Cowardly Bettman ignoring evidence of Thrashers fans

Gary Bettman is blaming Atlanta hockey fans for not supporting a bad product.

Gary Bettman is blaming Atlanta hockey fans for not supporting a bad product. (AP photo)

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.

All aboard for Winnipeg . . .

All aboard for Winnipeg . . .

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

Earlier: Countdown: Bettman, Spirit on Facebook, angry beaver, Monta’s tattoo

Follow me on Twitter @JeffSchultzAJC; friend me at Facebook.com/JeffSchultzAJC

455 comments Add your comment

jarvis

May 24th, 2011
2:24 pm

Bettman will be remembered as the guy that led the NHL to ruin. Hockey sucks. It sucks everywhere. You know how I know? Cause Canadians love it.

Canada...really?

May 24th, 2011
2:28 pm

The NHL’s business model: take a franchise from an emerging market with 5.3M people and move it to a city of 725k with a dwindling economic presence who couldn’t hold onto a franchise a few years ago. And you wonder why the NHL is the least profitable of the big 4 sports.

Flames

May 24th, 2011
2:32 pm

Somebody find Eric Vail. He’ll know what’s going on.

Bluelander

May 24th, 2011
2:37 pm

Jeff, you are one of the only rays of sunshine us Thrasher faithful have had during the past few months. Great blog. Stick it to the ASG and then to Bettman! Do me a favor and send a copy of this and your ASG blog over the folks at ESPN, NESN, TSN, HNIC etc. and get them off Atlanta’s back. Between Bettman and the ASG this whole thing is a charade. After years of buying into the arguments about the ATL being a fairweather sports town, I’m mellowing a bit. Maybe we are just better sports consumers than some of those other cities that constantly put us down.

BG33Brown

May 24th, 2011
2:37 pm

Keep up the pressure JS. The more you write, the more we can’t be ignored. I am still holding onto the small thread of hope.

Howard

May 24th, 2011
2:38 pm

The ASG is horrible and have mismanaged everything under the banner. TRUE. However, there has to be an ownership group in town that is willing to step up to the plate to purchase the franchise and keep the Thrashers in Atlanta. From everything I have read ASG has been trying to sell the team for 3+ years and there has not been anyone in the Atlanta area willing to purchase the team.

There is a lot of fault to go around- the owner is terrible, Bettman could have stepped in sooner but how much could he really do? No sports league should be able to take over a franchise and force an owner to sell that team if they can pay their bills. The league could have made it hard on the ASG group but what else could the league really do? If you are a sports fan what would you want them to do? You don’t want the league (any league) walking in and taking back the team because the league doesn’t like an ownership style. Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers for years and Stern just smiles at him.

Bottom line is the fans of the Thrashers get hosed.

Reid Adair

May 24th, 2011
2:39 pm

Gary Bettman and the members of Atlanta Spirit Group deseve each other; all of them are simply worrying about their bank accounts.

The only people hurt by this are hockey fans in Atlanta.

Tall

May 24th, 2011
2:39 pm

I hate to see the Thrashers go, but the season is too long and the games are just too expensive to attend. When I started following the NY Rangers back in the 1970’s, the season started at Halloween and was over by Mother’s day. That’s enough. Now….6 preseason games, 84 regular games, 4 rounds of playoffs and higher ticket prices. Oh well……

Tucker T

May 24th, 2011
2:41 pm

You crushed him Jeff. Nice job.

Flames

May 24th, 2011
2:41 pm

Tim Ecclestone is pissed.

rollarcoasterrideNHL

May 24th, 2011
2:42 pm

but in respect – how much money were these teams loosing per year???? not 30 mil

Brett Williams

May 24th, 2011
2:43 pm

Great article Jeff – completely and utterly hit the nail on the head. If the Thrashers were winning (man that sure would have been nice) and we were only drawing crowds of 10-12k, then he’d have an argument and wouldn’t blame him or the NHL for moving the team.

Everyone is blaming the fans, and like you have perfectly pointed out – that is just plain wrong.

[...] Journal Constitution: Cowardly Bettman ignoring evidence of Thrashers fans.  At the end of the day, regardless of blame, Atlanta needs a new [...]

Brent

May 24th, 2011
2:44 pm

Preach it, Schultzie…go get ‘em!

Hillbilly Deluxe

May 24th, 2011
2:45 pm

Bud Selig must be loving this. It removes him from being the most inept commissioner in sports.

I have nothing against Winnipeg and them getting a team. I just don’t want it to be the Thrashers.

William Satterwhite

May 24th, 2011
2:45 pm

I think Bettman’s comments are less about Atlanta and more of a word of warning to fans in Miami, Columbus and elsewhere. He knows there’s nothing he can really do in Atlanta so it’s all about sending a message to those other markets- support your crummy teams with owners who do at least care a little bit or else as soon as an arena gets built in Quebec you’ll suffer the same fate.

Tab Bamford

May 24th, 2011
2:46 pm

Evidence… like ranking in the bottom 5 in avg attendance pct in each of the last four seasons? Or having some of the worst home television ratings in the league? If the Thrashers “fans” wanted to keep their team, they should have attended a game – 73% of capacity isn’t “evidence” to someone w/ common sense. Rallies are nice, attendance figures matter.

glovesave29

May 24th, 2011
2:46 pm

Before the Winnipeg trolls come it – let’s point out THAT WE KNOW the last season of the Jets was a lame duck season. You knew the team was leaving. We know, we know, we know….

Ya skewered him Jeff. And its all true. He can spin it any way he wants, but when he looks in the mirror and has to be honest with HIMSELF….he knows. Its all about the all new relocation fee…y’know the one that did not exist QUE to COL, or HFD to CAR or WPG to PHX…even MIN to DAL – NO RELOCATION FEE EVER!!! It’s all about covering the PHX ownership losses – of which Bettman will not back down from or Balsille will have exposed a way to backhandedly get a franchise.

Gary Bettman

May 24th, 2011
2:47 pm

Wait! You’re Jeff Schultz, not Dave Schultz……Regardless, I am still scared of you.

tonyb

May 24th, 2011
2:50 pm

I bet Mr. Bettman can give you 60 million reasons why Winnipeg will work this time around.

charlie

May 24th, 2011
2:50 pm

Re “canada really”, perhaps the writer is unaware that Canada leads the western world in economic growth, that Winnipeg has only 4% unemployment and one othe lowest costs of living in North America, Indeed all of Western Canada is booming, houses actually sell there in days. The owner is a billionaire and in Canada hockey is the equivalent of Friday, Saturday ansd Sunday football rolled into one. In all likelihood with the Canadian dollar valued above the US dollar at least two more “southern” teams will relocate. Atlanta is a marvellous city but quite rightly hockey is last in major sports popularity in such a market, the same as basketball would be last in Canada.

Charie

Peanut Scab

May 24th, 2011
2:50 pm

What do you know about hockey jarvis? Shouldn’t you be in another blog, pretending to be an internet toughie?

Winnipeggy Hill

May 24th, 2011
2:50 pm

Flames

May 24th, 2011
2:51 pm

Boomer, where are you when we need you?

jarvis

May 24th, 2011
2:52 pm

I’m not familiar with the term toughie. Why don’t you write a book on here explaining its proper usage to everyone?

bananahead

May 24th, 2011
2:53 pm

Well, I guess it’s better late than never to join the party, Schultz. Oh wait, no it’s not better. You’re trying to CYA after being nothing but negative over this TEAM over the years, and now you’re on the fans’ side? Where were these stories over the last few years? On the message boards, that’s where. Definitely not in the AJC. It’s the media that has given everyone else the impression that there are no fans in Atlanta, because that’s the only thing you reported. No one ever cared enough to do their job and figure out why the support wasn’t there. Until now. And it’s probably too late.

So, you, and the mayor, and the owners, and all the bandwagon jumpers who jumped on the idea that there was no support for the Thrashers because there were no fans here…

Thanks for nothing.

Brett

May 24th, 2011
2:56 pm

why the $60 mill???? If no owner comes forward, that is one thing, but why do the owners get $60 mill in a relocation fee. This isn’t expansion. $60 mill gives a conflict of interest for owners approving the sale and relocation. At $60 mill a pop, relocation by many teams may be the only way owners in the NHL can make money. let’s spin the wheel, who’s next? NHL owners taking the opportunity to make money at the expense of ATL fans. Let’s erect monument to ASG so we can go by and spit on it every so often.

Bendover

May 24th, 2011
2:57 pm

We used to get a stray NHL exhibition game here now and then during the years between the Flames and Thrashers. Think Bettman would be stupid enough to do that again?

William Satterwhite

May 24th, 2011
2:57 pm

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Bettman and the NHL haven’t done everything within their power to try to keep the NHL within the Atlanta market. I just don’t think they have any power to really do anything compared to all the other situations. The NHL had an advantage (being the primary arena tenant) in Phoenix/Glendale, Pittsburgh, Nashville and elsewhere that they specifically don’t have in Atlanta.

ASG

May 24th, 2011
3:00 pm

By the way the number the the ASG keeps throwing around that they lose $20 mil a year on the Thrashers is complete BS. Open up the books and prove it to us all. If they lost $80 million in the last 4 years all of them would be bankrupt from having to fund operations. I see no one filing for bankruptcy in the ownership group.

This franchise was doomed from the start by a poor location choice for games. Who really wants to drive downtown at night where there is no place to eat. You are hammered by a monopoly on food and beverage prices. Even better lets start the games at 7 so that parents can’t get home and get kids and make it to a game on time. Last time I checked the majority of fans don’t live anywhere near Philips. Who decided to put the arena there? Ted Turner.

ChippersLoveChild

May 24th, 2011
3:01 pm

Somebody get this man a cape. Schultz is the new super hero of the city, or at least Thrasher fans. Well done again!

Rick Sund

May 24th, 2011
3:02 pm

I’m truly humbled by Gary Bettman’s PROFESSIONALISM.

Dean

May 24th, 2011
3:02 pm

Question for you Jeff…in 2006-07, how much money did the Thrashers make when they had a good season attendance wise? How many tickets were sold full price?

And it’s fine to quote the attendance in Winnipeg that last season, but make sure you include the context. Prior to that last season the team was sold and it was announced that the team was moving at the end of the season. Winnipeg did not have an arena that could make money. No boxes, and all concessions and parking went to a 3rd party. The Jets made none of that. The Canadian dollar was trading at $.65 US and there was no owner willing to take on that mess. The fans tuned out when they realized there was nothing they could do to save their team.

Now Winnipeg has an arena, owners, and they make the money from the arena. It’s too bad that Winnipeg is getting their team at the expense of Atlanta, but the situations were VERY different.

Sherry Taylor

May 24th, 2011
3:06 pm

He certainly is quiet, isn’t he?

Reality

May 24th, 2011
3:07 pm

The NHL’s business model: put teams where they can make money and SOMEBODY wants to own them.

ATL Fans Better Than NHL Says - VIDEO

May 24th, 2011
3:07 pm

Badger Bob

May 24th, 2011
3:08 pm

rollarcoasterrideNHL, if you believe the Thrashers were really losing $30M I’ve got a bridge to sell you. They told us they were “debt free and flush with cash” in 2009. Now that it suits them (as in lawsuit), they are bleeding cash. Something tells me The Bulb was perfectly profitable that whole time. Gets messy when the owners have multiple pockets to hide money and multiple court cases to defend.

Mav

May 24th, 2011
3:08 pm

The author makes some good points and definitely, a losing team year after year is a recipe for disaster in any market. But the stat about attendance during the Jets’ last season in Winnipeg is misleading. They averaged 11,000 fans per game AFTER it was announced that the team was leaving at the end of the year. So that entire season was as a lame duck and they still drew that many fans to the building 40+ times. I feel badly for the Atlanta faithful here, but in the same situation, I highly doubt the Thrashes would have been drawing anything near that number. Go, Jets, go!

glovesave29

May 24th, 2011
3:09 pm

Dean – already covered that. WE KNOW!

Until the NHLPA allows teams to pay the players in the same currency it collects it’s revenue, Canadian teams will continue to be at risk. Yes, the loonie is stronger NOW. But we all know it is just a matter of time until that correction is made.

Nate

May 24th, 2011
3:09 pm

“Gary Bettman is blaming Atlanta hockey fans for not supporting a bad product.”

Because he’s a p@#$y and won’t stand up to pressure from the Canadian zealots who want another team anymore. And he does it at our expense…again…because he’s a p@#$y.

Born2Buzz

May 24th, 2011
3:10 pm

@ Willie Satterwhite, I think you are right on.
@ Howard, no potential owners want to buy JUST the Thrashers. The ASG has the arena operating rights and that is what is important. ASG needs to sell everything and get out of the sports ownership business entirely. David McDavid, are you still interested? Please?!?!?!

David

May 24th, 2011
3:11 pm

@Mav

What is the difference between what happen to Winnipeg in 1995, and Atlanta in 2011? It was discovered that ASG had been secretly trying to sell the team. After I heard that I stopped going to games. At least Winnipeg had an ownership group that was trying to win. The ASG put all their money in the Hawks.

Reality

May 24th, 2011
3:11 pm

Badger Bob “They told us they were “debt free and flush with cash” in 2009.”

You do realize this is the same group that has been trying to sell the team since the day they bought it, all the time telling you they wanted to keep it in Atlanta. Nobody knows when ASG is telling the truth or lying…

PMC

May 24th, 2011
3:12 pm

I just think the NHL is desperate at this point. Thier labor and business costs are too high for thier current situation.

Winnepeg will sell tickets for good sums I have no doubt, but when half or more of the clubs are losing money there’s a problem.

Bettman’s leadership has led them into the toilet.

AtlFlamesFan

May 24th, 2011
3:12 pm

Bettman is ASG’s $60M pimp.

bananahead

May 24th, 2011
3:12 pm

@Howard If everything you have read says that ASG has benn trying to sell the team for 3+ years, you haven’t read enough. They did not have clear ownership until this past December, so to say they were trying to sell is only a CYA tactic. That’s like saying I have been trying to sell my car for 3 years, even though I’m not sure who owns it. It’s impossible to buy something without knowing who the owner is.

@Tab Bamford – You illustrate the point perfectly well, but somehow fail to miss it altogether. Typical ignorance. Attendance and TV ratings come from having a product worth seeing and watching. Owners continually put out a sup-par product, charged more for it, and told us to “deal with it”. We did deal with it the only way we could. We didn’t put up with it.

Atlanta Thrashers fans want a winner, or at least a competitive product, and we have proven over and over again that the fans are here when that happens. We’ll even support rebuilding IF we are rebuilding after a period of success. We’ve never had that period of success, and are constantly in a rebuilding phase. A phase that causes free agents to leave or avoid ATL because they saw no evidence of the owners committed to doing so. So what are we do to? What did Winnepeg do?

Why not blame the players for not supporting the team? When they had a chance, they went to teams with owners that cared, not to teams that drew the biggest crowds because they knew that owners that care will draw bigger crowds.

As recent as December, we got a letter from the owners stating their goal was to bring Stanley Cups to Atlanta. We all knew it was BS. These same owners are sueing their lawyers because the lawsuit against one of their own partners created a situation where they “couldn’t dispose of the Thrashers” for the years the lawsuit dragged on.

“Dispose of the Thrashers”
“Goal of bringing the Stanley Cup to Atlanta”

Anybody else see a problem with those two ideas existing simultaneously?

This stuff needs to be said over and over again until everyone gets it.

PMC

May 24th, 2011
3:13 pm

For people who have actually traveled to the Dome and Phillips (I use Marta all the time it’s easy AND convenient just leaves you without an opportunity to tailgate) the area actually has plenty of amentities. There are 5 or so sportsbars in walking distance, there’s fast food and several other restaurants too. It’s not a bad area in the least. Quite the contrary.

The issue generally is that parking is deplorable around both facilities. Other than parking, It’s thousands of times better than the experience around Turner Field though. It’s poor planning in the first place that ruined a fine neighborhood in the 60’s to put Fulton County Stadium where they did.

Rich T

May 24th, 2011
3:13 pm

Great piece, Jeff! Thanks!

Although my love for the Thrashers will follow them to Winnipeg, I am sure the distance will make my want to watch fade, much like when the Flames went to Calgary. This time, though, I won’t continue to watch hockey after it fades because it just isn’t fun anymore.

EW

May 24th, 2011
3:13 pm

Wow JS, best material you have put out in a while. Emotions tend to bring out the best in writers.

ASG

May 24th, 2011
3:15 pm

Hindu – Who is bigoted? Not me. I made no judgements based on race. You unfortunately did. Did I mention the racial make up of the the area around Philips? Nope. Who brought up race – YOU DID. My comment is most people don’t want to drive 30-45 minutes downtown where there is nothing to do around the arena. What is racist or bigoted about that?

BIGOT = a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

Nowhere in my comments did do any of the above – you did you bigot.