SBD/February 16, 2011/Franchises

Thrashers Owner Feels "Sense Of Urgency" To Keep Team From Moving

Winnipeg, Quebec, Hamilton mentioned as possible relocation spots for Thrashers

Atlanta Spirit co-Owner Michael Gearon said that there is "now a 'sense of urgency' to find additional investors or a buyer willing to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta," according to Chris Vivlamore of the ATLANTA CONSTITUTION. If the ownership group "does not get additional financial help in the near future the franchise could be sold and moved to another city." Gearon said, "If we are faced with that as the only alternative, that’s what’s going to happen. I don’t think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in losses. We just can’t do it. The reality is we need fans showing up and we need investors, or a primary investor." Vivlamore notes the Thrashers "have long been the subject of speculation that the franchise would be sold and moved with Canadian cities Winnipeg, Quebec City and Hamilton most often mentioned." Gearon said that he is "speaking out about the future of the franchise because he does not want potential investors willing to keep the team in Atlanta to step forward after a sale has been completed." He said, "We need fan support. We need investors. I would love to have other members of the Atlanta community step up and take a lead role in this and I would be glad to stay in. We need support. We’ve put a lot of money into this team" (AJC.com, 2/16).

MOVING ARGUMENT? USA TODAY's Ray Glier in a sports-section cover notes as the Thrashers "try to earn their second playoff berth in 11 seasons," the "noise around whether the team is viable in Atlanta long term grows." Thrashers President Don Waddell said that while the team is "hunting for investors who might want to own a minority or majority stake, the current owners want the team kept in Atlanta." The NHL "has the final word on relocation, and, considering how furiously the league worked to keep hockey in Phoenix, it is dug in with the Thrashers." Atlanta is the "eighth-largest TV market in the league of 30 teams, and the list of corporate businesses with a home in the city is impressive." NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, "We are committed to the markets in which we place our franchises." But he added there is "no doubt that the long-standing ownership dispute" between Atlanta Spirit and former partner Steve Belkin "has damaged this club significantly." The Thrashers' season-ticket base "has dwindled to between 6,000 and 7,000." The team is averaging 13,056 fans at Philips Arena this season, ranking 29th in the NHL. Waddell said that the club "usually makes a heavy marketing push in January but kicked in more marketing money in December with the team thriving." The Thrashers "have put up additional billboards and were advertising on 11 radio stations." Waddell: "We're not a desperate franchise. Does attendance have to be better? Yes. We've been dealing with rumors for three years now about moving, and until we put people in the seats we will probably have to continue dealing with it" (USA TODAY, 2/16).

TIME FOR OUTREACH: In Atlanta, Bill Tiller noted Thrashers season-ticket holders are "beginning to receive their invitations to renew once again." Tiller: "Atlanta is home to a great number of hard-core hockey fans that love the sport and enjoy it live and in person. But the fans here are now 'dealing with' the fact that the same people who have lied to their faces are now sticking their hands out and asking for more of their money." Atlanta Spirit co-Owner Bruce Levenson "should look these people square in the eye and explain why they have repeatedly misled them about their intention to 'dispose' of this team." Tiller wrote, "Meeting face to face with Thrashers fans is the one and only way he and the Spirit Boys can even come close to regaining any of the credibility needed to once more ask these fine people to pony up the funds required to remain" season-ticket holders (AJC.com, 2/15).

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Atlanta Thrashers, Hockey, NHL, Franchises

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