SBD/June 1, 2011/Franchises

Atlanta Spirit Unable To Find Local Buyer To Keep Thrashers In City

FSN looking to distribute other NHL teams in Atlanta market after Thrashers' departure
Atlanta yesterday became the "first city in the NHL's modern era to lose two teams" after Atlanta Spirit was unable to find a buyer to "keep the team in Atlanta" amid losses pegged at roughly $20M a year, according to Tim Tucker of the ATLANTA CONSTITUTION. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman: "As we have said repeatedly, we don't like to move franchises. But sometimes, we simply have no choice." He added, "To our fans in Atlanta, we are not happy about leaving Atlanta. Please be assured it was never about whether Winnipeg is better than Atlanta. The decision to come to Winnipeg was made only after Atlanta's ownership made the decision that they were going to sell, even if it meant that the club was going to leave Atlanta" (ATLANTA CONSTITUTION, 6/1). Atlanta Spirit co-Owner Michael Gearon said that he "talked with a wide range of wealthy people who he thought might help the Thrashers survive" in Atlanta. He "traced those talks as far back as a December 2007 meeting in Atlanta" with RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie and a July '08 meeting with producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Gearon said that he "remained optimistic of finding a buyer or investor to keep the team in Atlanta until 8 p.m. on May 21, when Thrashers president Don Waddell informed him that the last long-shot potential bidder -- the wealthy widow of a man who had dreamed of owning an NHL franchise -- decided not to proceed." Gearon: "Where we stand is we can't afford to keep funding the losses, and nobody who is financially viable has made us an offer to keep the team in the building." He added, "Fans deserve to be angry. It's an emotional process and I can understand it and appreciate it. Dealing with that with my own family has been brutal" (AJC.com, 5/31). Atlanta Spirit sent a letter to Thrashers fans following the announcement of the sale (AJC.com, 5/31).

TRYING TO FILL THE VOID: The Thrashers averaged an anemic 5,500 HHs per game for their telecasts on FS South this season. In the six seasons since the lockout, the team's telecasts never averaged more than 8,000 HHs. "FS South worked closely with team executives to try to increase interest in the Thrashers, but due to challenges on and off the ice, the marketplace never fully embraced the team," said FSN VP/PR Chris Bellitti. Sources said FSN is looking into distributing other NHL teams in the Atlanta market, including potentially the Hurricanes and Predators (John Ourand, THE DAILY).

GIVEN A FAIR SHOT? In Atlanta, Jeff Schultz wrote, "It's about greed and abandonment, plain and simple. It's about a disingenuous ownership group, which had long lost any semblance of credibility, serving up fans swill and gruel and then wondering why the turnstiles sleep at night." The NHL is "leaving a city that never really was given a chance." Schultz: "Atlanta didn't fail. The franchise failed. ... Bettman will be happy to collect another fat relocation fee, and he'll deliver the same canned, phony speech about how he always believed in this market" (AJC.com, 5/31). ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun wrote, "I don't feel like the Atlanta market was given a real chance had there been proper ownership." ESPN.com's Scott Brunside: "The NHL will never be the same, and this move is likely to create some significant changes in how the NHL looks over the next year" (ESPN.com, 5/31). In Toronto, Damien Cox writes, "How humiliating to have to beat a hasty retreat from Atlanta after only 11 years" (TORONTO STAR, 6/1).
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