Atlanta Goes 0 for 2 with the NHL

Welcome back to the NHL Winnipeg!

Well it’s finally official, the Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg. Atlanta becomes the first city to go “0 for 2” for NHL franchises. Previously, the Flames left Atlanta back in 1980 for greener (or multi-colored, like Canadian money) pastures and Nelson Skalbania’s check book in Calgary.

The failure of hockey in Atlanta will ultimately be blamed on the lack of fan support. But, both times it wasn’t just sagging attendance that sent the team packing for the Great White North. First, it was owner Tom Cousins who was desperately needing cash after Ted Turner had opted to buy just the Hawks from him in 1977 but not the Flames in 1980. Nelson Skalbania and the city of Calgary came calling and the Flames moved north. And now, in a similar situation with the Thrashers, the overwhelmed Spirit Group was ultimately unable to sell the team to a local ownership group and had to take the best only offer on the table.

So, what was it? Lack of fan support, horrible ownership, the fact that hockey doesn’t belong south of the Mason-Dixon line, or was it another factor that led the Thrashers to Manitoba? The answer is kinda, yes, no, and see the answer to #1. Boy, that was simple!

Let’s tackle issue #2 first.

The Spirit Group bought the Hawks, Thrashers, and Philips Arena from Time-Warner back in 2004. The ownership group almost immediately attempted to sell off the Thrashers after only three years. The message this sent to the fan base and corporate sponsors was not a good one (We’ll tackle the issue of the fan base in a little bit). Add to that, the five year long civil war amongst the owners with Steve Belkin over the Atlanta Hawks’ acquisition of Joe Johnson in 2005. With the attention of ownership focused on that battle, the Thrashers slipped into a crack. Star after star after star was traded away for pretty much nothing. It was abundantly clear to the fan base that the owners weren’t going to try to win games and were clearing off salary to make the team more affordable to a suitor.

Now issue #3: does hockey belong in the South? I think the sell-out crowds in Tampa for the recent Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, the resurgence (or was it ‘stay of execution’) of the Predators in Nashville, and a Stanley Cup banner in Raleigh point to the fact the sport can survive in the South. Of course, this is assuming you ignore Miami where the Panthers play games in front of more square footage of tarp covering upper level seats than they do paying customers. But Miami is a tough market for all professional sports, unless of course Lebron James has brought his talents to your team.

So hockey can indeed survive in the South as long as your team is winning consistently. If Tampa or Carolina hit the skids for long periods of time, then their fan base will most likely erode. But that dynamic is not isolated to just the teams in the South. You can safely shoot a cannon through an Islanders game on any given night and they have four Stanley Cup banners, albeit from nearly three decades ago.

So let’s get back to issue #1 combined with issue #4: lack of fan support and “the other factor”. The combination of these two actually resulted in the Thrashers’ demise: lack of fan support because nobody thought to actually LOOK at the demographics of Atlanta before putting an expansion NHL team there. I don’t mean the minority composition of the Atlanta population… I’m talking about northern transplants. The scary thing is the northern transplants were part of the reason Atlanta got a team in the first place.

But, here’s how that all backfired: One thing NOBODY considered, be it Gary Bettman, Time-Warner, the Spirit Group, NOBODY, is that the northern transplants that make up a large percentage of the population of Atlanta already held an allegiance to an existing NHL team. The error was in thinking these folks would instantly adopt the Thrashers as “their team” and would buy season tickets. In actuality, very few of these folks did that. They bought tickets to see the team they grew up rooting for play against the Thrashers. So, Boston fans bought tickets twice a year to see the Bruins. Rangers’ fans, Islanders’ fans, Devils’ fans, etc. did the same thing. But nobody was making the commitment Atlanta needed for a strong season ticket base. A franchise cannot exist on the opponents’ fans buying single game tickets.

All an astute business man needed to look at was the length of time that over 50% of the Atlanta market had lived there and where they had come from. Because of the economic boom of the early 90s, a large portion of the metro Atlanta population had lived in the city for less than ten years. There were dozens of sources to get material such as this:

Six of the top ten cities on this chart have NHL franchises. This was an age group that was not going to switch allegiances, either. And this is but a small snapshot of the full influx of outside residents from 1990 through 2011.

Many other pundits have pointed the finger at other mistakes the Thrashers made like failing to build a supporting youth hockey program like the Dallas Stars and the California teams have, playing games downtown instead of a suburban arena which would have been closer to their core fan base, and failure to connect to the community. They all contributed to the failure of hockey in Atlanta.

So many negative factors created a toxic stew that couldn’t be cleaned up. Had a local investor bought the Thrashers, they would have been bankrupt within five years and the team would have been ultimately sold to another market or even folded. It’s a shame. Atlanta is a market of over 5 million people… and to think they couldn’t get 18,000 of them, a scant 0.4% of the population, to fill up Philips Arena for every home game. Now, the NHL will probably adopt the “fool me once Atlanta, shame on you… fool me twice, shame on me” approach, and not give another franchise to that city, no matter how nicely they ask.

UPDATE: To add insult to injury, the Winnipeg community responded by purchasing 13,000 season tickets on the first day they went on sale… actually, in the first two minutes they were on sale. If Atlanta had 13,000 season ticket holders for the Thrashers, there wouldn’t have been any need to sell the team.

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Article by John McKenzie

Authors bio is coming up shortly. John McKenzie tagged this post with: , , Read 5 articles by
15 Comments Post a Comment
  1. pam says:

    john, you nail it here. nice article

  2. Kay says:

    Excellent assessment, especially in regards to transplants having their “own teams” to cheer! Your article even hinted at the remedy, i.e. build a winning team to win over hockey fans. I have seen the same thing happening here in Phoenix with the Coyotes (I only buy tickets to watch them play “my team” myself) because the Yotes have a growing fanbase and they haven’t won a play-off series since moving from Winnipeg. It wouldn’t be anything if they weren’t reaching the playoffs though.

    In regards to the logos, I’m not enamored with either but I’m not onboard with their maintaining the same mascot. Winnipeg may be better served to give them another name and let the residents debate over which is better: the old vs. new team.

    Finally, I hope the numbers coming in from Winnipeg season ticket holders influences NHL to gain more Canadian teams. I’d be happy if Canada had between 8 and 10 teams.

  3. Gerry says:

    Ooops…One small correction…Winnipeg is in Manitoba not Saskatchewan…yes Saskatchewan is better and is just more fun to try to pronounce…but unfortunately it’s not big enough to support an NHL team…many,many, many more years and maybe…

    otherwise a good article.

  4. Jonee says:

    Those logos are nice, but the old school one is perfect. I think they really should go back to the one with the funky 70′s script myself.

  5. McCFred says:

    I like the colors of the first logo, but the design of the second.

  6. Andrew p says:

    The white logo is way better than the one with the penis bridge

  7. not bad, think we need the Avero Areo

  8. Harland/Dodic Families says:

    We like the logo: photo courtesy of SyPhi Creations. We feel the first logo is too busy and the second logo looks sharp and will be more recognized.

  9. Pungen says:

    First logo: Horrible. Second logo: FANTASTIC! Don’t think it could be made much better, actually.

  10. J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS says:

    Logo 2′s font has similarities to the old New York Jets football team logo of the 80′s. The E-T-S is almost the same as what was on the NYJ helmets.

    But #2 is wayyy better than #1

  11. RobH says:

    I love logo #2, the colors are intense and the logo is simple yet conveys the Jets image. I think it will look good on a hockey jersey. Congrats Winnipeg can’t wait to see another team from Canada on the ice in the coming season.

    RobH
    Vancouver

  12. ricardo says:

    you failed to mention one thing that has been part of this situation for its entirity: the Phoenix Coyotes. the NHL and gary bettman have spent 2 years in Phoenix paying the bills and keeping them afloat, and relocating the thrashers put a big check into the owners’ pockets. where was bettman and the owners in the atlanta situation? as an ATL resident, i can say our beef is in the NHL spending 2 years in phoenix, then our team is gone in 2 weeks. Atlanta feels abandoned by the NHL, and no matter how you put it, bettman just lost his league a big chunk of fans, including myself

    • John Mac says:

      Ricardo, let me list a few responses here:

      1. The article was about Atlanta, not the Coyotes
      2. The Thrashers weren’t going into bankruptcy any time soon despite losing over $120 million since the Spirit Group bought them
      3. The Thrashers’ owner group had been dysfunctional from the start (see Steve Belkin)
      4. When the team needed the fans to rally, a whopping 200 showed up… how do you think that looks to other NHL cities? Hell, that many showed up just to make a lightning bolt out of people at the Tampa airport to wish the team well in Boston for game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals… you think there would be only 200 if the Lightning was threatening to move?
      5. Selling the Coyotes to Jim Basilie and allowing him to move the team to Hamilton would have also put a big check in the owners’ pockets.. they didn’t do it.

      So, the Phoenix situation is entirely independent of the Mongolian Charlie Foxtrot that has been the Spirit Group and their attempt at owning NHL and NBA franchises.

  13. Vaughan Fleger says:

    I say go with the top one, But, shrink that tower looking thing and have it standout less and put the GOLDEN BOY on top of it. Let people know that that is the city of Winnipeg / Manitoba’s team.

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