Should the Thrashers leave for Manitoba, ours would become the first American city to lose two NHL franchises. Word of the pending sale has spawned yet another round of Atlanta-is-a-lousy-sports-town boilerplate harrumphing, and again I pause to ask: Are we a lousy sports town?
The Thrashers were 28th among 30 NHL teams in attendance last season. The Hawks were 22nd among 30 NBA clubs. The 2010 Braves made the playoffs for the first time since 2005, and their attendance ticked upward from 15th to 13th among the 30 baseball teams. (The average Turner Field crowd grew by 1,685 year over year.)
Of note: The 2010 Falcons, who had the NFL’s second-best record, were 15th among 32 teams in attendance and 19th in capacity at 95.3 per cent. But the Falcons’ average gate was 67,850. Put it this way: Over their last full seasons, the average Braves, Hawks and Thrashers crowds together still fell 6,000 below the Falcons’ yield.
That’s instructive. Since 2004, Hawks and Thrashers fans have faced a shared dilemma: Do I buy tickets and support the team even if it means endorsing the maladroit Atlanta Spirit? Since 2007, the Braves have been owned by faceless Liberty Media of faraway Colorado. (Last week Liberty Media offered $1 billion to buy Barnes & Noble; the Braves’ payroll remains under $90 million.)
My point: The only local pro sports owner who inspires any confidence is Arthur Blank. We’re more inclined to support the Falcons because we believe they’re well run. About the other teams, it can be tough to know. Example: Frank Wren signed Derek Lowe to a four-year contract paying $60 million in January 2009 and was trying to dump him 10 months later. Another: The Hawks paid $120 million to keep Joe Johnson in the same summer they promoted Larry Drew to head coach at a cut-rate price.
My question: If we have qualms about a team’s management, are we wrong for keeping our money in our wallets? Isn’t that essentially what Americans do every election — vote our pocketbooks?
Addressing Thrashers fans, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on a radio show Thursday: “I understand that there may be dissatisfaction [with ownership] there, but 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.”
So Bettman’s recommendation would be to spend money on a bad product just so somebody else might come along and snap it up? In what solar system is he living?
News flash: Money’s tighter than it was in 2005, or in 2000, or in 1995. For a family of four, a game at Philips Arena can run more than $200. (A trip to Turner Field can be done for less.) At a time of lower income and higher prices, the issue becomes: Do we need to go watch this team play in person? For many Atlantans, the teams that meet that criterion tend to be based on college campuses.
Whenever I’m hit with the Atlanta-is-a-lousy-sports-town line, that’s my rebuttal: We might not be the best pro sports city, but we’re the absolute best for college football. All you need do is drive around the Perimeter on an autumn Saturday morning and you’ll see the festooned cars bearing Fulton and DeKalb and Cobb and Gwinnett plates headed for Athens and Auburn and Knoxville and Tuscaloosa and Clemson and Columbia and Tallahassee and Gainesville. (And yes, for North Avenue, too.)
In our love for college football, we’re different from Boston or Philadelphia or New York or Miami or L.A. (Among big cities, Dallas would be the closest to us, but it’s not really close.) Our sporting priorities are those autumn Saturdays. As Gary Stokan, the president of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, says: “Our two biggest pro teams are Georgia and Georgia Tech.”
Last year I asked Michael Adams, Georgia’s president, how Sanford Stadium kept playing to capacity crowds in an uncertain economy. “For our folks,” he said, “[football tickets] are second to the mortgage.”
It would be nice if a pro team grabbed us by the lapels and made us care — the Braves did it in 1991, and the Falcons did it with Michael Vick — but that’s the job of the team. It’s not on us.
That more folks haven’t turned up to see the Thrashers lose doesn’t make us lousy civic stewards. Gary Bettman might not be happy with us, but he has to admit we’re savvy shoppers.
By Mark Bradley