Blown Opportunity: NHL leaves Atlanta
You’d never know it by the majority of media coverage, but today is a dark day for American hockey.
There will be a press conference at 12 ET today to announce that the Atlanta Thrashers will be moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba for next season. True North Sports & Entertainment, after failing to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes, will finally be in line to become an NHL ownership group.
Great for the people of Winnipeg, horrible for the game of hockey, especially in the United States.
Atlanta Spirit Group, the Thrashers’ current owners and also owners of Philips Arena and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, are finally dumping their hockey team after repeated tries. ASG has alienated hockey fans in Atlanta and the players as well in doing so.
Former Sabre Chris Thorburn on the situation:
“It’s discouraging to know they’re not behind us. They’re trying to dump us,” he said. “That makes a guy mad.”
Thorburn also criticized NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who has not [visited] Atlanta while rumors of the sale of Thrashers to Winnipeg’s True North Sports have swirled. “You’d like to see the guy at the head of the league present. So it’s kind of discouraging,” Thorburn said.
The 27-year-old Thorburn has spent the past four seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers. “We’ve made Atlanta home,” he said of his wife and child.
“Atlanta’s a great hockey town. There’s no reason to not stay here,” Thorburn said. “You just don’t want to pick up and leave for the wrong reasons.”
The NHL will gain zero new fans by moving to Manitoba. Instead of focusing on growing a huge, exploding market, they’re sending a franchise to a small city that doesn’t have an NHL-calibre arena.
In an analogy, the NHL is walking into a club and picking up a drunk slampig instead of hitting on the hot girl at the bar. You want a sure thing? There’s your ugly Winnipeg. You gonna try to do better? Atlanta might not put out the first night, but it’s worth an effort. The Atlanta Spirit Group has gone after their Atlanta with no game, so it’s no wonder they haven’t pulled in fans. The team has never won a playoff game. How do you expect to survive sending a bunch of losers out every year? What city (other than Toronto) would that ever fly in?
No franchise has a chance in hell at establishing itself in a market when the team doesn’t perform on the ice and the management doesn’t try. ASG has been trying to sell the team for five years. Do you really expect them to worry about growing the fan base while they’re trying to unload? By all accounts, ASG has done everything it could to salt the earth towards hockey in Atlanta. They’re selling to TNSE simply to recoup as much of their investment as they can. It’s a business move for them, something that’s happening easier because they were able to alienate a lot of people who might’ve cared about the team.
Attendance wasn’t that bad. For being the 25th best team in the league in 2010-11, they were 28th in attendance, averaging 13,469. The season they won the Southeast divison, they averaged 16,240 in 2006-07. It took a hit the following season, but the 15,831 they average in 2007-08 was fairly good considering they finished 14th in the East. They’ve averaged over 15,000 for five of the ten seasons since their expansion year, which is fairly good for finishing in the bottom half of the league for nine of them.
But fans will show up in Winnipeg, right? Here are the attendance numbers for the Jets’ last five seasons in Winnipeg, 1991-1996: 12,990. 13,550. 13,297. 13,013. 11,316.
Yes, in the final season of the Winnipeg Jets, they averaged just 11,316.
The NHL is going to regret not having a team in Atlanta. Atlanta’s metro population is 5.7 million, the 9th largest in the United States. It’s an exploding town that’s getting increasingly affluent. More people moved to greater Atlanta in the last decade (1.6 million) than live in Buffalo or Winnipeg. The corporate base is enormous, it has the fourth most Fortune 500 companies in the United States.
Financially, the cities aren’t even in the same book, much less same page. Atlanta’s gross metropolitan product, or the value of the economy of the area is $270 billion US$. Winnipeg? As of 2009, $25 billion CDN$. Yes, Atlanta’s economy is basically ten times the size of Winnipeg.
There’s been a lot of snobbish reaction from people in Canada, Buffalo as well, about the fan support. Claims that people in Atlanta didn’t support the team. There were plenty of people who supported that team despite having no reason to do so. Attendance in Atlanta has been good when the team has merited it. Oh, but attendance should be good no matter what the team does, right Buffalo? Please. In 2002-03, the Buffalo Sabres averaged 13,776.
Hockey markets show up, right? What was our excuse? Bad ownership? Bad team? Lack of interest? The same things that you can use to make excuses for “traditional markets” can be used in “non-traditional markets”. Winning sells, losing doesn’t, no matter where it is.
Forgetting the NHL aspect of it, and focusing on the game itself, you know what is the important part of having a team in Atlanta? Kids are starting to play hockey in Georgia. As Chris Peters of United States of Hockey (fantastic blog, by the way) has shown, the evidence is there.
Starting with Georgia, as that is the hockey market in question, the impact of the Thrashers has been felt by the hockey community. I documented some of this in my last post on this subject, but wanted to show something more specific.
Prior to the Thrashers coming to town in 1999-2000, a total of 911 people were playing ice hockey in Georgia (1998-99). The impact of a new NHL team was immediately felt in 1999-2000, when membership increased by 40.7%. There are now 2,142 hockey playing Georgians, which in 10 years for an area with no hockey tradition is pretty solid.
What makes Georgia’s numbers most encouraging, is that the vast majority of its membership is kids. New hockey players just learning to love the game. Of the 2,142 players in 2009-10, 1,808 (84.4%) are below the age of 18.
Additionally, a steady climb such as the one we’re seeing in Georgia cannot be accomplished without good retention. So not only are kids playing hockey, they’re sticking with it.
Are the numbers eye-popping in Georgia? No, they are not. However, 11 years is a short period of time when it comes to building a culture. This is a hockey culture being built from the ground up, essentially. The time between the old Atlanta Flames and the Thrashers was too vast for any solid culture to have been established. When you see the amount of time it has taken for hockey to grow in similar markets, it’s easy to tell that there just isn’t enough time passed to call Atlanta a complete failure.
It’s fairly simple, people who are exposed to hockey tend to love it. We all do for the same reason: because it’s awesome. Why is everyone so against sharing it with new people? Participation in Atlanta has grown 478.9% in 10 years watching an awful product. What would we be seeing if the Thrashers were any good?
USA Hockey is going to miss out on a giant talent pool because they don’t have a presence in that area. Hate on southern expansion all you want, but those awful “southern markets” are producing players now. What are the chances Tyler Myers picks up hockey if the Dallas Stars never show up and hockey in Texas explodes? Would the US U-18 team have two kids from Arizona if the Coyotes don’t relocate there in 1997? But with the Thrashers going to Winnipeg, will you find one American who will pick up the sport because there’s an NHL team in Manitoba?
Listen, I’m not entirely against Winnipeg having a franchise, especially with TNSE running the show. They are immediately one of the richest ownership groups in the NHL. The team will struggle, but they will survive. There is just little opportunity for that franchise to thrive. A 15,015 seat arena in the smallest metro market (694,668 as of 2006) in the league. In perspective, Buffalo (1,135,509 as of 2010) is almost twice the size of Winnipeg. With 18,690-seat HSBC Arena, for Winnipeg to equal Buffalo’s gate revenue, ticket prices at MTS Centre need to be more than 24% higher. Does anyone else see how this might be an issue?
At best, it will be a lateral move for the NHL. At worst, it will hinder the future growth of the game and the league. Without the Phoenix mess dragging on, and without a signed US television deal, you wonder if this might’ve gone differently.
My sympathies for the people of Atlanta who are going to lose touch with the sport. It really is the coolest game on earth. There are a lot of people in Georgia who have fallen in love with that team over the last decade, despite the fact that the franchise did nothing to support why they should.
If nothing else, I hope everyone who supports teams other than the Thrashers gets off their high horse and shows some sympathy towards Blueland, because it’s a shame this is happening to them.