Atlanta Thrashers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec's mask pays tribute to the city's famous Fox Theater.
Not so fast, you! Glory be, ya’ll as (some) Southerners might say. (Probably not, but in the popular imagination, that’s what we would say.)
Is this a time of trepidation for Atlanta Thrashers fans? Should we be afraid (once more) that the Thrashers will be moving? Is the report out of New York correct? Are the Thrashers (and Hawks!) for sale again? It’s been rumored for some time that one or both franchises (and beautiful Philips Arena) could be on sale. Now, cue Jim Balsillie: Back up the moving van, The Thrashers are for sale! Let the rumors fly! But before you go crazy, do read the Atlanta ownership group’s statement:
As has been shared publicly for more than a year, we are interested in finding minority investors and have engaged a firm to assist us in that effort. We have no plans to move either team, and remain committed to the Hawks, the Thrashers, Philips Arena and the city of Atlanta.
Now that we’ve done due diligence, let’s assume the team is for sale, there are several reasons it would be difficult, though not impossible, to extract the Thrashers from Atlanta, the most important one being the naming rights agreement with Philips. It requires both an NHL and NBA franchise playing in the building. As with any contract, there are likely some ways out, but those ways would be quite expensive.
There are lucrative sponsorships to be considered, as well as long-term leases on luxury boxes that were signed with assumption that both hockey and basketball would be played in Philips Arena.
Atlanta IS a Hockey City
There are numerous reasons that Gary Bettman is right in his desire and commitment to make hockey work in “non-traditional” markets. Atlanta, contrary to what many believe, is a fantastic hockey city. It’s a city with a metro area of close to 5.5 million. It’s a city with deep pockets and a great, great many of those, ya know, hockey-loving Northerners who have relocated down South. It’s got a lot of Southern hockey-loving people too — don’t let the popular image of what Atlanta is (and isn’t) fool you. The problem has been lackadaisical ownership, the NHL lockout (which came at a horrible time for burgeoning franchises), and unfortunately, the economic downturn, which hit some cities worse than others.
Philips Arena's wall of NHL jerseys.
When the Thrashers ice a quality, winning team, fans come. That’s been shown in the past. You are lying to yourself if you think Atlanta is the only place where fans don’t show up to see losing teams. Remember the Pittsburgh Penguins a few years ago? Were they selling tickets like Sno-Cones on a summer day? No. Remember the Chicago Blackhawks? I sure do. The AHL Chicago Wolves iced better teams and had more buzz in the city until the philosophy changed with the younger Wirtz taking over in Chi-town. But I remember many games at the United Center that were empty, empty, empty! (My sister was in Chicago for many years and for many years we attended games with extremely sparse attendance.)
I know Canadians like to dream of plucking one of the Southern franchises (said with disdain) from its home and moving it back up North where hockey really lives. Winnipeg is a popular choice and rallying point for these Canadians. But, can that city — or many of the others (some in the U.S. as well) whose names pop up (ahem, Kansas City, Hamilton, Ontario, Kitchener/Waterloo, Milwaukee, etc.) — sustain a team? Does it have 13 Fortune 500 companies headquartered there (as Atlanta does)? Does it have the all-important ability to sustain corporate sponsorship? Does it have a state-of-the-art arena with all the bells and whistles that people demand today — particularly those corporate sponsors? Does it have a huge potential market? The potential to bring NEW fans to the NHL’s table? Yes, we know our friendly neighbors to the North have the fans, but that’s only one piece to the extremely complex puzzle that is professional sports today. To put it another way, why would you court the lady you already have?
With even a little bit of on-ice success, Atlantans have proven they will support the Thrashers.
It’s marketing. Marketing, that, (for all his flaws) NHL Commish Gary Bettman understands. If you already love any product, you are not the target of that company’s ads and marketing. The goal is NEW fans. Canadian hockey fans are a given. If you love Coca-Cola, you aren’t necessarily the target audience of Coke’s ads and marketing. The goal is new drinkers of that product. That’s why Bettman is gung-ho about non-traditional markets, he’s courting new fans. Where Bettman is failing is in ensuring the right ownership in these markets. With the right ownership, marketing and success on the ice, hockey can not only survive, but thrive in these markets.
So bring on new ownership. Ownership that cares about cultivating this growing fanbase and nurturing lost relationships with fans. The Atlanta franchise can be turned around. What was Yoda’s most important lesson to Luke Skywalker? Patience.
It won’t happen overnight.
Photos: Ondrej Pavelec and Philips Arena by Goddess Kaatiya. Copyright 2007-2010. All Rights Reserved.