It’s the Spirit, not fans, who should bag their faces

If it's the NHL trade deadline, it must be time for the Thrashers to clear inventory.

The NHL trade deadline is this week? Then it must be time for the Thrashers to clear some inventory.

 

The franchise is in season nine but remains maybe a two on the evolutionary scale. The owners are in year five, but their juvenile battles have lasted nearly as long. Hockey isn’t failing in Atlanta so much as the product is, and it turns out even the sports’ most die-hard fans have a breaking point.

“You can only put up with losing for so long,” Joe Harris said. “And I grew up a Cubs fan.”

The NHL trade deadline is Wednesday. Once again the Thrashers have morphed into a going-out-of-business sale. Take a defenseman, a fourth-line center, some shelving. Just send back prospects. They can sell those as “hope.”

Good teams add players for playoff runs, but this outfit has been amateur from day one. Local hockey fans should be used to this by now. This will be the Thrashers’ eighth non-playoff season of a possible nine. But it seems the fans have more of a heartbeat than anybody running things.

Plans have circulated for weeks on Internet message boards to turn Friday’s home game against Montreal into a protest night. Several fans have vowed to wear paper bags, maybe with “Atlanta Spirit Stinks” on it. (Something about the acronym, apparently.) Others are considering bringing signs. Maybe they’ll even burn Damian Rhodes in effigy. Again.

“I don’t know why they own the team,” Harris, a former season-ticket holder, said of the Atlanta Spirit. “You get no feeling that they care about the fans or putting a winning product on the ice. It seems like they just kind of put the team on cruise control this year while they tried to figure out how to stop losing money. I’m glad I stopped my tickets this year because otherwise I would just be depressed for three hours, watching my money go down the toilet.”

We are not unaccustomed in this city to fans showing displeasure over their sports franchises. Move these four bagged fans surrounded by empty seats from a Braves game last year to Philips Arena and you get an idea what it could look like Friday.

General manager Don Waddell justifiably has taken the most heat. But the Spirit is a rising target. Owners entered this season seemingly more concerned about paying their legal bills than improving a team that has one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL.

Worst of all: They seem indifferent to the losing. It’s the worst message ownership can send fans.

I’d love to share their thoughts with you. But team officials declined to comment for this column. However, they’ve promised not to harass fans who plan to wear bags or carry signs. Seems even they realize they can’t afford to alienate the few patrons they still have.

Harris has led this planned protest. He estimates spending $25,000 over eight years for season tickets before deciding not to renew. That decision came during a town hall meeting with management last year, when owner Bruce Levenson lost his cool with angry fans. (Levenson has admitted he could’ve handled things better.)

“I decided I’m not giving this guy any more of my money,” Harris said.

Jonathan Peterson also canceled. Even his son, Christian, now 11, who idolizes Ilya Kovalchuk, seconded the decision. “It’s pretty bad when even your son is telling you it’s not worth it,” he said.

This is Christian Peterson when he was 2, the day Ilya Kovalchuk was drafted in 2001. Now 11, he supported his father not renewing their season tickets.

This is Christian Peterson when he was 3 years old in 2001, the day Ilya Kovalchuk was drafted. He's now 11 and supported his father not renewing their season tickets.

He was turned off by the team’s coaching search (“It was done on the cheap”), payroll decisions and “millionaires suing each other. I’m not going to fund that.”

He still goes to some games, but added: “The crowds are so bad now. Sometimes the beer stand near us is closed if there’s not enough people there. It’s like minor-league sports. You might as well have live chickens on the ice between periods.”

The Thrashers have won a few games recently. That changes nothing in the big picture. The franchise is a punch line. There is no reason to believe things will improve. Old fans want to wear bags. New fans are pure fantasy. And this week the suits will be back in court.

103 comments Add your comment

Tom Stanley

March 1st, 2009
6:30 pm

I was on Yahoo and found your blog. Read a few of your other posts. Good work. I am looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

Tom Stanley

WAR EAGLE!!!!

March 1st, 2009
6:44 pm

I live 125 miles from ATL. in a different state but i still went to quite a few thrasher games. However, I have not went to no games this year. And for very good reasons. Now I spend my loose change on the Hawks.

Ted Striker

March 1st, 2009
6:51 pm

Jeff: Fans have every right to protest. They have every right to feel disappointed, skeptical, worried that the teams may not improve. They’re NOT entitled to feeling “cheated” by ASG. ASG bought the teams, bears the risks, and feels the pain more than anyone. The Spirit has lost in excess of $174 million since 2002-03, including $50 million in the past two years alone. They’ve earned the right to be wrong.

Running sports franchises are a lot like raising the neighbor’s kids. Everyone but the current owner/parents knows exactly how to do it.

kevin

March 1st, 2009
6:53 pm

Good fair article. I’m a long time season ticket holder who is considering not renewing. The ownership’s complete lack of regard for their fan base is obvious. They keep the Thrashers around so that they don’t lose their money deal from Phillips, they have no intention of trying to improve the product on the ice.

Ted Striker

March 1st, 2009
6:55 pm

p.s. I’m disappointed you couldn’t find a way to work a Lohan pic into this story. (I know, I know, it’s not Tuesday, but still….)

Former Fan

March 1st, 2009
6:55 pm

I grew up in the south and became a new hockey/Thrashers fan about five years ago. I was completely on board with the team because they appeared to be making progress. Obviously, things have been going down hill since they fired Hartley. I agree, the owners don’t seem to care so why should I? What a waste!!

Jason

March 1st, 2009
6:56 pm

Jeff- You hit the bullseye for the biggest point of all of the ownership mess…why did they even care to own an NHL franchise to begin with? I wish so much they would just somehow go away and leave the franchise here in someone else’s hands. Someone who at the very least is a casual hockey fan.

Thanks for nothing ASG-Idiots

Phil

March 1st, 2009
7:11 pm

What’s so depressing is that a decade in, and this team still has zero, zip nada going for it. Other than Ilya Kovalchuk, the roster is filled up and down with mediocre talent, washed up veterans, and not-quite ready prospects. Next year will be more of the same. etc. Rinse. Repeat.

People would be foolish to buy season tickets while the ASG owns the team. With the economy tightening, and the court battle dragging on, these guys won’t do anything this offseason to improve the team.

Save your $$$.

Sage of Bluesland

March 1st, 2009
7:21 pm

As I’ve stated countless times: STOP SUBSIDIZING THE INCOMPETENCE. That is the only way your voice will be heard.

Jeff Schultz is the only AJC writer who has a clue on the subject (Mark Bradley defends Waddell like he did the other incompetent buffoon, Pete Babcock). Thank goodness for Jeff’s efforts.

Too bad it falls mostly on deaf ears.

Jimbo in Winder

March 1st, 2009
7:28 pm

Striker, only an idiot like you would agree with the Spirit. Move out of mommy’s basement you pathetic looser!!!!

Ainglish teecher

March 1st, 2009
7:32 pm

“However, I have not went to no games this year.” Even if you didn’t have War Eagle as a screen name, we would have been able to figure out which state.

Ainglish teecher

March 1st, 2009
7:33 pm

Only people with loose screws or loose stools misspell lose. Loser.

Ted Striker

March 1st, 2009
7:36 pm

Jimbo: Ain’t no sunshine when you’re gone.

Chris

March 1st, 2009
7:40 pm

It would be interesting to know what’s going on at the Atlanta Spirit/Belkin trial in Maryland. But apparantly, the AJC sent their reporter home from the tril. Could they not afford the per diem to inform Atlantans what is going on there? Certainly the Atlanta Spirit isn’t doing their job. But let’s add the AJC to the list of recent failures in this city.

mullet13

March 1st, 2009
7:40 pm

WAR EAGLE – You stated, “I have not went to no games this year.” Are you an Auburn grad? If so, you need to re-take “grammar 101.” I wouldn’t display my ignorance by commenting in this blog.

Matt

March 1st, 2009
7:46 pm

Congratulations on writing an article that doesn’t piss me off. =) There is a first for everything I suppose hahaha

Greg D.

March 1st, 2009
7:48 pm

I was at that townhall meeting prior to a Thrashers game last year when Levenson lost his cool. What a total S.O.B. I decided right there that my days supporting these clueless out-of-towners was over.

TM

March 1st, 2009
8:19 pm

Something I don’t understand. If the owners have lost millions of dollars and they continued to hemorrhage money for more millions… Why are they suing each other for ownership and not suing to sell ownership and require the other owners to purchase the other? SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT.

If i were one of the remaining Atlanta Spirit Group, I would not want to win a lawsuit against Belkin and have to pay him more money for the remainder of the ownership to lose more money…

Can anyone in this lame Atlanta media ask questions in regards to this? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the words of the ASG and their actions, do not make sense.

Jeff Schultz

March 1st, 2009
8:45 pm

I think the passion conveyed in comments indicates something about hockey fans in this town. A few comebacks (rebounds?)
## Tom, thanks.
## Ted: I disagree to this extent: While teams are privately owned, and therefore the owners can do with the teams as they please, they are as much a part of a city’s landscape as a stadium, an opera house or a public park. The owners are there, to some degree, to serve the public, even if it is their business, because without the public there is not business.
## Ted (II): Can Lindsay skate? I know. I know. Does it matter?
## Jason: I think if the owners could have purchased the arena and the Hawks without the hockey team, they would’ve done so. But it was a package deal.
## Chris: FYI, Kristi Swartz already has been up at the trial in Maryland twice for coverage. Obviously, economic these days prevent us from keeping a staff writer up there for three straight weeks. Unfortunately, the last trip (Thursday and Friday last week) was planned with Michael Gearon’s testimony in mind and it was postponed twice. If you have more questions about our trial coverage, you can email her (kswartz@ajc.com), or she’s on Twitter (BizWriteKristi).
## Matt: I guess there’s a first for everything.
## TM: That’s a fair question. Why fight over something that’s losing money? Here’s my answer: Because they believe that whole package eventually will be worth significant money (and actually may be worth a lot more now than the non-Belkins are claiming in court). The hockey team alone is not worth money. But owning operating rights to an arena can be extremely lucrative, and an NBA team – notwithstanding the loan that the league just took out – also has some built in revenue streams from national television contracts. Also, consider this: David McDavid just won a whopper of a verdict for Turner reneging on their agreement to sell the teams/arena to him — $316 million. That must indicate something about franchise values.

Rogie

March 1st, 2009
8:59 pm

so, they fire Hartley a half dozen games into last season and they can’t find a better coach than the GM Waddell over the next 5 months? I think that says a lot about management’s “commitment” to delivering the best product, and particularly their fans. There are high school coaches that have more serious experience than Waddell ever had with coaching that would have been better. Everyone in the NHL — organizations, players, coaches, agents know what’s going on here. Waddell is like a used car salesman…what he says is slick and is designed to make the product sound better than it really is. I think everyone in the league knows what he’s told to do…he is a puppet of his bosses….the anger is misdirected to much toward him….this is an ASG fiasco.

Sam

March 1st, 2009
9:01 pm

I think Joe Harris should be ashamed of taking his frustrations with the ownership out on a group of guys, having just as frustrating a season (if not more so) than Joe…and that would be the TEAM. Remember…the guys you, as a FAN, supposedly SUPPORT.

I’d never say don’t get angry or protest the ownership…do that in signs, if you want. But bags on the heads not only looks stupid…where’s the dignity, man?…it gives the message that you’re ashamed of the players. And Ilya and these guys are working their butts off. Don’t be dissing on them.

I’m a season ticket holder and have been since Day 1. I’ve got frustrations, too. But I feel allegiance with the players…they’re stuck , too. I’d never want them to feel their efforts, in the face of humiliation and “cellar dwelling”…were not appreciated by the team’s fans. In every single interview, Ilya ALWAYS talks about giving a good effort for the FANS. He’s the hottest player in the NHL right now….despte year-after-year-after-year of mediocre linemates. HE KNOWS FRUSTRATION. Don’t be dissing on Kovy…or even have the appearance of doing that. Its not cool.

Find another way to more directly get your message to the ownership (and don’t let a little press from a reporter using YOU to make him and his column look more interesting, go to your head).

Sam

March 1st, 2009
9:18 pm

And Phil…don’t tell me how to spend my money…or call me a fool. Make your own decisions, but stay out of my business.

The quickest way to lose a franchise is to not support it. I don’t agree with or particularly like the owenrship. But I love hockey and I pay to watch the game I love in the only NHL venue provided.

Are the fans limited in how they can effectivley “protest” the ownerhsip? yeah. Step 1 requires that ownership give a crap about what you think. They don’t. They are all about the money and the basketball. So, you don’t buy tickets…your preogative, but the death knell for the franchise.

The solutions here are so far out of our reach. Schultz has got to do his job to shine a light on it. Good for him. But the real solution will be in a sell to an ownership that cares about hockey…and hopefully, Bettman can insist they keep the franchise here. In order to do that, Bettman’s got to SEE a supportive community for an NHL team here.

And THAT’s the bottom line for me. I want an NHL team here. It starts with re-siging Ilya asap. And then getting good owners to invest in the franchise…and keep it in Atlanta.

What kept the Nashville franchise in Nashville (at least, thus far) was the POSITIVE response of the FANS to the TEAM. So think on that, bag guys.

ben

March 1st, 2009
9:21 pm

sell the team!

Ted Striker

March 1st, 2009
9:34 pm

Jeff: I agree that a sports team has a responsibility to serve the local community. That said, some folks have no idea about the pound of flesh owners often sacrifice to own a team, most less two of them. (Re: Lohan. I don’t know if she can skate or not but I’m sure even some of these mediocre Thrasher players have hot girlfriends with pix available somewhere on the net).

Ted Striker

March 1st, 2009
9:35 pm

Ben: Are you looking to buy an NHL team? Do you know someone who is? If not….

Jeff Schultz

March 1st, 2009
9:55 pm

Sam: I think you’re misguided. I’ve been in locker rooms for 25 years and athletes know when ownership is a problem. TRUST ME when I tell you that there are players in the Thrashers’ locker room who know ownership is a problem. They’re not dumb. And while I’m not waving a flag or trying to stir the masses into a protest — that’s your decision — I’m telling you that players understand your frustration and are not going to feel like you betrayed them. I’m not sure where you’re getting that from, but you’re so wrong. …. Ted: As I recall, Sean Avery was married to a hottie, but, well, we don’t need to go over that, do we?

Meegan

March 1st, 2009
9:55 pm

Sam makes a good point, what are the players going to think when they see people sitting in the stands with paperbags on their heads that say ATLANTA SPIRIT STINK on them? Jeff aren’t you concerned that the players will be discouraged by this?

Meegan

March 1st, 2009
9:56 pm

Nevermind… I guess they CAN read.

Jeff Schultz

March 1st, 2009
10:16 pm

Check that. Sean Avery wasn’t married. Just dating. Sort of.

Wayne

March 1st, 2009
10:19 pm

You know what the sad thing is? People in Winnepeg and Hamilton wait with breathless anticipation…

Wayne

March 1st, 2009
10:25 pm

Hey, Atlanta Hawk fan: don’t stick out your chest so far…if it weren’t for last year’s playoffs, this could be you, too.

Dan

March 1st, 2009
10:29 pm

Main thing to remember is the fans aren’t protesting the PLAYERS. Enough is enough in regard to the Sprit, they have no plans or interest to improve the Thrashers. If Atlanta does end up losing the franchise, it should not be reported it was NOT due to lack of fan interest. Thanks Jeff for telling our side.

Brent

March 1st, 2009
10:42 pm

“But bags on the heads not only looks stupid…where’s the dignity, man?…it gives the message that you’re ashamed of the players.”

Actually, the folks wearing the bags believe that the loss of dignity is in being RECOGNIZED while attending the game; they still believe in supporting the team (obviously they’ve bought their tickets), but they prefer not to be associated with the product.

Ask any Saints fan…they started that whole “bags on the head” phenomenon in the first place.

UGA 75

March 1st, 2009
11:03 pm

Jeff, you did your usual good job summing up this disaster. While I’m not the judge, If I were I’d put the whole business up for sale again and sell it for the highest bid however low that was, the proceded from the sale going to existing owners who’d lose several millions each, and at least get an owner or owners who cared about his investment, something like Mr. Blank did when he purchased the Falcons. Say what you want about fans, but they generally can tell when someone cares about the team(s) they own. The Spirit ownership is a bunch of losers, how they made enough money to puchase this business in the first place is a mystery of giant proportions.

Mr. & Mrs. Obvious

March 1st, 2009
11:21 pm

The only people at Thrashers games DUMBER THAN Atlanta Spirit are the rude simpletons who sit in Sections 319 and 320.

Sam

March 1st, 2009
11:25 pm

Schultz, I don’t doubt the players know what’s going on….better than either one of us. That’s part of my point exactly. They know and they’re stuck, too.

Somehow, though, I don’t think that reading the fine print on paper bags on fans’s heads in the stands is a big priority for them during a game or even before it, at warm-ups. Signage speaks more clearly and directly. Unless these guys just WANT to wear paper bags on their heads. Its going to make drinking beer difficult, though.

And since when is modeling ourselves after Saints’ fans a GOOD thing? LOL

And finally, no, I don’t believe the Thrasher players read your column with enough regularity to understand what the papwer bag stunt really means.

Da Boomer

March 1st, 2009
11:33 pm

Atlanta fans will support hockey and any other sport that is competitive, but they will not support teams that consistently lose. Bob Hartley was the best thing going for the Thrashers, and it was very stupid to fire him.

Joe

March 1st, 2009
11:45 pm

move the team to Alaska that would be a good move Alaska don’t have a pro team and a hockey team would be great for Anchorage, Alaska.

Ted Striker

March 1st, 2009
11:57 pm

God help Avery if he ever manages to score a cameo on ‘24′. Jack Bauer will “reassign” Avery to the WheelChair Division of the Misogyny League inside of 17 seconds.

R. Stroz

March 2nd, 2009
12:11 am

Schultz – Thank you!

Peter

March 2nd, 2009
12:12 am

Striker looks like you picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue. “They’ve earned the right?!” The right to run the team into the ground, kill any fan interest, sell the team to out of town interests and have every hockey “expert” say “See hockey isn’t a southern sport” ? Because that’s what’s going to happen.

Jeff it’s funny, you wrote almost exactly the same column right before the season and you were roasted by all of the “fans” and talked about the great prospects that we got to replace the “greedy”
and recently departed Hossa.

Bryan

March 2nd, 2009
1:05 am

I am willing to buy 2 season tickets for next year right now … provided that ASG accept a clause that I will get a full refund in the event that the franchise leaves Atlanta anytime over the next 3 years. It would be interesting to see the reaction from ASG if a significant number of current and interested season ticket holders also made this a condition of their purchase.

Chris

March 2nd, 2009
2:28 am

Hey Mr. and Mrs. Obvious, I’m one of those “rude simpletons” up in 319 and proud of it. Have fun sitting down in the tea and crumpets section on your hands. Maybe someday you’ll figure out what they’re supposed to be used for.

scottbravesfan

March 2nd, 2009
4:19 am

ASG are the worst owners. I can’t believe the NHL sits by and lets one of their franchises be run into the ground. But they did nothing when the Blackhawks were run into the ground in Chicago so I doubt they will do anything for the Thrashers. What a joke the NHL is sometime. Someone save the Thrashers!!!!

askip

March 2nd, 2009
6:29 am

Obama will save the thrashers……………………….

Tom Ferda

March 2nd, 2009
7:29 am

I’m relieved to see the fans will be allowed to voice their opinion in the form of signs/bags, etc. When it was looking like a possible Philips ’security’ beef-up was being orchestrated for the Habs game, that would have been a carbon-copy of the (0-16) Detroit Lions front office and their response when they were kicking fans out of the arena during the Fire Millen campaign.

The Scoff

March 2nd, 2009
7:51 am

There won’t be any security measures taken to remove the 4 or 5 fans that show up with bags on their heads. This isn’t a massive stand in the front of tanks type protest. Most of the fans will continue to be the blue seats that don’t even speak during the games because ..well..they are seats.

David

March 2nd, 2009
7:55 am

I don’t pay for ANYTHING at Phillips Arena anymore for that reason. They have a right to own two pathetic franchises and promote concerts. I have the right to NEVER pay them money ever again.

Sean Grace

March 2nd, 2009
8:13 am

Nice work Jeff. I, like Matt, am not angered by your piece. The bottom line is the ASG needed to be called to the carpet in the mainstream media. Their endless court appearances coupled with their lack of concern for the franchise has left the Thrash on the brink of relocation.

I’m closing in on a total financial investment in the Thrashers that totals six figures since 1999. I’m a die hard. I don’t miss home games. I cheer my throat raw for the club. I’m not alone. One hundred and sixty people traveled 400 miles to Raleigh to watch this cellar dwelling bunch play. We still care and we are beyond frustration.

STH have abandoned this team like rats from a sinking ship before this season. Idiots like me can’t pull that trigger. I’m in. I’m emotionally invested. But a protest is warranted. This Ownership group’s incompetence and lack of concern about the underachieving franchise is disturbing. They need to take action or be removed by Grand Overlord Bettman, (who allegedly put this group together in the first place). The fans deserve Owners that can at least rival our passion for the team.

Again, nice work Jeff. I promise not to post any further nasty remarks on your work for at least a week. :)

Sean Grace

Wangdong

March 2nd, 2009
8:49 am

I could not agree with this article more or insist that it is coming at the perfect time. I have followed this team since day one and never had enough money at one time to buy season tickets. I went to the ticket window and purchased my seats the day of the game. I usually only miss an average of 4 or 5 games a year since the opening season. This year I’m finally fed up with it and have decided until the Atlanta Spirit can show me that they are willing to take the needed steps to win I’m not going to pay for their mediocre (at best) product any longer. I love going to games but felt like it was the only thing I could do to get their attention. I hope one of them reads this article and it sparks some change in the organization.