Let’s say the Atlanta Spirit sells the Thrashers, who move to Winnipeg or wherever. Let’s say the Spirit decides to keep the Hawks — perhaps with an infusion of cash from new co-owners, perhaps with just these same guys running one fewer franchise. Would that be the worst possible result for Atlanta?
Wait, wait. Don’t all scream at once.
The Spirit has done a lousy job with the hockey club. On this we can agree. But the Hawks have won a playoff series in each of the past three seasons. Alongside their Atlanta sports brethren, that should make them kings of our city. (Falcons: No playoff victories since January 2005. Braves: No postseason series victories since October 2001.)
Has the Spirit made strange decisions? Absolutely. It overpaid for Joe Johnson — overpaid twice, if you listened to Steve Belkin back in 2005 — and underpaid for Mike Woodson’s successor. But in March 2004 the Spirit took ownership of a team that would finish 13-69 the next season, and seven years later we deemed a 44-38 regular season a raging disappointment.
Esteemed colleague Tim Tucker reported yesterday that the Spirit has entered into an exclusive negotiating period with John Moores regarding the sale of the Hawks and Philips Arena. We stress that no deal is imminent, but we also need ask: Would he be an upgrade?
Moores has owned the San Diego Padres since 1994. He has been forced to scale back his interest in the club because he and his wife divorced, and California law divides assets straight down the severed marital line. He’s still listed as chairman, but his ownership stake is being reduced over a five-year purchase plan. Moores has moved to Houston and is rarely seen around the Padres’ PETCO Park, the stadium he helped get built.
The Padres have had seven winning seasons and won four division titles over Moores’ 16-plus years as owner. They reached the 1998 World Series by beating the Braves. Under Moores, the Padre payroll has never ranked higher than 14th among the 30 MLB clubs, and 10 times it has been 20th or lower. (This according to USA Today’s handy salary database.) It was 29th in 2009 and 2010 and is 27th now. Fun fact: The Padres are paying $25 million less for their current roster than the Hawks spent on their 2010-2011 squad — and a baseball team has 10 more men.
Moores served as chairman of the board of Peregrine Systems, which filed for bankruptcy in 2003. He reportedly sold $600 million in Peregrine stock before the filing but was, as an outside director, found not to have had knowledge of a price-inflating scheme that led to sentences being brought against 13 others. Also: His gifts — from airline tickets to use of a vacation home — to San Diego city councilwoman Valerie Stallings led to her resignation in 2001 but resulted in no charges against the Padres owner.
To his credit, Moores has shown a knack for hiring good baseball men: From Larry Lucchino (now of the Red Sox) as CEO and president to Kevin Towers (now of the Diamondbacks) as general manager to Bruce Bochy (now of the Giants) as manager. But Moores isn’t apt to throw money at a team to make it better, and even if he were the NBA has a salary cap.
For all the nits we can pick with the Spirit, spending for players isn’t among them. The Hawks had the NBA’s seventh-highest payroll this season. (The Chicago Bulls had the 26th-highest.) We can and will argue over whether the Spirit has bought the right players, but we must also note that this spending has been done without much help at the gate. The Hawks ranked 22nd in attendance.
As much as we love to lampoon the Spirit — I’m as guilty as anyone — its ownership of the Hawks hasn’t been wretched. If these owners hadn’t started suing each other over the Johnson sign-and-trade; if the resulting litigation hadn’t keep the Spirit from selling the Thrashers to a more interested buyer five years ago; if GM Billy Knight had only drafted Deron Williams as opposed to Marvin Williams … well, perception would be rather different.
Belkin is finally out of the mix, and the Thrashers might be soon. Left to run just the Hawks, the Spirit might not seem so ham-handed. This team could get better under John Moores, who’s said to prefer basketball to baseball, but there’s no guarantee. Sometimes we get carried away and insist the Hawks have stunk forever, but the cold truth is that they haven’t stunk for a while now. The Spirit deserves some credit, does it not?
By Mark Bradley