We are now witnessing the Atlanta Spirit’s alternate universe.
The Hawks are winning, having started Thursday tied for the NBA’s best record. The Thrashers are winning, already having more victories than they had by mid-December last season. The attorneys are winning, having backed Steve Belkin into a corner with seemingly only two undesirable options: pay back millions for ownership’s past financial losses just to stay in the group, or walk away with nothing.
“I’m sleeping a little better because I don’t have the Belkin lawsuit hanging over my head any more,” owner Michael Gearon said. “But honestly, I’ll sleep a lot better when more fans start showing up in the building.”
And therein lies the problem. All is good on wood and ice. But Gearon suspects the problems at the box office, notwithstanding a Hawks’ sellout Wednesday night, can be attributed to more than just an economic downturn. In short, he believes some fans have been slow to embrace the two winning teams with their wallets at least in part because the ownership group has been perceived as such a punch line through most of its tenure.
It’s not quite, “I don’t want to eat at Bones because they just got purchased by Chef Boyardee.” But that’s kind of the idea.
“I think there’s a perception of us out there that’s based on things that are said and written about us in the media, and that makes it harder,” Gearon said.
Harder to embrace the teams?
“When I go to NBA meetings, everybody tells us we’re doing a great job and they want to build their teams just like us. But locally all I hear is that we’re a bunch of dysfunctional guys.
“People don’t buy tickets because of the owners. They buy because of the teams. But it certainly would help if we were perceived favorably.”
How significant is the issue? Significant enough that when I asked Gearon if he considered re-branding the ownership group and doing away with the “Atlanta Spirit” name, he responded: “Absolutely. When we made some management changes a couple of year ago, which I think was the right thing to do [and resulted in the exit of CEO Bernie Mullin], I asked that question: ‘Why do we keep using the name, Atlanta Spirit?’ We’re not a team. Nobody cares about us and we have a negative image. People care about the Hawks and Thrashers. I even went as far as looking into changing our e-mail addresses. But it just got to be too difficult.”
Instead, Gearon said, the ownership name now is seldom referenced and he’s hoping the name fades into the background.
“What we’ve tried to do now is, we’re not out there actively saying, ‘Atlanta Spirit,’” he said. “It’s a non-entity. We’re focusing on the Hawks and Thrashers. The Spirit name is dying slowly.”
All baggage aside, Philips Arena now houses two competitive and entertaining products. The Hawks are 10-2 and look like they’ve cracked the NBA’s elite. The Thrashers are a respectable 10-6-2. Their future probably hinges more on the status of Ilya Kovalchuk’s impending free agency than the Hawks’ future does with Joe Johnson, but there’s a young, core group of players now to build with.
Gearon probably is correct when he talks about the Spirit hangover. But the assumption is that eventually, the product sells. Wednesday’s game against Miami was a sellout. But the Hawks’ attendance average of 17,192 per game ranks only 17th in the NBA. The Thrashers’ average of 13,510 ranks 28th in the NHL. Both of those figures also are significantly padded by giveaways and discounts.
Still, if you’re Gearon, this is relative nirvana. A Hawks’ fan since his youth, he got into ownership because he wanted to win, and because what fan wouldn’t want to own a team if they had the resources?
He’ll tell you, “I didn’t buy a sports team to be sued and be perceived as a negative.”
He’ll also tell you, “I have thick enough skin. I don’t mind criticism.”
I suppose both can be true.
“We’ve had a lot of people take shots at us,” he said. “It’s been challenging for me at times as an entrepreneur and a competitive person. But the teams are doing well now. I wish we would we get recognized for what we’ve done.”
The teams are winning. Ultimately, that is what everybody wants. If success continues, Gearon will get his wish.