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Thrashers Steadily Destroying Their Own Brand

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The Thrashers are headed for their 11th entry draft next summer. For 10 of those 11 years the Thrashers have sat in the first row of tables (reserved for those teams with the lowest points the prior season). Slowly, year-by-year and step-by-step the appetite for NHL hockey is being killed off in this city.

Atlanta has 5 million people, almost 1 million of them were born up in cold weather states (Atlanta has nearly as many Yankee-born as the Buffalo area). Many of these Yankee-born people know and like hockey. Many of the transplants grew up rooting for other teams (for me it was the Red Wings). In a city filled with transplants you have to give the locals a compelling reason to get excited about the local product. Year after year the Thrashers have branded themselves as losers.

But nobody is coming to games anymore.

Heck, even I'm not going to all the home games anymore. It used to take something like the Black Death to keep me away, but this year I've missed four home dates already. I'm probably one of the biggest die hard fans around, but increasingly I have to push myself to care about yet another losing season. I skipped both home games this week to go play ice hockey -- and I don't regret it.

I don't care what the announced attendance is -- just look at your television and you can see row after row with big swatches of empty seats. Weeknights have always been tough in a city like Atlanta. The urban sprawl makes for a hellish commute for many people (yet the Thrashers moved the games up to 7:00 from 7:30 on weeknights). But now even weekend games are not that full.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Thrashers gave away kids jerseys at a matinee game versus the Blues. Usually weekend games + holiday weekend + great giveaway = sellout. Not this time. I walked into the game right before puck drop and they still had boxes of kids jerseys available. Just two hours before game time, a season ticket holder friend of mine called up and offered me four lower bowl seats. I had already purchased a $10 single, but I took him up on his offer and found three people to join me. I ended up giving away the single to a stranger because a $10 ticket has zero resale value.

My friend said "they just comped me four tickets for some reason." I suspect that the reason was advance sales were "not good" and they figured getting a few more bodies in the building and would at least net them some concession money.

The prices keep getting cheaper and cheaper for tickets. For five years I purchased full season tickets. In most years it was my primary entertainment expenditure. To have NHL season tickets was a dream of mine since I was a 15-year-old kid envious of those ticket holders in Joe Louis Arena in Michigan.

The Thrashers were bad when I first bought, but I was patient and the tickets were cheap. I rejoiced in the victories and sorrowed in the many many losses. But I figured better days were ahead and we would someday have great seats for playoff games. But the good days never arrived and every year we had to deal with drunk college students with discounted tickets in front of us standing up in the middle of the play like they were at a Braves game and the pitcher was up to bat. Every year the people sitting around us paid less than what we had.

Last year was the final straw as a friend of mine was able to get discounted tickets for almost every game including weekends. I decided that if the franchise was offering a better deal for single tickets I would take that route. I'd rather be the savvy consumer than feel like a sucker 10 games into the season. (Note: I have no problem paying more money for a better hockey product, I just have a problem with paying more money that others for the same hockey product.)

So far it has worked out great. I have yet to pay more than $25 for a game. I've received numerous free tickets, bought them for less than half price on the secondary market. When that fails ordered them through the local hockey league which offers heavy discounts.

Yet even despite the cheap de facto prices, nobody is coming to games. If you're a NHL owner you look at home dates with the Red Wings and Penguins as money makers because you expect a full house. But not even Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could sell out Philips Arena on a Thursday evening in November. The Penguins are returning this Thursday and I just received an special offering price cuts for this game as well.

What will happen next to NHL hockey in this city? Consider the following:
  • The New Jersey Devils were absolutely terrible for years and then they hired Lou Lamoriello and they became a contender.
  • The Washington Capitals were shockingly bad for years before they hired David Poile and Bryan Murray and became a perennial playoff club.
  • The Tampa Lightning were brutal for years until they fired GM Phil Esposito and hired some more competent management.
Will the Thrashers ownership make the major changes that are required. Will they recruit away the Sharks Director of Scouting? Will they find a new GM who has more than IHL experience to run a NHL team?

Or will the Atlanta Thrashers join the ranks of the Oakland Seals--a terribly managed franchise that eventually left that city and finally disbanded in Cleveland? The truth is that the franchise is certainly losing millions of dollars. Those loses will become even larger next season because the Thrashers have zero chance of hitting their revenue sharing goals and therefore they will receive less money from other clubs. Whoever wins the ownership lawsuit could easily blame the fans and complain that "hockey just didn't sell in Atlanta" and try to move the team. But the truth is Atlanta is just as capable of supporting a NHL team as Dallas or Tampa--but you have to win some games to draw people in.

As a fan, there is nothing I can do but wait for ownership to make the HUGE changes that will reinvigorate the NHL in this city. People are tired of losing and they're not coming back until there is a team worth spending their money on.

I can rant and rave but ultimately leadership must come from the top. If ownership intends to compete and win a Stanley Cup someday, they ought to speak about their plan for the future. If folks over at the team headquarters read this, I'm sure they would dispute the charge that there is no plan--but they need to TELL US what they are doing. (And "I'm working as hard as I can every day" does not constitute a plan--that's just a good work ethic.)

Last year Bruce Levenson was a very vocal (some would say too vocal) presence around Philips Arena. This year we've heard almost nothing from management and ownership about their plans for the future. The lack of communication leaves us fans confused and discouraged--and increasingly--absent.

"Where there is no vision, the people perish." Proverbs 29:18