Feb 16, 2011, 6:43 PM EDT
You would think with the Thrashers being a playoff contending team this season that attention and ticket sales would improve in Atlanta. They play an entertaining brand of hockey with a pair of electric personalities in Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane and most of all they’ve been able to win more often than not.
Instead, the Thrashers have the third worst attendance in the league filling up just 70.4% of Phillips Arena to the tune of an average crowd of 13,056. Atlanta isn’t always known as a great sports town and support for teams like the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks have always been mercurial. Thrashers owner Michael Gearon understands this and is trying to be pro-active about lighting a fire under the fans and inspiring them to come out to games and get more local corporate support behind the team.
Problem is, he’s opted to go about doing so in a the threatening, doom and gloom kind of way rather than a positive spin as Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shared today.
Atlanta Spirit co-owner Michael Gearon said there is now a “sense of urgency” to find additional investors or a buyer willing to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta. If the ownership group does not get additional financial help in the near future the franchise could be sold and moved to another city.
“If we are faced with that as the only alternative, that’s what’s going to happen,” Gearon told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview Tuesday. “I don’t think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in losses. We just can’t do it.
“The reality is we need fans showing up and we need investors, or a primary investor.”
An owner pleading with the locals to help him out so he doesn’t suffer more multi-million dollar losses. It’s a situation we’ve gotten to be too familiar with thanks to the ongoing saga in Phoenix with the Coyotes and former owner Jerry Moyes. This stuff with Atlanta has been bubbling for a while as the Atlanta Spirit group continues to drown in litigation with former ownership partner Steve Belkin.
Atlanta Spirit has been trying to sell the Thrashers for six years, starting almost immediately after purchasing the team, according to the Jan. 21 lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court against Atlanta law firm King & Spalding.
The group filed a $200 million malpractice lawsuit against the firm saying a “fatally flawed” and “botched” contract written to buy out former partner Steve Belkin prevented a Thrashers sale in the nearly five years it took to settle that suit in December.
Before the current litigation, the Atlanta Spirit stated publicly for the past two years that it was looking for investors for the Thrashers, Hawks or both franchises. According to the lawsuit, ownership reported more than $130 million in operating losses since 2005. The Thrashers value also has dropped by more than $50 million, the document says.
With that sort of mess on their hands, Gearon coming out and saying that if things don’t improve soon, things will be dire for the team and their future in Atlanta will be in peril. It’s the sort of thing we’ve gotten used to hearing from owners looking for financial help to get their way. Moyes tried it in Phoenix and Mario Lemieux did something similar when negotiating for a new arena in Pittsburgh. In Mario’s case he won out and CONSOL Energy Center was built. For Moyes, he had his team bought from him by the NHL rather than getting to escape by selling the team to Jim Balsillie.
For Atlanta, circumstances are a bit different as their ownership situation is a mess with the ongoing court stuff and the seeming overall disinterest from the people in Atlanta on the whole. Atlanta does have a sect of very loyal and loving fans, but branching out beyond those few thousands has been the struggle all along in such a hot-and-cold sports town like Atlanta.
Of course, when you come out all guns blazing to call attention to something you find to be a problem, you’re going to get noticed. This afternoon, Gearon was on local Atlanta radio with John Kincade to talk about his comments and hit the gas to backpedal away from a lot of his initial thoughts.
Apparently Gearon didn’t realize that all of Canada is eager to get a struggling American NHL team back in their own hands. Gearon spun things a bit more level-headed-like on the air today as Laura Astorian of SBN Atlanta summed up.
Most pointedly, Kincade asked Gearon if he could guarantee that the team wouldn’t be moving, and the response was a stock answer about dedication to the team. The best quality quote, though, is this one:
“I’m not hitting a panic button here and I apologize if it came out that way. I want to set the record straight and get the fans and community on board with us.”
Less doom and gloom, more rah-rah stuff. You can’t help but think that Gearon got a phone call from the league office in Manhattan asking him to be a bit more careful talking about a team that’s already got attendance issues and is in the midst of a playoff race. The last thing the NHL wants to deal with is financial fires on both sides of the country and while the situation in Atlanta is bad, they’re nearly out of the woods with Phoenix so having this come up now is wildly inconvenient both in how the league wants to handle things and how the perception of the league is amongst the masses.
It would be the NHLs luck though to have things get close to finished with one problem team only to have another rise up and grab all the attention. Here’s to hoping things don’t get that ugly in Atlanta.
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