Sunday, 15 May 2011

Wading Through Murky Facts

I've already received a few emails regarding the potential sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to the True North Sports and Entertainment group in Winnipeg. Most of these are congratulatory emails on getting an NHL team in Winnipeg, but I really don't feel that I should be celebrating. There are a lot of people in Atlanta that will lose jobs if the Thrashers load up the moving trucks and head north. Also, I like AHL hockey and I'm a fan of the Manitoba Moose, and I really am torn when it comes to seeing them possibly leave. Again, these congratulatory emails don't seem right when you consider how important the Moose players and staff have been in making the Moose successful.

So I'll say this again, folks: I'm not wading into that discussion. I don't care what was said by whom, who whispered what, and anything that has been written that doesn't carry signatures from either team. I'm not here to get people frenzied. Until the Thrashers actually set up shop in MTS Centre, let's call it all speculation and leave it at that.

That being said, I received an email from Chris C. yesterday who included a link to a video that speaks volumes about Atlanta's plights, and why there are a number of misconceptions about what has been happening in the ATL. Chris writes,

"There are numerous misconceptions about the situation surrounding the Atlanta Thrashers possible relocation to Winnipeg. This video covers misconceptions about attendance, how long the team has been for sale, and the NHL’s efforts to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta. If you think you know the situation in Atlanta, you may be surprised what you find."
Now, I'm not sure why he thinks I know anything about the situation in Atlanta because I don't. Sure, I've seen empty seats on TV when the highlights have been on, but I don't know the first thing about how the Thrashers treat their fans, their sponsors, or anything about why the Thrashers aren't doing so hot in one of America's biggest cities.

So here's the video that Chris linked. It's almost 14 minutes in length, but I have some comments about the material he covered in it, so those will follow. Let's go to the videotape!
So let's go through the problems that this video exposes.
  1. "The Winnipeg Jets only averaged 13,314 fans in their first three years of existence. On the other hand, the Atlanta Thrashers averaged 15,279."

    I'm not going to discredit the numbers here, but there is one thing that needs to be noted. When the Winnipeg Arena opened, it was only slated for 10,100 seats as a WHA venue, and wasn't expanded until 1979 when the Jets became part of the NHL. The expansion pushed the maximum seating for a hockey game to 15,393 seats, so there was more opportunity for fans to get in. If 13,314 fans were the average, then building ran at 86.49% capacity during some of the bleakest years in Jets history. The combined record of those three Jets teams was 62-139-39, resulting in a winning percentage of somewhere around 25%. Simply put, the Jets were brutal, and they still filled their building to 86.49% capacity.

    Over to the Thrashers, and they played in the spacious Philips Arena for their first three years. Philips Arena was designed to hold 18,545 people for hockey games. If 15,279 people pushed their way through the turnstiles on average, then the Thrashers were playing to 82.39% capacity - over 4% less than to what Winnipeg was playing! Granted, Atlanta's wining percentage was around 23% over their first three seasons, but let's be honest here: that's about the difference of six wins for the Thrashers over three seasons. Those six wins would not have equated to a 4% increase in attendance.

    Just because your arena is bigger - a trend that has continued throughout time - don't go crapping on Winnipeg for the support it gave to one of the worst teams in NHL history. The 9-57-14 mark in 1980-81 that the Jets put up is still one of the worst seasons in NHL history.

  2. "Did Atlanta fans finally come out when there was a reason to cheer?"

    You bet they did. Thanks for crapping all over Atlanta's fanbase on this one, and proving that they are only fair-weather fans. If your city doesn't support the team when they are going through tough times, then you don't really support the team whatsoever. Look at teams like the Islanders - consistently bad, and they get no fans coming out. However, if you look at their dynasty years, they were playing to capacity crowds nightly.

    Again, there are major problems with this equation: if no one is paying to see the games, the owners aren't going to spend boatloads of cash to keep stars and attract other free agents. It makes no business sense to continually lose money if no one is coming to see the team play. Getting 16,229 people to come out is great, but you're still only playing to 87.51% capacity - a mere 5% increase from your first three seasons where you were winning 23% of your games. That's not something to be bragging about; rather, it's something to be very worried about.

    As the video pointed out, people come out to cheer on a winner. It's no secret that winning builds instant karma for a team with its fans. But if the fans do not support the team in the lean years, why would an owner continually post losses if the fans aren't there? The Islanders and Blackhawks went through those lean years (and still are if you're an Islanders fan), but it's a business. And business in Atlanta is not as rosy as the video is making out to be.

  3. "... the Atlanta Spirit did not have a clear title to the Thrashers until December 22, 2010."

    So that lawsuit amongst the seven owners against one another meant they didn't have ownership? If they didn't own it outright, who was paying the bills?

    This team's ownership group has been waging war on one another for years over the Thrashers. The reason it could be sold is because the owners who wanted to sell the Thrashers couldn't get agreement from those who wanted to keep the Thrashers! If you wanted to go to the Thrashers and ask to buy the team, they would tell you that the owners would like to sell, but there are members of the Atlanta Spirit who don't want to sell, and therefore, it cannot be sold at this time. Remember this fact: they never wanted the Thrashers in the first place as part of the Philips Arena-Atlanta Hawks deal. The Thrashers were tossed into the deal because they are one of the tenants at Philips Arena.

    You should be blaming the people who wanted to sell the team because they were the ones holding this up. If they had just taken a buy-out for less money than they put in, the Thrashers could have had all sorts of investors who were interested in keeping the team there. Again, it's business, so the owners looking to sell aren't going to take a loss, and that's why there was litigation.

    The fact that the litigation is now over and everyone that wanted out has been paid, the current owners can now explore selling the team or getting additional investors to come onboard. Which is exactly what they have been doing for the last few months.

  4. "The NHL has been working behind the scenes to help Atlanta."

    Hey, I'm totally onboard with you on this one. It's not like Gary Bettman stepped in when the Jets were being shipped off to the Arizona desert. But I'm not sure how the NHL can be involved if there was in-fighting amongst the ownership group over who actually owned the Thrashers. Atlanta Spirit owned the team, we know that, but which owners were actually funding the team?

    The NHL is not going to mediate the ownership battle, and they certainly won't get involved if they are not asked for help. Of course, since the ownership battle ended, the Thrashers and NHL are working to find additional investors, but the NHL has a $30 million problem in Phoenix that they are funding directly.

    So I ask you this: if you were paying for Product A and it was losing money in a large way, would you focus your attention on Problem B before cutting your losses with Problem A? C'mon... this is business. I cannot stress that point enough, and it seems that this point is lost in the video.

    The NHL owns the Phoenix Coyotes and doesn't want to own them. The Atlanta Spirit owns the Atlanta Thrashers and doesn't want to own them (or so it seems). That leads me to ask whose problem are the Thrashers? Seems to me like the ownership group in Atlanta is solely responsible for finding new investors or a buyer, and not the NHL. All the NHL is required to be responsible for is the rubber stamp to approval the buyer or investor.

  5. "Is this about the integrity of the game of hockey or is this really about money?"

    Let me make this clear: the NHL is a business. Therefore, it is always directly or indirectly about money. Is this really hard to understand? The Coyotes have 29 owners, including the Atlanta Spirit, and they are LOSING money in a big way. Therefore, Atlanta is actually losing money twice.

    The reason the NHL stepped in and bought the Coyotes is because they had one owner who attempted to sell the club without NHL approval of the new owner, and a potential new owner who was already boasting about moving the club to Hamilton, Ontario. Had the NHL not stepped in, there may have been big problems for the NHL as a whole because the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres were grumbling about lawsuits against the NHL. That's exactly what is meant by "protecting the integrity of the game", so buying the club was the safest way to eliminate the threat of Balsillie moving the club to Hamilton.

    As for sharing in the losses, 29 owners split an $8 million loss on the Coyotes this year after the City of Glendale posted their $25 million payment. To say the owners are unhappy with Gary Bettman is laughable since he just guaranteed a major television contract with a sizable payment coming back to the NHL. If there are owners who are unhappy with Bettman, why not name names? I'll go on record right here in saying that no owner would throw Mr. Bettman under the bus.

    The relocation fee? There has been no price tag set on what it will be. There has only been speculation. Teams have relocated for free before, so the precedence is there, and it could happen again if the parties agree to it.

    But if there is a relocation fee - and the NHL is a business - why is this a problem for Atlanta? Wouldn't it make more sense for the NHL owners to recommend a move from Atlanta where the Thrashers have lost more than double the relocation fee?
I just want to be sure that I'm making myself clear here: I am not in favor of seeing the Thrashers move. I went through a relocation when the Jets left, and it sucks. Big time.

But to publish something like this video without doing any homework is downright crazy. I'm sorry, Chris, but I just can't support the "facts" presented in this video because there are too many holes and not enough substantiated evidence to support the claims made in the 14 minutes of this video.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Unknown said...

It's a damn shame that this thing is playing out this way. If the NHL can work in Carolina, Tampa and Nashville, there's no reason it shouldn't be able to work in a Top 10 US market like Atlanta.

Carolina went out of their way to engage the Nascar fans early on...Nashville got the country music industry to buy in, and their fans seem to have followed. Tampa put a good product on the ice in a relatively short time. (and having a gajillion hockey loving snow-birds from NY and Canada living there in the Winter doesn't hurt) . It doesn't seem like Atlanta did much to establish themselves as anything more than a niche in the town. You get Usher, Ludacris, Tyler Perry, Coca-Cola...the big names in Altanta involved, and it's going to raise the buzz level. That town supported the Hawks since Wilkens hung 'em up and that team has been garbage for decades. They'd support the Thrashers if you just get them in the door that first couple times and give them a marginally decent team to watch.

The teams that I think really should be looking to re-locate are Florida and The Isles. (And the Islanders shouldn't be moving far. If the Nets are getting a new stadium in Brooklyn, then that's a perfect place for the Isles to play.) Florida just seems like a lost cause.

If they can't get Atlanta to work, it'd be a shame for the league to lose the marketing revenue that goes along with losing Atlanta.

Frankly, I just want whatever chips that need to fall in order to get the Caps re-aligned back in with their old Patrick buddies. We should be in with Pit/Phi and the Rangers.

HockeyFanLand said...

the team lost like $20 million. It doesn't and did not work!