Over the past week or so True North Sports and Entertainment have concluded a deal to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers with the stated aim of moving them to the MTS Centre in Winnepeg.
So my hockey twitter feed has been filled with Thrasher fans bemoaning the immanent move of their team. It is a very sad time for a fan, and one I was expecting as a Yotes fan only a month ago! However it also struck me that, isn't all this passion a bit late in the day? Are all these people active Thrasher fans? Or are they only coming out the woodwork now as it looks like the team is gone? Pulling figures from the ESPN website the Thrashers are home one of the smallest fan bases in the NHL. Over the past few years only the Yotes and Islanders see fewer fans in their building. In fact, over the past 4 years the Thrashers have seen their average attendance drop from 15,381 to 13,469, a 12.4% drop. Despite the drop the performance on the ice actually improved, going from 14th in the East to 12th in the East over the same time frame. That would suggest the fans are not turning out for the club, despite the on-ice results getting better.
So why are the Yotes staying put and the Thrashers are on the move?
Well, there is obviously many things that are considered when moving a franchise, not only the level of fan support. Things like the ownership, the city where the team is based, the NHL and other prospective ownership groups and cities. As a UK based NHL fan, looking at average attendances, Atlanta would be the third choice for a move, behind the Isles and Yotes. Here's why I think those two are not moving:
Bottom of the pile in terms of average attendance, the men from Long Island have had the smallest average attendance for 4 out of the 6 years since the lockout. Their 2010-11 season average being 11,059, that alone a 13% drop from the season before. Despite making the post season four times over the past 10 years the Islanders support has never broke 15,000 on average. This to me has them as prime candidates for a move. The difference with the Islanders is, their ownership seems commited to the area, and the NHL too. In fact during all the questions about Winnepeg getting a franchise, the Isles have never been linked. The Isles also have the advantage of having the Rangers/Devils/Flyers and Bruins on their doorstep, whereas the Thrashers have few close rivals. The Islanders also have the prospect of a new rink to look forward too, while that is no given for larger attendances it will help the team bring in extra revenue from things like corporate boxes and hospitality. Something the Nassau Coliseum lacks.
Since moving to the desert the Coyotes have always had one of the smallest fan bases in the NHL, so it was no surprise that questions about its future were raised. The Coyotes ownership has also not been a steady rock, and the current issues have been going for more than a year. The NHL at a time ran the Yotes, and a new deal is in place to put the team back into private hands. With the possibility of stable ownership and a young team, the Yotes look to have a good future ahead. In fact the past two seasons have seen the Yotes make it to the post season, only to fall to Detroit on both occasions. The Yotes moved from their downtown Phoenix home to the purpose built Jobing.com arena during the 2003-04 season and while they never consistently sell out, having a new building must help bring in revenue. Crucially for the Coyotes, the city of Glendale has been active in wanting to keep the Yotes in the desert. Having the city backing must be a big factor in the Yotes staying put.
All of the above could well be utter rubbish, but it's the impression I get this side of the pond from various announcements and press releases. Now i'll give you a few thoughts as to why I think the Thrashers are moving:
The first, and most obvious to me is, the level of support. While the Thrashers average crowd is bigger, just, than that enjoyed by the Yotes and Isles, it is still small. The Thrashers peak attendances came when the reached the conference quarter finals back in 2007. Ever since then crowd numbers have been in decline, falling from over 16,000 to 13,500 in the season just gone. Obviously crowds were not helped when the Thrashers dealt away their biggest star in Kovalchuk but crowd numbers are merely returning to their pre lockout levels. Atlanta is a big city, bigger than Glendale and bigger than Long Island, it has the biggest airport in the world and, much like many an NHL city, has other major league clubs too. So there are plenty of reasons why the Thrashers should enjoy better support but, for what ever reason, they don't. Sport is more often than not, a results business and its possibly due to their lack of success that the Thrashers are not a bigger box office draw. Over the past ten seasons the Thrashers have made the post season once, while the Yotes have made it 3 times and the Isles 4 times! The ownership has been strangely silent during all this speculation about the future of the franchise and, judging by some tweets, could well be partially at fault. Then you have the city itself, as I said above Glendale have been activly involved in the Coyotes and working hard to retain their NHL franchise. You couldnt say the same about the city of Atlanta. It seems, to this un-educated fan, that the ownership and city have done little to prevent this move.
So, it looks like the move is going to happen. Will it be a success? Maybe! The team in Winnepeg looks like it is moving into a 15,000 seat AHL arena which is a little small for an NHL arena. They can be sure of a sold debut season certainly! I do feel sorry for Thrasher fans, being a Phoenix (Manchester) fan I can relate to losing your team, but I also think Winnepeg can be a success. There is hockey tradition in Winnepeg, and I truly believe there should be more Canadian teams in the NHL.
So there's my ramblings, its good to download stuff from the brain to the blog!
Goodby Atlanta, hello Winnepeg!