Smart, objective businessmen know that when a company goes belly-up, it’s probably not the fault of the minimum-wage schlepp on the assembly line. So it follows that when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about the myriad problems the league’s Atlanta franchise is having, he didn’t point to an underachieving goalie or a failed intern in marketing.
It starts at the top. It always starts at the top.
“Ultimately, the ownership situation has to be straightened out,” Bettman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s difficult to operate a franchise when owners aren’t getting along. It’s even more difficult in a recession climate. A team has to be at its very best. Issues have to be resolved and everybody has to be together so they can interact with fans. But that’s difficult when the owners aren’t together.”
The Atlanta Spirit owners want you to believe all is well. But now somebody above them is saying the same thing as everybody below them.
The Spirit long has been defensive about how their structure and courtroom battles have affected their tenure. They’re currently enjoying success with the Hawks. But basketball always has been a higher priority. The group’s lack of commitment to doing what it takes to build a winning hockey franchise – and their seeming indifference to the problems – have worn on Thrashers’ fans and, to a degree, players. There were several points in negotiations with Ilya Kovalchuk when he and agent Jay Grossman were getting mixed signals from owner Bruce Levenson.
The franchise struggles are not going over well with Bettman. He views hockey’s success in Atlanta as an important part of the big picture in the NHL.
The Thrashers are failing on several fronts. They’re 28th in the league in attendance, averaging 4,000 fans fewer per game in season 10 (13,204, according to inflated announced figures) than in year one (17,205). They have failed to cultivate new fans. They’ve burned bridges with old ones. General manager Don Waddell, the only constant from day one, acknowledges the team will fail to meet financial mandates from the league, which means it will be docked a portion of its take from the NHL’s revenue sharing program.
On the ice, it’s no better. If the playoffs opened today, the Thrashers would be on the outside for the ninth time in 10 seasons. They also just traded the face of the franchise, Kovalchuk, to New Jersey, which leaves the team lacking a marketable star.
Rumors of the franchise being sold and moved are constant. The Spirit have acknowledged only that they have sought to bring in new investors, especially following the expected exit of partner Steve Belkin. The uncertainty has made for an unstable atmosphere.
Spirit owners have long claimed their litigation has had no effect on the teams. Bettman isn’t convinced.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “We can always agree to disagree on how much it hurts. But it certainly doesn’t help.”
Bettman remains confident in the Atlanta market, saying: “Ultimately, I believe when this all gets sorted out, the franchise will be in a better place.”
He then stopped and laughed, realizing it was a poor choice of words, given rumors of a move.
“Can I change that? What I mean is the franchise will be in a better situation.”
He would not discuss whether owners have shopped the Thrashers: “Whether a club is or isn’t on the market, unless the club makes an announcement, we don’t discuss those things publicly. It’s just a policy of mine.”
But he did reaffirm that the NHL is “committed” to Atlanta.
“We think it’s very important [for the league] and we believe that whatever issues the franchise has, they can be overcome, and ultimately the franchise can be successful,” he said. “We have a strong track record of addressing franchise problems and not abandoning cities. Look at Phoenix. [The Coyotes went into bankruptcy and were taken over by the league, which is looking for new owners.] I don’t think you need to go much farther down the road than that. But look at Buffalo, Ottawa, Pittsburgh. All three have had problems at some point, but they’ve all been successful.
“When the ownership situation is resolved, we believe the franchise will be able to move forward. We’re committed to the market. Our track record indicates we do everything we can do to avoid relocation.”
Atlanta lost the Flames to Calgary in 1980. When the league awarded a franchise to the city again in June of 1997, it expected to capitalize on the growth of the market and hockey’s expansion in the Sunbelt.
The problem in the NHL’s second incarnation, however, hasn’t been the sport itself. Attendance in early years and during the playoff season proved that. The problem has been the mismanagement of the franchise, on and off the ice.
Is Bettman disappointed?
“I don’t think it’s ever fair to use a blanket characterization like that,” he said.
But then he pretty much said as much: “I don’t think things have gone quite as well as anybody might’ve hoped. But in sports, things can change, as we experienced in Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Ottawa. Maybe right now the franchise is not going as well as hoped. But we take a longer-term view of things.”
He said the fact the team “made a $100 million commitment [to Kovalchuk] can’t be minimized.”
But he chose to reserve judgment on the impact of the Kovalchuk trade. “That’s something we can talk about intellectually in a year or two.”
It has been 30 years since the Flames moved to Calgary. The scary comparison there: They actually made the playoffs in six of their eight seasons in Atlanta. Foreshadowing? Bettman says no.
“We believe Atlanta is a good sports town and a good hockey town,” he said. “We believe once issues are resolved, the team can move forward and ultimately the fans will respond.”