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.

Here he discusses the statistics:

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.

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Posted on May 31, 2011, in Sabres/NHL and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this article. As a Thrashers fan, this kind of support from someone who lives in a so-called “hockey friendly location” means a lot.

    No one believes us when we try to explain stuff like this.

  2. Hey, ditto on that — thanks from Atlanta. And thanks for giving me the term “drunk slampig,” which will be how I refer to the franchise from here on out.

  3. I hear the overall argument. Yes, there isn’t a place that ever really deserves to have a team taken away. There are always real fans, and the players and their families are uprooted as well. It’s not a good situation. The city really loses out, especially when American cities invest so much tax money into keep teams around. But I also don’t know that your analogy rings true. When Minnesota lost the North Stars a lot of hockey fans disappeared without a team. There’s no sure thing just because your talking about Canadians. That’s simply not true. There are tons and tons of case studies that prove these things not to be true and the NHL will probably see overall financial gains through the move to Winnipeg (lots of statistics on these kind of moves that are readily accessible). The emotional argument rings true, but it’s not a financial truth.

    Also, “Atlanta might not put out the first night, but it’s worth an effort”? Really? I think your analogy could use a little work. It’s a pretty sexist analogy. Winnipeg is a “slampig”? Sounds like you might think even less of women than you think of Canadians.

  4. Hey Eric, I am from Winnipeg, and I thought that your blog was pretty good. Your stats are good as well as to why Atlanta is a market that they should continue with.

    However, just wanted to clarify a couple of things…it depends on your definition of “NHL Caliber Arena” is. Yes, MTS Centre is small, but many NHL players have expressed approval. And secondly, you state that the last Season of the Jets averaged just over 11,300 as a huge negative. In fact, that is probably one of the most remarkable years ever for attnedance of any team in any league…you see, the people of Winnipeg had been told before the season that there team was gone the very next year! So, I respectfully submit that over 11,000 people average for a team that is already gone was phenomenal.

    I feel very bad for Thrasher fans. Your article is good enough without taking shots at Winnipeg. We will take care of your boys…cheers.

  5. Erick Malmstrom

    Then why not keep the push for the Coyotes to come back home? This is our team. Our heritage. Winnioeg is a great hockey town. the 11000 that made it out for your lame duck season was bold. out 13,500 this season amidst canadian media calling us gone, our owners traditional villains, all the way down to the long thin mustache, tying rabid fans to train tracks. jesus, there is no justice here. when the winnipeg whatevers drop the puck I will officially be done with the NHL, and all i can hope for is bettman to screw uo this vote in our favor. this is the first stanley cup final i’m not following at all. it is just too damn painful. NHL = dead to me.

  6. I’m still unsure of what to do now. I’ve watched the Thrashers for many seasons, and trying to follow a different team at this point just feels too weird. There’s a whole lot of “what could have beens” going on in my head. It stings a lot more than I thought it would, and fellow hockey fans berating and beating up the Thrasher faithful doesn’t help at all. Being from Atlanta, it’s hard to move on from this point. The Thrashers were MY team, and seeing them (the Canadian players) dancing around in Winnipeg while caring less about us bereaved Atlanta fans just hurts too much. Atlanta had plenty of fan support when you consider their history ( very short history) of losing. I just thought that Winnipeg fans would be more sympathetic since it’s already happened to them. We’ve now experienced it twice, and I’m struggling to pin down another year that an NHL hockey team will return to Atlanta. For now though, rest in peace, Atlanta Thrashers, they won’t be the same team in Winnipeg.

  7. 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.

    • Both instances of teams leaving Atlanta are due to ownership blunders. If you want to ignore the facts, that’s on you. No serious effort has ever been made to put a good product in that city and to grow a fan base. Atlanta’s population argument is weak, as not only is the white & affluent population growing rapidly, the city is so large that even if a quarter of the people are even passively interested, you have a larger market than you ever will in Winnipeg.

      If you wanna believe the typical, uninformed stereotypes about southern markets, go ahead. Weather doesn’t matter. Winning does.

  8. Hello from Canada,
    I for one agree with this article in many aspects the city of Atlanta hasn’t been treated to a good product in a market with alot of competition and little hockey knowledge. One playoff appearence in eleven years would hurt most cities look at Chicago before the new ownership or the Islanders. Losing teams like the Avalanche and Stars once great teams see drops in attendace after a few years.

    The simple fact is Atlanta offers nothing for growing the NHL like Atlanta could have they really never had the opprotunity to see maybe it could have worked but maybe not. The NHL went to Winnipeg over Hamilton/Southern Ontario even though money wise would have been six times more in Southern Ontario with 8 million hockey fans and way more Corporate sponsors compared to Winnipeg… but this is how the NHL is run and its no wonder why women slow pitch gets better ratings in the US when you run out of large markets. Phoenix probably will be gone by next season aswell where they will go who knows and other teams such as Columbus, NYI, Tampa Bay and Florida are in trouble aswell.

    But for my fellow Canadians who say hockey in the south is a waste look at the turn around in Nashville where I went for a game and enjoyed better then a game in Toronto, Ya many of them are new to the game but I had a great time seeing people who are mostly Football or Nascar fans take a new interest in Hockey. Carolina, LA, San Jose and to a lesser extent Dallas (troubles few years but for most part good) and Anahiem have all done good and approved, Ya not passionate like Canada but definite improvements in the youth and attendance. Id like to see the return of the Jets, Nordiques and a Hamilton team like any other Canadian but I also want to see Hockey grow and remember without American teams there is no NHL Chicago, Boston, NYR, Detroit, Philly who all love hockey.. Good teams can change a franchise like Pittsburgh or Washington even St. Louis saw imporvements by making the playoffs last year. To Thrasher fans be patient I give the NHL 12-15 years and they’ll be back hopefully with better ownership and a better team. Best of luck to Winnipeg great hockey fans it will b supported they’ve learn their lessons from 1997, have rich owners, salary caps in place but is a small market with no room to grow the NHL or get a tv deal.

  9. **Winnipeg offers nothing for growing the NHL not Atlanta** was late when wrote this :)

  10. True Atlanta is a huge market, but they have little fan support when it comes to hockey. Also true, Winnipeg is a much smaller city with a smaller arena, but EVERYONE in Winnipeg LOVES hockey. So is the move bad for the NHL? Absolutely not!

  11. Now that the 2011-12 season is coming to a close, allow me to summarize the Winnipeg Jets:
    1. Sold out the building for 5 years in 17 seconds
    2. Second highest ticket prices in the NHL ($87/seat avg).
    3. 120,000 TV viewers per game average.
    4. Jets merch is the highest selling merch in the league.
    5, Jets are expected to be in the top 10 revenue earners in the NHL.

    To the author of the above tripe: please insert foot into mouth now.

    • Your reading comprehension is lacking.

    • I would like to see these numbers cited regarding the merchandise and the revenue earnings (I’m not saying you are wrong but anyone can randomly toss out numbers). Plus, looking at numbers in the first few years of a franchise’s existence in a new city doesn’t provide a real good comprehensive look as to how consistently the team will draw or sell in the future. You could say Atlanta in it’s first three years outdrew Winnipeg in attendance but obviously Atlanta ended up losing the team 8 years later. Everyone in Winnipeg bought a new jersey when the team moved up there. Are you expecting all of those same people to buy a new jersey every year? It’s not likely that is going to happen so even if the merchandise numbers are that high now, they won’t last. I’m not even including the next time Canada’s financial sector goes back down compared to the U.S. and it’s not a question of if but when, how bad it will be, how long it lasts and how people will be able to deal with it. Hamilton would have been a smarter and more stable place to move a franchise to (heaven forbid some other fanbase loses their team).

      Plus it is tiring to hear people blaming fans on the Atlanta Flames moving. The owner, Tom Cousins, went bankrupt through real estate. Also, money was being stolen from the player’s pension funds and the crooks that be did not want Cousins blowing it for them so they forced him to sell (Google Alan Eagleson). The team was outdrawing the basketball team by a good margin at the time. There is an interview with Dan Bouchard recalling this information. Please do your research before you start blaming the fans the first time around as well. Notice too how there are former Flames players still living here in Atlanta. Too bad they didn’t connect the past franchise with the one that ended up leaving.

  12. Why do Atlantans always put some sort of spin on everything in trying to insist that their city is “everything to everybody”? You lost two hockey teams because your city can’t support them. You can’t compete with ANY Canadian city in that arena, so quit quoting inflated statistics about yourselves. You’re a simple, pleasant, southern city, not New York, LA, Chicago, or ANYTHING of the sort…..

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