As if they ever actually went away, but still...rumors of a Thrashers re-location as early as next season have resurfaced thanks to Canadian boy Darren Dredger on TSN's playoff pre-game show yesterday evening. Dredger claimed that a deal with Matthew Hulsizer is possible to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona, which would immediately shift that National Hockey League's focus to moving the Thrashers to Winnipeg. His comments were backed up by this hardly informative TSN article this afternoon.
These rumors have been swirling for a while now, but this is legitimate do-or-die time for the fate of the Thrashers. Tom Glavine, who won two Cy Young awards for the Braves, spoke up last week in support of the Thrashers, including citing he would be interested in organizing a group of investors to keep the team in Atlanta. His efforts would be superhuman and crucial for the team's existence without a doubt. But the fact that the NHL would move Atlanta over Phoenix is mind-boggling, regardless of a Hulsizer sale or not.
The Thrashers finished 27th in attendance in 2010-2011, an average of 1,200 more per game than the Coyotes and 2,400 more than the New York Islanders. According to a 2010 Forbes article the Thrashers are the 29th most valuable team in the 30-team league, second-to-last to only the Coyotes. The Thrashers are valued at around $135 million, but what is missed here is what they could be valued at.
Citing some recent examples, the Pittsburgh Penguins were valued at $101 million in 2004, falling into bankruptcy and hearing these same relocation rumors. The team drafted well, developed a winner, and are now the 9th most valuable team in the NHL at $235 million. Are the Thrashers in line for a 232% increase in team value? Likely not. But the Thrashers are on a winning track, something that the city of Atlanta will embrace. Nothing will kill a team like bad ownership, and this current ownership group has run the team into the ground. With a new, committed owner in Atlanta and the team on an upward tick, there is no doubt the team could be profitable in the city of Atlanta.
Other teams that struggled in the early 2000s include the Chicago Blackhawks (who saw a $122 million value increase from 2004 to 2010)and the Washington Capitals ($82 million) have all come out of relative financial swoons. The Coyotes, since 2004, are valued at $2 million less over the six year time frame. The Thrashers are worth $30 million MORE over that same time period, which was about when the Atlanta Spirit group bought the team.
The owners claim to be bleeding money, but with all the lawsuits and contempt it's hard to feel sympathy. The team has appreciated in value since their purchase, so even a loss over the last couple of seasons (they definitely didn't lose money in 2005-2006 or 2006-2007 when the attendance averaged over 15,500 both seasons) turns into more or less of a wash considering the appreciation in value. And if the loss of money is so taxing on their wallets, the multi-million dollar lawsuits should probably be avoided as well so as they can make sure there is still food on the table at the end of the day.
The point is this: moving the Thrashers would be a stupid, typical Gary Bettman maneuver. Hockey is growing in Georgia, whether the NHL understands this or not. Since 1998-1999, the year before the Thrashers existence, youth hockey participation in Georgia has grown more per capita than any other state, by quite a bit, in the last decade. Ironically, youth hockey numbers declining in Canada, though all of that is admittedly relative.
While citing youth hockey numbers seems irrelevant, the fact of the matter is this: the Thrashers are helping grow hockey in a non-traditional market and the kids playing youth hockey in Georgia are going to grow up Thrashers fans the same way kids playing in Massachusetts grow up Bruins fans and those in up-state New York become Sabres fans. This is what helps a franchise grow, something the Thrashers have not had sufficient time to do.
It's hard to grow a fan base when there is no tradition. If, and likely when, the Thrashers string together a couple of post-season runs this fan base WILL grow. This is almost undoubted. In Phoenix that hasn't been the case. Despite icing very good teams the past two seasons, attendance numbers have been horrific. Yet, for some reason, the NHL wants to keep the team in Phoenix and exile Atlanta to the doldrums of Winnipeg. It's practically been proven that when the Thrashers have a legitimate playoff contender, people will support them. In 2006-2007, the team's only playoff season, the Thrashers sold out 11 (27%) of their regular season games and played in front of deafening, standing room only crowds in the post-season. The team can and will catch on in Atlanta if the ownership is settled and the team continues it's rise in the NHL's power rankings on the ice.
The last point is a simple one...population. The Atlanta metro area is home to 5,300,000 people according to the 2010 census. Winnipeg is home to just south of 700,000 people according to the 2006 census. The corporate dollars in Atlanta are simply unmatchable by Winnipeg. Atlanta ranks fourth in the United States in Fortune 500 companies. Winnipeg...not so much. The corporate opportunities, if tapped properly, are boundless in Atlanta. Not to mention that Philips Arena was ranked the number five concert and events venue IN THE WORLD according to Pollstar statistics in 2010. Winnipeg would be playing in a dive of an arena that frankly would be a fifth tier rink in comparsion to the fantastic venues around the NHL, let alone Atlanta.
The bottom line is this: moving the Thrashers would be asinine from a growth of the game and a financial perspective. And if time is running out on the Thrashers, it's time for the NHL to look in the mirror and see that fans everywhere are suffering from an ownership inept of running a gas station, let alone a professional hockey franchise.