The Thrashers could be gone because the Spirit, alas, is weak

"Keep this to yourself, Bruce, but we just lost another million." (AJC photo by

"Keep this to yourself, Bruce, but we just lost another million." (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin)

It was a nice idea until they started suing one another, which took just under two years. But in September 2003 the notion of a group with Atlanta ties owning the Hawks and the Thrashers seemed altogether preferable to the thought of a Texas car dealer owning two of our teams and deputizing his brother-in-law to run them.

In the cold light of hindsight, the Texas car dealer has been the only winner in this ongoing mess. David McDavid sued Turner Broadcasting for breach of contract and was awarded $281 million. We locals have been forced to sit and watch as the Atlanta Spirit, which cut in front of McDavid, took two of our teams and have succeeded mostly in trying our patience. And now we’re told these many owners require “outside investors” for the Thrashers to stay here.

Translated: Atlanta is very close to losing another hockey club.

Maybe some angel is willing to lose millions to keep this money-losing team in place, but it’s more likely the Spirit’s mismanagement has ruined Atlanta as a hockey market. In place since 1999, the Thrashers are 28th among 30 NHL teams in attendance. And these Thrashers, working under new on-ice management, have actually been better than usual.

Tuesday will go down as one of the strangest days in Spirit history, which is saying something. At 4:04 p.m., the Thrashers announced they’d signed defenseman Dustin Byfuglien to a five-year extension, which was major news for a franchise that has seen its best players leave in trades forced by impending free agency. Before the night was through, co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. told the AJC’s Chris Vivlamore: “If we are faced with that [selling the team to a buyer who intends to move it] as the only alternative, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Got that? The Thrashers finally find a big-timer willing to stay, and the whole operation could be leaving for Canada.

From the Spirit’s perspective, it can’t be easy watching millions of dollars circle the drain. As noted, the Thrashers’ attendance is lousy, and the Hawks’ isn’t much better. They’re 24th in a 30-team league, down almost 2,000 per home date over last season, and this has been a winning team for three seasons now. And it’s true that money is tighter than in 2003. But the Spirit is to blame for not fostering the belief  that money spent to watch its teams will yield rewarding entertainment.

The Spirit has become the unchallenged master of the mixed message: Over the summer it spent $120 million to keep Joe Johnson but made the career assistant Larry Drew one of the NBA’s lowest-paid head coaches. The Drew promotion has had minimal effect on the team’s record, but it had a massive impact on consumer confidence. Folks threw up their hands and said, “See? They say they’ll spend whatever it takes, and then they go cheap on the coach.”

After finally buying out Steve Belkin, the remaining Spirit owners sent out a self-congratulatory e-mail that made it sound as if they’d won a championship. In truth, losing Belkin might have been the end of the Spirit. He was always viewed as the one owner who had the most ready cash (and, not incidentally, the sharpest lawyers). Banishing the Bostonian was good for corporate harmony, but it didn’t do a thing for the ol’ balance sheet.

It must be noted that the Spirit is seeking financial relief not just for its NHL franchise but for its NBA one, too. There is, however, one difference: This city won’t ever be without pro basketball. Atlanta is headquarters to Turner, one of the league’s TV rights-holders, and also to NBA TV itself. The NBA would sooner move the New Orleans Hornets, over whom the league has assumed ownership, into Philips Arena than let it sit empty.

Which might not be a bad thing. Since 2005 we’ve all been wondering how Chris Paul would look in a Hawks’ jersey.

By Mark Bradley

89 comments Add your comment

rawdawg

February 16th, 2011
4:58 pm

gpr

February 16th, 2011
5:06 pm

Story indicates that the Thrashers are down 4,000 fans from last season. According to ESPN attendance figures, they are down 551 fans from last season:

2009-2010: 13,607
Through 30 games in 2010-11: 13,056

http://espn.go.com/nhl/attendance/_/year/2010/sort/homePct
http://espn.go.com/nhl/attendance

Mark Bradley

February 16th, 2011
5:09 pm

Kudos yet again, rawdawg. You lit the lamp, as it were.

Pauly

February 16th, 2011
5:09 pm

Probably about seventh. The Spirit must go.

Mark Bradley

February 16th, 2011
5:09 pm

And gpr, you’re right. Thanks for the correction. Don’t know what I was looking at.

Iron League 13

February 16th, 2011
5:14 pm

This team has a foot out of the door. That radio interview with Gearon was transparent, he LOOOVES basketball, but not so much hockey. He was was gliding through the interview when talking about the Hawks and exposing his belly and wagging his tail when talking the Thrashers He cleary spoke out of two sides of his mouth between Kincade and Vivs.

Sayonara, Thrashers. It’s been Hell knowin’ ya.

H Dub

February 16th, 2011
5:14 pm

If I hear that commercial about the Hawks having a core that can compete with the elite one more time, I will find Michael Gearon Jr. and punch him in the face.

This whole operation is a joke from gearon to sund to drew.

While I don’t care about the NHL, I would be sad to see the thrashers leave. This city deserves better.

fratdawg

February 16th, 2011
5:20 pm

Hockey is stupid. It is a sport for the GDI’s

Michael Gearon

February 16th, 2011
5:21 pm

Watch out Bradley, I get my lawyers on you. I’m giving the city of Atlanta a one finger salute. Suck it NHL fans.

Magilla Guerilla

February 16th, 2011
5:22 pm

Basketball is even more stupider than hockey, take that fatdawg.

Question for Mark

February 16th, 2011
5:29 pm

Do you think the team would draw better if they played in an arena in the northern suburbs? Most Gladiator games I’ve been too have more people in the seats than at Philips

Stockdog

February 16th, 2011
5:32 pm

I blame AOL for this mess. If they had not merged with TimeWarner, AOL?TimeWarner would not have lost so much value when the DOT-COM bubble burst. Consequently, TimeWarner was forced to sell its assets. So long Braves, Thrashers, and Hawks, Liberty bought the Braves, but at least they have money. The Atlanta Casper Group, I mean Atlanta Spirit Group bought the Thrashers and Hawks instead of the McDavid the used car salesman. At this point, I wish we had the pinto salesman. I think the Thrashers are gone unless the Arizona deal doesn’t go through.

John

February 16th, 2011
5:35 pm

cant we the people buy them Green Bay style

Pesci

February 16th, 2011
5:37 pm

The fact that this story was posted 40 mintues ago and theres only 12 comments, one of which is a “first” and two from you Mr. Bradley show that the NHL and hockey won’t succeed here in Atlanta. If this is about the Braves, Hawks, Dawgs, Falcons or even the stinging nerds there would already be 50+ comments. No one cares about hockey here and that’s just not going to change.

Mark Bradley

February 16th, 2011
5:38 pm

I don’t know, Question for Mark. People seem to find their way to the Dome for the Falcons.

Eb

February 16th, 2011
5:45 pm

The Spirit are, have always been, and will remain misplaced as professional sports owners. They refuse to make the proper investments in players and personnel to build a stable fan base. The Thrashers have never won a playoff game in their 10 year existence and can’t retain any name players. If the fans don’t see a committment to win by ownership, they won’t show up. The Hawks have been a littany of mistakes from draft choices (C Paul), to coaches (Woodson), to GMs (B Knight). I don’t think Woodson or Billy Bumble ever found replacement jobs which says alot about the Spirit’s decision making prowess. Their signing of Joe Johnson to max contract last year epitomizes the defunct decisions this group makes routinely. Johnson is no superstar and flicked the fans off to boot. Who signs a guy like that??

In the end, Atlanta will be better off without the Spirit and their incompetence. There is no chance that any “big Atlanta money” comes in if the Spirit retain decision making authority. That would be the ultimate definition of good money after bad. The only way this works is for Spirit to sell 100% of both teams ( at current market prices) and arena rights to an Atlanta investor. Nobody who actually worked for their millions would ever partner with this group of bafoons.

Sam

February 16th, 2011
5:47 pm

Philips Arena is already empty.

"Chef" Tim Dix

February 16th, 2011
5:48 pm

How much more does the public need to know? The Thrashers were for sale the second the Spirit bought them. Cousins is a basketball guy as are the majority of owners. To sell the hockey team would have given the owners and the Hawks ready cash. But alas, a group of millionaires found out that unless you are a mega millionaire and these things are but meare toys… Wives get antsy.

Richham

February 16th, 2011
5:49 pm

The NBA and the NHL have only themselves to blame for this mess. They could have stepped in and said no to approving this ownership group.

Worst thing to happen to atlanta sports in a long, long time. I would sooner raise Rankin Smith back up to take over the Falcons than this mess we have with the Spirit. Me thinks they bit off a whole lot more than they could chew.

Mel from Atlanta

February 16th, 2011
5:50 pm

So long Thrashers. It was good knowing you. Have a good life.

fla dawg

February 16th, 2011
5:52 pm

wow magilla guerilla, what a sharp wit you have. I sure hope that you didn’t terminally ruin fratdawg with that razor sharp comment.

"Chef" Tim Dix

February 16th, 2011
5:53 pm

Wanna know how bad it is?

Glavine’s a hockey guy and has avoided it like the plague.

Rich T

February 16th, 2011
5:55 pm

**** *** ******* ******!!!!

Rich T

February 16th, 2011
5:55 pm

Now that I got that out of my system, Go to Hell, Spirit.

Rich T

February 16th, 2011
6:02 pm

This ownership group has failed this city and the hockey fans built in, as well as the ones it could have converted. I realize the harsh reality is they will sell and move, but I don’t think I’m out of line to say they owe this city a hockey team that has half a chance of competing. They need to make certain contractually in a purchase that it stays here and has a chance to pay back the fans for all the heartbreak.

Dishwasher

February 16th, 2011
6:03 pm

Chef: You’re wrong. Glavine still attends, but less frequently, because his kids are playing hockey and he’s coaching.

Nice try!

Delbert D.

February 16th, 2011
6:04 pm

Everything would be better in the northern suburbs, right?

NCBravesFan

February 16th, 2011
6:04 pm

It would be nice if the NBA commish would get involved behind the scenes and politely show the ASG the door. They just don’t know how to run and market winning sports franchises.

Hockey would seem to be a tough sell in ATL, but the NBA could be a monster draw here if the right people were in charge of the organization.

blazerdawg

February 16th, 2011
6:06 pm

This is just how it started in Spring 1980 when the Flames left. The Flames had very good attendance for several years, then it declined after numerous playoff losses, then the move once the owner ran out of $.

Now here we are again, the Thrashers set the inaugural season for attendance for any NHL franchise, the Thrashers actually outdrew Chicago’s NHL team the majority of the 11 years here, and now the product declines, attendance declines, and the undercapitalized ownership group has to move the team.

Shame on the NHL to let a few slow years result in taking the team to Canada…of course ESPN will say it is the “lousy sports market”.

I missed the Flames….won’t miss the Thrashers.

robertussen

February 16th, 2011
6:16 pm

if you can't sell tickets

February 16th, 2011
6:22 pm

then why stay? move the thrashers to ohio, hartford, providence, or quebec city

if you can't sell tickets

February 16th, 2011
6:24 pm

fratdawg: c’mon up to boston and strap on some blades. i’ll show ya stupid

blazerdawg

February 16th, 2011
6:25 pm

IYCST – they have sold tickets….they are currently outdrawing one NY area team and are about even with another….take the Isles, the Devils, Coyotes, Blue Jackets, or another team first where the ticket sales have been historically poorer. By this standard the Blackhawks would have been out of Chicago back in 2005 after many seasons of poor ticket sales.

Dawg A

February 16th, 2011
6:33 pm

The ASG led by Jed, Jethro and the rest of the Clamphets!!

Hillbilly Deluxe

February 16th, 2011
6:37 pm

This reminds me of when the Flames left, only much, much worse. It’s a shame; hockey could succeed in Atlanta with decent ownership. The current group has run their franchise and a lot of the fan interest, straight into the ground.

Hollywould

February 16th, 2011
6:39 pm

Here is my question. As Gearon said on 680 the fan how hamstrung they have been for the last five years because of the lawsuits how were they able to give Johnson 120 mill and offer Kovy the same? It makes no sense. If they could write a check for those guys why could they not make a trade or sign a free agent? I asked Kincaide on the radio these two questions,” Why should I believe this guy when he has been telling us for years that they were not trying to sell the Thrashers but when the open records came out it showed they were. Kincaide tells me it’s like owning a car with no title. Because of the litigation they couldn’t do it. BS/then why even try?

John

February 16th, 2011
6:39 pm

The sad, pathetic thing is with half an ounce of common sense in ownership, a city the size of Atlanta should be able to get 18,000 people in the building every night. There are enough transplants from Chicago, Boston, New Jersey, whatever down here to care about hockey. But there’s not even a presence in this city! Games are not televised, and when they’re on the radio you can’t hear it outside the perimeter. Teams don’t win. And when the Thrashers showed some sort of playoff promise, the hockey vibes here were teriffic. More so than in Boston when I lived up there and the B’s were in the playoffs. But with this group of horrible businessmen pretending to care, the fans suffer.

Mark Bradley

February 16th, 2011
6:45 pm

Regarding the Flames: I wasn’t here then, but I’ve always been told their attendance was never the issue.

Reggie

February 16th, 2011
6:46 pm

Go Thrashers…and take that clown Kincaide with you.

BLUELANDbeliever

February 16th, 2011
6:51 pm

First off, PAULY, is ur name james?

Second, i think we all need to take a deep breath and relax a second. im panicking too but we need to chill out. I think we need to have a few rally’s around the city and state to show our love for it personally.

Lastly, i hate that i cant do anything but sit here in my thrashers jersey and read

Ronin

February 16th, 2011
6:56 pm

How about some blame on Waddell? This guy is perhaps the worst GM the NHL has ever seen.

Hillbilly Deluxe

February 16th, 2011
6:57 pm

Mark @ 6:45

That’s true but the vibe and the two-stepping by ownership (we’re not going anywhere, the team isn’t for sale………scratch that we’re selling the team) is very similar, from what I remember. Poor Jiggs MacDonald was vehemently denying the team would be sold, right up until it did sell. They were never straight with him either.

Mark Bradley

February 16th, 2011
7:00 pm

It’s kind of like a college player and the draft: He always says he’s staying right up until the moment he leaves

"Chef" Tim Dix

February 16th, 2011
7:01 pm

Dishwasher: Glavine if so inclined I BELIEVE, could buy and sell the the ASG 10x over.

If not, could line up investers at the drop of a hat.

S'paw_99

February 16th, 2011
7:02 pm

A couple of people have had good points, Glavine is a hockey guy. I wonder if U could get him to get involved somehow & help keep the Thrashers here. He made a lot of $, but I honestly doubt he has enough to buy them, but I bet him & Blank could do it together. I truly believe that hockey can succeed in Atl, but us fans have to feel like the ownership/management is committed to putting a quality product on the ice. We believe in Blank’s commitment to Win, that’s why people go to the Falcons games.

"Chef" Tim Dix

February 16th, 2011
7:07 pm

A guy like Glavine smart. No TV rev = gate draw= gaping money hole.

As a league, on a national stage, the NHL is a farse.

"Chef" Tim Dix

February 16th, 2011
7:11 pm

“Hockey doesn’t translate well to TV.” It’s an overstated comment.

Undisputable: It ranks behind the WWE.

Buzzeng

February 16th, 2011
7:33 pm

Let’s get real. Who, in their right mind, would invest in a team to join a bunch of proven failures who only seem to be good at one thing – initiating lawsuits against each other and even their lawyers – and lousy at what they are supposed to be doing – winning games. Who in their right mind would join these spirit-deflating owners when they can’t even write a contract with terms they, themselves, can live under during its term? Who in their right mind would want to invest in a team (or even two teams) that the current owners can’t operate without losing so much money?

As I see it, the team only gets sold to a new owner. Hopefully, that new owner is in Atlanta. No one should have to live through losing two NHL teams in their life.

just sayin

February 16th, 2011
7:36 pm

Hey, contact David McDavid. He’s got an extra 281 million laying around. Keep in mind he was ready to buy the Thrashers BEFORE he got the 281 million in the law suit.

save the birds

February 16th, 2011
8:05 pm

Glavine and Stewart Cink!!! Guys….you have resources and address books! Go get an ownership group together!!!!