franchise, or they would have been moved to Ontario with a maverick owner the league wanted nothing to do with.

Basically, the old and prospective new owner didn't play by the league's rules, so the league took control of the team. With a city (Glendale) more than willing to shell out $25 million to make sure they still have a hockey team (more notably, so they still have a primary tenant in their expensive building that no one else would be using), the league is keeping the team there ... despite little prospect for the future and a fanbase that, while potentially able to support a team, has been given generally no reason to make more than a passive investment because there's no guarantee the team will be around in two years.

There's also the chance that this Hulsizer chap will actually get to buy the team (if the Goldwater Institute allows that to happen), and he has said he wants to keep it in Arizona.

In Atlanta, there is no local person or group with enough money and interest in the team. There is no city willing to help cover the team's losses while the search for a buyer continues.

Simply put, there is no hope.

Winnipeg has at least that much. For now.

1 comment:

Skeeter Sanders said...

Give me a freakin' break! Atlanta has now lost not one, but TWO National Hockey League franchises. First, they lost the Flames to Calgary. Now they've lost the Thrashers to Winnipeg.

Face it: Atlanta is NOT a hockey town -- and neither are Phoenix and Miami. Why? Simply put, few people in those cities want to be reminded of winter. Many of them moved to those cities to ESCAPE winter. And it's no accident that in those cities, the NHL simply can't compete with the NBA. The Heat own Miami, the Suns dominate Phoenix and the Hawks lord over Atlanta.

Who's going to attend a regular-season hockey game in a city where cold weather is virtually non-existent, where the outdoor temperature rarely falls below the 60-degree mark all year? If Los Angeles wasn't the media capital of the West Coast, would the Kings and Ducks be there? I think not (The lack of a franchise in L.A. remains a huge embarrassment to the National Football League).

At least, no one can blame the failure of the Flames and the Thrashers on Atlanta's population demographics. Everyone knows that Atlanta is a so-called "chocolate city," with a predominantly black population. But so are Detroit and Washington, D.C. -- and the Detroit Red Wings and and Washington Capitals are very successful NHL franchises. Ditto the Chicago Blackhawks, in a city that's 50 percent black.

So it's not the demographics, it's the climate.