One of the biggest complaints from Thrashers fans throughout the relocation process has been the perplexity around the sale of their franchise. While the NHL appeared to do everything in its power to ensure another season for the Coyotes in Arizona, the same dogged determinate was noticeably lacking in Atlanta. From an outsider, the road from sale, to purchase, to relocation seemed like a rushed affair that was little more than an afterthought. Once the city of Glendale stepped up to save the Coyotes for another season, the attention turned to Atlanta—and the deal was done before you could say “relocation fee.”
Today Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution had a length interview with the NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman regarding the sale and subsequent relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers. The great piece talked about the city of Glendale, the differences between the two situations (Coyotes vs. Thrashers), and any possible future for the NHL in Atlanta. Here are some of the highlights from Vivlamore’s interview with Bettman:
“In this case, the franchise wasn’t economically viable. We are not happy about it. The litmus test is: Does someone want to own the franchise? The Raine Group and current ownership were completely unsuccessful in their efforts to find a local buyer.”
We had high hopes in 1997. This is obviously not the result we envisioned or we wouldn’t have come. How we got to this position involves a number of issues and that’s why we find ourselves in the current situation.
We haven’t moved a franchise in 14 years. I think every other league has relocated a team in that span. Sometimes, as much as you hate to do it, it’s a reality. I don’t think it is a black eye on the league. I don’t think it’s a black eye on Atlanta.”
In classic Bettman form, he was able to answer just about every single question without really saying much of anything. He was willing to admit that Atlanta Spirit contributed to the team’s failure in Atlanta—but also stressed that there were a variety of reasons the team was sold to True North. Most importantly, he mentioned that the Atlanta Spirit Group had hired a firm to actively seek a buy for the franchise; since the Coyotes had not hired a firm pre-bankruptcy and were now owned by the league, they were looking for ownership groups on the team’s behalf. Some fans in Atlanta will say the team never truly looked aggressively for a local ownership—but the chance remains there were no qualified parties that were interested in the area.
Obviously, any league trying to exude stability will be hesitant to approve relocation. But as Bettman correctly states, they aren’t the only sports league that has seen teams move from city to city recently. Fans are quick to point out that the Thrashers and Coyotes are sunbelt teams that have struggled at the box office and to take root in the community. But for teams like Phoenix and formerly Atlanta, there are also success stories like the Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes. Both have good attendance, are successful on the ice, and have seen hockey grow at the grassroots level in their markets. Atlanta’s major problem is that Atlanta Spirit Group didn’t help to grow the sport in the local market. Forget the team—they didn’t promote the sport.
As usual, the fans who believed in the sport (and their team) are the ones who lose in the deal. The fans who bought in to the idea that hockey could work in Atlanta, the ones who bought the tickets and merchandise; the fans who contributed the money that helped keep the team afloat for 14 years—the people who cared. Those are the people who lose when a team is relocated. For the rest of the sports fans in Atlanta, life goes on like nothing happened. In a way, they’re validated for never getting into the temporary,