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