By Derek Rosenfeld
After the Atlanta Thrasher’s previous owners, the Atlanta Spirit Group (ASG), failed to field any legitimate offers to keep the team in Atlanta, the National Hockey League (NHL) announced on June 1 that the Thrashers were sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, a Canadian company that had been negotiating to buy the team since last month and which will move the team to Winnipeg. This marks the second time that the city of Atlanta has lost a NHL team to a Canadian market; the first was the relocation of the Flames to Calgary in 1980. The deal is worth $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee that will be split by the rest of the league.1
As I discussed my two-part series back in November, the NHL has experienced a precipitous decline in both popularity and interest in the United States, with overexaggerated actual attendance figures and a major lack of interest in many of the expansion-era teams (nearly all in the southern and western U.S.) setting the tone for the entire league. This leaves several teams on the verge of bankruptcy and obscurity. In the case of the Atlanta Thrashers, which began its fateful run in 1999, this move seemed inevitable.
In the days since the relocation was announced, blogs and message boards on sports Web sites have lit up across the continent with finger-pointing and accusations against Atlanta’s poor ownership, an indifferent fan base, or both. Although the ASG, which put the Thrashers in a $130 million hole,1 helped usher the team out the door, the escalating circumstances which led to this development are also echoing throughout the league in several other cities; this is not some isolated financial incident.
Both hockey pundits and fans are quick to blame the ASG, and ONLY the ASG, for the past 12 years of mediocrity in Atlanta. Indeed, the ASG was notorious for not really doing much of anything with the team, be it in the area of marketing and promotions, retaining emerging star players such as Ilya Kovalchuk or Dany Heatley, or securing a proper TV deal. And although the ASG does deserve a majority of the blame for this situation, I believe that the circumstances that brought the team to a Sunbelt city that was indifferent to hockey during a different financial time should also be considered.
On June 1st, crowds gathered in Winnipeg to celebrate the return of professional hockey after 15 years.
Back in 1995, the Winnipeg Jets was a declining franchise, losing money because of a decaying, ancient arena with no interest from taxpayers to bankroll a new one as well as a lack of interest from Canadian buyers. Attendance was slightly above average, as the arena was filling up at about 80- to 85-percent capacity. Perhaps most prevalent, a mitigating factor for the Jets’ move was the weakness of the Canadian dollar, which was, at times during the mid-90s to early 2000s, 45 cents to the U.S. dollar; this was the same time period when Canadian teams were exiting the league for the greener ($$$) pastures of the United States.
With the gradual failing of the U.S. dollar over the last decade, which subsequently and incredibly recently pushed its value below that of the Canadian dollar for the first time in history, the time of capitalizing on untapped American markets is slowly and painfully coming to a close. Before Atlanta had become the new poster child for failed hockey markets, even mild “success” stories, such as Nashville and Columbus, were being considered for relocation to Canada.
The bottom half of the NHL paid attendance figures is littered with U.S. expansion teams.2 Hockey in those parts of the country is more curiosity than pastime. However, this lull in U.S. interest in the sport is not limited to only newer teams.
Celebrations continued throughout the day in Winnipeg.
For example, the New Jersey Devils (formerly the Colorado Rockies), which recently moved to the brand-new Prudential Center in Newark, has been slipping in attendance for years; it hit rock bottom this past season. Despite being in existence for 30 years, winning three Stanley Cups since 1995, and being considered one of the most respected organizations within the hockey community, it continues to fight to gain an audience in the region. Unfortunately, being sandwiched in between the loyal fan bases of New York City and Philadelphia has hurt the club more than any championship can help. Each Stanley Cup victory was celebrated in the Meadowlands parking lot, a potent reminder of how tough it is to break through in markets that either don’t want or don’t need teams.
Relocation is nothing new for the NHL. However, this particular episode stings more than usual, even more so than when the Phoenix Coyotes (originally the Jets) went bankrupt two years ago. The first true warning shot of the failures of Sunbelt expansion, this move could be the first of several in the near future that attempts to correct the poor judgment and overreaching that has plagued the league since the early 1990s. Regardless of the failings of ownership, where a marketing effort could have perhaps kept the Thrashers in Atlanta for a few more years, hockey—like all mass businesses—never seem, or want to, understand the concept of the “infinite growth paradigm.”
Images found on Wikimedia Commons, top to bottom, courtesy of Brooke Novak and Skeezix1000 (2) .
Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He has been the assistant baseball coach at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, since 2005. He has also been an infielder in several highly competetive semipro basbeall leagues throughout the tri-state area. During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.