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Schultz Claims Thrashers Ownership is Cheap, We Look at the Data

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Jeff Schultz argues that the current ownership doesn't care about the hockey side of the Atlanta Spirit. He echos a perception I've heard from other fans that the current ownership is much more focused on the NBA side of things. The primary evidence in support of this argument is this paragraph:

The Thrashers likely will have a team payroll of about $45 million next season, which projects to be one of the five lowest in the league. Sund’s payroll budget is closer to $65 million. That won’t nearly approach the Lakers’ $85 million, but it will put the Hawks significantly closer to the middle of the pack than the other Philips Arena tenant.

That statement is accurate with respect to the last season. It may or may not be accurate for next season. If Zach Bogosian earns his bonus clauses the Thrashers are very unlikely to finish in the bottom five of the NHL. I also suspect that the Thrashers have left some space to add salary at the deadline if they are in playoff contention.

However, we do have more than one data point available to us. The Atlanta Spirit has owned and operated the Thrashers for four season since the NHL lockout concluded in 2005. That gives us four data points, let's look at ALL of the data available to us. If you look at the chart below you will see that prior to the Atlanta Spirit buying the Thrashers the previous owner AOL-Time/Warner was amazingly cheap with this franchise. The Thrashers annual payroll was low even when compared the bottom 1/3 of the NHL.


The final season under AOL-Time/Warner the base salary of the opening night roster amounted to just $27 million (while the Rangers were spending $70 million). Two years later after the AS took control the payroll jumped from $28 million to $41 million at a time when the rich clubs were cutting their payroll. In fact the Thrashers spent more money in the 2005-06 season than any other NHL franchise as they exceeded the cap upper limit after Peter Bondra earned his bonus money. The following season the Thrashers increased their payroll again and ranked in the upper half of the NHL. The next two seasons the Thrashers essentially held payroll flat as the NHL teams around them spent more. Last season they spent less than the other "poor" clubs in the league--this is the ONLY TIME the Thrashers have spent less than the clubs in the bottom third of the NHL. That's two above average payrolls and two below average payrolls--hardly a consistent pattern of being miserly.

The Atlanta Spirit certainly spent more than the first corporate owners ever did and they have spent big when the opportunity was ripe for it. My assumption is that the Thrashers will remain below average for the coming season to ensure revenue-sharing money. However, I wouldn't be surprised at all if spending rose one year from now. Why? Heading into the 2010-2011 season the salary cap is expected to actually fall and the Thrashers will have a unique opportunity to increase spending and jump into the top 10 in payroll and take a crack at a contending level roster as other rich clubs are forced to pare salary and talent from their roster. The 2010-2011 season will be a golden opportunity--much like the 2005-2006 was a moment when the fiscal playing field was fairly level.

Conclusion: Atlanta Spirit has not been miserly with the Thrashers. I can not guarantee that Atlanta Spirit will spend big in 2010. What I can say is that when the financial playing was most advantageous to them in 2005 they tried to take advantage of that window of opportunity.