The sad thing about the Thrashers moving is that I don’t really feel anything. While I can’t say I am or was ever part of the core group of fans for the team, I have to fit the profile of someone the Thrashers would have targeted as a potential fan. I loved hockey ever since living in Pittsburgh for two years in the early 80s, following the rancid Penguins teams that earned the right to draft Mario Lemieux. In college, I had season tickets for the Michigan hockey team and traveled to two Final Fours, one that Michigan won and then another in which Michigan was upset as a big favorite in the semifinals by BU. In short, I am a sports fan with a hockey background, disposable income, and (at least prior to having kids in 2006) free time to go to games. As my boys grow up, I would have been in a position to take them to games regularly.
When someone with my profile is fairly non-plussed about the local hockey collective moving to Winnipeg, you know that ownership has done a wretched job of selling the team. The Thrashers had so thoroughly removed themselves from the local sports consciousness that their decision to leave doesn’t inspire anything approaching the raw emotion of the Baltimore Colts or Cleveland Browns leaving their cities. The team just didn’t put down any roots. The sports business is a results-based industry and when a team doesn’t produce results, fans will not and should not pay for the product. Without winning, the tree will never take root. Additionally, as Scott Burnside explains, one of the many failures of ownership was the absence of local hockey programs:
Apparently ignorant of how to build a fan base, ownership made no inroads in selling the game. It had no commitment to build a minor hockey program in Atlanta the way Dallas did when the Stars first moved there. There was nothing in Atlanta to compare to the grassroots initiatives in Anaheim, San Jose and Nashville.
In those markets, kids play the game, connect with the team, drag their parents and friends to games, buy merchandise and build a bond. Homegrown players' names from Texas and California and yes, Tennessee are called at NHL entry drafts every year. Ownership made sure of that in those markets, and if those teams left, there would be a scar on the community, a sense of loss.
In Atlanta, the Thrashers leave without creating a ripple on the surface of the community.
Burnside also argues that Gary Bettman did, in fact, do his best to try to find local figures who would buy the team and keep it in Atlanta:
There is a common misconception that the NHL chose not to fight for the Thrashers. That theory is born out of ignorance. For months and months, Bettman and team president Don Waddell beat the bushes for an owner or ownership group to buy the team and keep it in Atlanta.
Bettman has shown himself to be resourceful in these matters, covering up ownership messes in Tampa with Jeff Vinik and Buffalo with Terry Pegula. He may even end up covering the sinkhole in Phoenix with Matthew Hulsizer.
No one stepped forward in Atlanta because it was a mess beyond saving, and the only alternative was to sweep that mess into a corner and give the people of Winnipeg the team they have been craving.
I buy this reasoning. Bettman may have an array of negative qualities, but he’s not an idiot. Atlanta is one of the largest MSAs in the country and it is full of transplants who would buy tickets and watch on TV if they were given a reason to do so. It simply makes no sense that Bettman would fight to keep teams in Nashville, Phoenix, and Buffalo – all of which are inferior markets – and then do nothing to try to keep a team in Atlanta. Maybe Bettman did nothing to help Atlanta Spirit, but can anyone blame him on that front? In the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, I wouldn’t sell them a virus.
In the end, the Thrashers’ move is sad because of the wasted potential that it represents, but it’s the right move in a free market. The only emotion I feel about the move is regret that the team was never able to turn itself into something that I cared about. I would have liked to have taken my boys to games to see a young, improving team. Given the eleven-year history of this franchise, I have no confidence that this potential contender would have emerged. In European soccer, badly-managed teams are punished by relegation. In American sports, inept franchises are usually able to keep on trucking because they are insulated from their own bad decisions by franchise protection and revenue sharing. (See: the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Los Angeles Clippers.) With little national revenue to share, NHL teams are more subject to normal market outcomes, so it’s natural that the Thrashers would move. Between the team moving to Winnipeg or local government subsidizing them to the tune of $25M a la Glendale, I’ll take the former. This is how a free, competitive market works. Sports teams are a little different than restaurants or department stores in that they are public goods in addition to being private businesses, but the moral of the story is that the Thrashers never gave Atlanta a reason to make them a public good.