In less than one week the lawsuit between the feuding members of the Atlanta Spirit (sic) will have their day in court. Ten years from now, when people look back at the history of this franchise, they will likely consider the outcome of this trial the most important Thrashers-related event between the 2008 NHL draft and the 2009 NHL draft.
Why is this so important? Because it will end the prison sentence for NHL fans in Atlanta. The harsh reality is that the entire 2008-09 Thrashers season amounts to a marking time in a holding cell.This franchise is dead in the water.
The current group will not replace GM Don Waddell. They are not spending money on upkeep for the building. Philips Arena which is only ten years old has many un-repaired lights and broken toilet seats in the restrooms. The organization is offering every discount imaginable this season to scrap up every loose dollar bill. All that matters right now is reducing the owners operating losses--even if heavily discounted seats creates long term damage to season ticket sales. Stemming the tide of red ink has been the highest organizational priority until the ownership question is resolved.
If you're a fan of NHL hockey this season essentially amounts to watching Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little and Boris Valabik develop as players while the Thrashers "earn" yet another top 5 NHL draft pick with a bottom five payroll. Hockey fans who prefer to watch victories rather than players development have chosen to sit on the sidelines. Big NHL fans in this city have stopped buying season tickets (I can easily list off 10 long-term STH that quit buying this year). Fans who used to never miss a game now only attend intermittently. We're all waiting for some signal that this franchise intends to compete.
While the fans pass on donating their money to a team that will finish in the bottom 5 of the league (again), the "World's Most Expensive Pissing Contest" waits to be resolved. A group of very rich men and their expensive litigators maneuver and plot to legal strategies instead of hockey strategies. At the conclusion of this off-ice brawl one group will be crowned champion...and the "champ" will owe the other group a huge amount of money. Given the the current economic climate it is possible the happiest party is whichever side loses control of the teams but wins the right to receives millions in compensation.
On the one side you have the Washington and Atlanta parts of the Spirit Group who lacked sufficient capital to buy the Thrashers and Hawks on their own back in 2003-2004. So they brought in the Bostonian Steve Belkin who had even more money from his credit card logo company (wonder how that is business is doing right now).
At this point, it is impossible to know who will win the battle. But here are a few things we can be fairly certain of.
- The Thrashers/Hawks/Philips Arena are worth more than they cost to purchase. So someone is about to realize a significant capital gain.
- The operating losses of the Thrashers/Hawks/Philips Arena were much more than anticipated. So the Washington/Atlanta owners have lost a small fortune over the last five years.
- The rich men fighting over these shiny toys are not nearly as rich as they were before the stock market fell 40%, the economy tanked and the Madoff scandal hit.
- Whomever wins the lawsuit probably will need to sell either part or all of the franchises to either recoup business losses or to pay off the lawsuit "loser" and gain cash to operate the teams in a competitive fashion.
Despite the fervent desire of some Canadian hockey fans, the Thrashers are very unlikely to move to Southern Ontario. Why? The Hawks and Philips Arena are legally bound together. Whomever ends up owning Philips Arena stands to lose millions of dollars in rent and naming rights revenue if the Thrashers were moved. That's a powerful reason to find a buyer who will keep them in town.
Conclusion: Thrasher fans, your sentence is winding down. We've all been marking time while the attorneys racked up their billable hours on this thing, but eventually there will be an outcome and eventually we will see change. I don't know the day nor the hour, but change is in the air and I can smell it.