In his most recent spoken example of the Wile E. Coyote/Acme explosives/NHL public relations disaster, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman somewhat admonished Thrashers fans for not buying tickets to what has been a crummy product for most of their 11 seasons.
Quoting here: “Demonstrating your dissatisfaction by not going to games is an interesting strategy. It’s your absolute right. But if it becomes a turnoff for anybody who might want to buy the franchise, the long-term consequences could be severe.”
Imagine if we applied this philosophy to other aspects in our life.
Buy a new car. If the doors fall off two blocks down the street, that’s OK. Just make sure you support that dealership by buying another one next year. Eat at a new restaurant. If dinner makes your stomach feel like there are a thousand screaming piranhas in it, that’s OK. Eat there the following week, because you wouldn’t want that restaurant to go out of business. And this time, bring friends!
Bettman doesn’t want to leave the impression that the NHL is on the verge of abandoning Atlanta again (which it is). So he is trying to lay the ground work for the Thrashers’ exit to Winnipeg. He’ll point to attendance and stupid stuff like only a few hundred fans showing up at a rally. He’ll do everything possible to try to convince you that this mugging wasn’t his fault and he had no choice.
Don’t fall for it.
Let me tell you a story. The Braves averaged about 10,000 fans per game in 1988, which they finished 54-106. In one late-season game, attendance was announced at 3,017. Ex-Brave Gerald Perry mused, “Sometimes, we look up from the dugout and say, ‘This’d be another good day to paint the seats.’”
Let me tell you a story. In 1989, 7,792 fans showed up for an NFL game, or at least one between the Falcons and Detroit Lions at old Atlanta-Fulton Stadium. When one fan was asked why he purchased a ticket, he responded, “It was a Christmas present, and I didn’t want to let my brother down. He could be here, but he said he’d rather go to grandma’s.” The Falcons finished 3-13 that season.
Postscript: The Braves started winning in 1991 and attendance doubled. It tripled by 1992 and quadrupled by 1993. Falcons’ attendance spiked under Jerry Glanville, dropped again when the team lost, then returned after Arthur Blank, Michael Vick and success arrived (38 straight sellouts).
Most of you probably understand where I’m going with this. The cowardly Bettman is in the corner with his eyes closed, ears covered and loudly humming, pretending not to notice.
If a team wins, it draws fans. If a team does the right thing – or sometimes even just leaves the impression it’s trying really hard to do the right things – it draws fans. Atlanta losing an NHL team isn’t about Atlanta not having enough hockey fans to support a franchise. It’s about the fact that people grew fed up with supporting a bad product run by bad ownership.
Let me tell you a story. In their inaugural season, the Thrashers sold out 14 games and averaged 17,205 fans per game in a 61-loss season. A year later, they averaged 15,265 in a 47-loss season. In three year, the team got worse and attendance dropped even more.
The Thrashers made the playoffs in 2006-07 for the first (and only) time in their history. Funny thing happened. They sold out more games (11) and averaged more fans (16,239) than in any season since the first.
Millions of Braves fans didn’t suddenly move here in 1991. Blank didn’t hand out $500 bills across state borders to get people to come to Falcons games. Thrashers fans didn’t move after two seasons, then come for the playoffs, then move again. This isn’t about a market. It’s about a fan base that has seen too many car doors fall off.
In 2003-04, Chicago, an “Original 6” team, had the second-worst record in the league and ranked 27th in attendance at 13,253 (2,000 less than the Thrashers). Six years later, when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, they drew 21,356.
Could it be there’s a connection?
Bettman will try to convince you Atlanta just didn’t want hockey bad enough. He’ll ignore the reasons. He’ll grab millions in a relocation fee from a city that he moved a team from 15 years earlier.
The Winnipeg Jets averaged 11,316 fans in their final season — 2,000 less than the Thrashers drew this year. Don’t expect to read that in the news release.
By Jeff Schultz