Hockey Anything But Peachy In Georgia

As I spin my wheel for who to pick on next for a candidate to be the future Winnipeg Jets, the marker lands on Atlanta.  Sorry Georgia, at least you have Matt Ryan and Michael Turner.

But so far as hockey goes, times aren’t good.  As with most southern markets, hockey has been a tough sell in Atlanta, something that dates back to their first attempt at the NHL level with the Atlanta Flames.  That franchise was short lived, lasting 8 seasons before being moved to Calgary in 1980.

Their latest team has survived for over 10 years now, the key word being “survived”.  Currently the team’s 8-man ownership group, The Atlanta Spirit whose portfolio include the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, are in a bitter court battle to iron-out the specifics of how seven members are to buy-out the eighth member.  This has been on-going for three years. A recent report states that the two clubs have lost $174 million since 2002.

As Adam Kopp of the Bleacher Report writes:

Logic should have told NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman that expanding a winter sport into a place that doesn’t see a whole lot of snow would be a fools errand. Several years later, the tough economic times, coupled with the reality of trying to lure Nascar and college sports fans into the thrall of ice hockey have left several southern teams on the brink.

The Thrashers are almost beyond the brink.  What makes this team such a likely candidate to relocate is the fact that, unlike the Hawks, they are not tied to a 30-year lease at Phillips Arena.  In simple terms, they are free to go at any time without penalty.

Meanwhile tickets remain a tough sell.  In 2006-2007, the Thrashers averaged a league high 2,827 complimentary tickets per game.  That is 15% of Philips Arena capacity given away for free.   Until players start performing for free, this practice might not be the best marketing strategy.  They also pull in an average of less than $500,000 in gate revenue per game, a figure that places them in the NHL’s bottom five.   Although I am not certain of the figures from the past season, one has to think they haven’t changed for the better being the second worst team in the league right now with 17 wins in 51 games.   As their legal mess continues to play out and the Thrashers on-ice performance dwindles, the clock seems to be ticking on this franchise.  And those empty seats aren’t helping matters.  Many blogs report thousands of empty seats each game and laughable attendance announcements, like this one from Richard DeLancey.  Now we all know attendance figures are faulty and have been for years, especially in bad markets.  But posting a crowd of 13,000 is bad enough even if it were true, let alone the real number being somewhere around 7,000.

But one has to wonder if this team has a long-term future even if they were the best team in the league.  How long before the seven owners of the team want to make like the eighth, and get out of it entirely.   Currently Forbes has the Thrashers value ranked 27th in the NHL at $158 million.  I’m sure $20 million per person doesn’t sound all that bad after the thought of writing another infusion cheque to cover losses, not to mention more lawyers fees.

It’s a fact, hockey in Georgia is anything but peachy.
OWNERS SEE RED

The Hawks and Thrashers lost money under Turner Broadcasting System and continue to bleed under an eight-man ownership group known as the Atlanta Spirit. The group has been fighting in court for more than three years over the process of buying out Boston-based partner Steve Belkin.

2002-2003….$48.9 million

2003-2004….$37.3 million

2004-2005….$12.5 million *

2005-2006….$24.8 million

2006-2007….$27.2 million

2007-2008….$23.1 million

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution