24 April, 2014


Bettman’s Southern Chickens, Coming Home To Roost

I want hockey, at its highest level, hosted only where it is loved — not where it’s the whim marketing experiment of an expansion-impulsive commissioner, but rather where it’s loved. It has to be this way, because hockey will ever encounter regional biases and prejudices and durable conflicts of culture; it is at its essence a winter sport, and for many regions in North America, winter never arrives. In and of itself that isn’t necessarily damning for hockey’s growth, but it is daunting. To grow hockey’s broad appeal we need to showcase it in high definition in hothouses of love.

One of which isn’t Atlanta.

The story of the Atlanta Thrashers really is pretty much the same with that of the Atlanta Flames: a long-odds experiment carried off for about a decade before largely vast vistas of rink emptiness. “Many nights the Thrashers played in front of great wastelands of empty chairs at futuristic Philips Arena, located downtown beside CNN headquarters and the Centennial Olympic Plaza,” the Canadian Press noted yesterday.

Although with the Thrash you ought to acknowledge that in the persons of Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa there were top-flight superstars wearing the team sweater, in their prime . . . and still it didn’t matter. There are of course superb hockey fans in Atlanta. There just aren’t enough of them.

Big league hockey has now failed twice in Atlanta. It should be a cold day in August there before it’s located there again. The Atlanta Spirit are the boogeymen of the moment in that town, but in time the Atlanta Journal Constitution will reflect on the failure with greater sobriety and perspective. Or maybe not. More importantly, we need our commissioner to reflect thusly.

Ultimately, he’s the figure to blame for hockey going up in flames in Atlanta. Hockey never belonged in Atlanta. You can’t quite imagine eight or ten buses filled with Atlanta hockey fans driving up 95 to take in a Saturday night Islanders game next season, can you?

Did you behold Bettman’s constipation-like countenance yesterday in Manitoba, at the presser confirming the worst-kept secret in the history of the NHL? If it wasn’t a look of constipation, it surely was one of ‘My eldest daughter just texted me from a tattoo parlor in Vegas, where she’s apparently eloping with a roadie for a gangster rap band.’

In his nearly 20-year tenure as NHL commissioner, yesterday in Manitoba won’t rank among the highlight moments for Gary Bettman.

Nor should it.

Hours before the start of the Stanley Cup finals the commissioner was out in the Canadian prairie, explaining (sort of) how it was that a top 10 U.S. market had rejected his marketing experiment. Yesterday in Manitoba was a seminal moment for the NHL, and it ought to have been one for the league’s owners and their unflinching conviction in the branding wisdom of their commish. It was Gary Bettman, the NBA marketing genius, who sold them on this notion that hockey can pretty much be plopped down anywhere in the U.S. and succeed just fine. Today we know with certainty that it cannot.

I’m very happy this summer for the hockey-loving people of Winnipeg, but some core questions emerge from news like yesterday’s, and they ought to be grappled with by the owners promptly. Foremost among them:

  • Is NHL hockey a 30-market enterprise? And if it is, should a glut of franchises be located well south of the Mason Dixon Line?
  • Also: Irrespective of lease agreements, how much arena emptiness, over successive years, is too much emptiness?
  • Lastly (for the moment): If there is to be additional, dramatic market correction, and associated realignment, is Gary Bettman the guy we want carrying it off?

There was, too, a conspicuously ominous backdrop to yesterday’s news, and it too offers another referendum front for this commissioner. For most sensible people, there is an inevitability of failure to be found as well in the Arizona desert for NHL hockey. The Coyotes put a few more fannies in their seats than the Thrashers did (I think), but their rink is stupidly situated, virtually impossible to access by car from Phoenix in rush hour. Kinda like old Capital Centre was. And like Atlanta, there is no root infrastructure buttressing the big league club, no flowering youth and high school hockey scene driving hockey parents and hockey playing kids to the games. There is with the Phoenix Coyotes the fairly broadly held belief that this spring they stayed their ultimate execution by merely a year, that where we were with the Thrashers the past few weeks is where we’ll be with Phoenix in a year’s time, maybe sooner. Just as no notable deep pockets showed up to bail out the Thrash in their town, none ever seem to out in the desert for that hockey club. For good reason.

Strike two for this commish. Anyone wanna bet the bleeding stops with Phoenix?

In recent years I’ve come to the conviction that hockey can not only survive but thrive in non-traditional markets, but that a root infrastructure of support must take hold in these uncommon outposts. Hockey is an expensive sport to play, an expensive sport to patronize 40-plus times a season. It helps a lot to have it located in a community of affluence. Washington passes this test with flying colors. We actually have kids here on travel teams who go up against top competition in New England, the upper Midwest, and Canada and win games. As a community, we invest well in the development of our hockey players, relatively new to the sport though we are, and that investment is paying dividends. DeMatha’s hockey team competed in a top-flight tournament in Maine last season, around the holidays, and the Maryland high school surprised a lot of New Englanders with their competitiveness. DeMatha’s first two lines can often compete with those of many of New England’s power schools. They lose games up there with their third and fourth lines. It’s an issue of depth. I bet that gap closes in the next five or six years.

We aren’t a hockey town merely because we say we are, and we will be one after Alexander Ovechkin retires. And Gary Bettman had nothing to do with our becoming one.



19 Comments

  1. Harriette Hall wrote:

    The fans were not to blame in Atlanta. It was the ownership and organization who never wanted to buy a hockey team…Please have sympathy for the fans who love hockey and feel like we have been kicked to the Southern pavement.

    1 June, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  2. DMG wrote:

    Too much of the credit/blame for Southern expansion and relocation gets hoisted on Bettman, in my opinion. The league had already started moving South, and Bettman finished it off, rightly or wrongly.

    I’m not sure why you think Atlanta can’t have the same transformation that Washington did – realistically a lot of the criticisms thrown at Atlanta recently are very similar to ones D.C. was hearing as late as a few years ago.

    Disagree on the “root infrastructure” issue, at least in Atlanta (I can’t speak to Phoenix). There are a number of travel teams in the Atlanta area – pretty good ones, too – and a Junior B team that went 27-0-(0)-1, outscored their opponents 186-25, and is planning to move to Junior A. Different areas, and different stages in my life, but I think Atlanta has more in youth hockey now than D.C. did when I was growing up there.

    I don’t think that Atlanta’s the best hockey market by any stretch, but I do think it, and other Southern cities, are unfairly criticized. We’ve seen terrible teams and terrible ownership kill interest in the NHL in Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago, Boston, Long Island, heck, even in Minnesota. What happened in Atlanta was just as bad as any of those, on and off the ice.

    I’m happy for the people of Winnipeg, and I hope for their sake that the team is successful and winds up being viable economically, but I think it’s a shame the NHL is out of Atlanta. A city with so many people, so much money, and the capital of the country’s fastest growing region has huge untapped potential, the way Washington, San Jose, Dallas, or even Los Angeles did not all that long ago, and a successful team there would have been great for the league.

    1 June, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink
  3. beeman wrote:

    An odd editorial, at first arguing the soundness of Bettman’s expansionist dream, then seeming to justify the DC market in the event of league contraction. BTW, why did the Jets leave Winnipeg initially?

    I, for one, would like to see continued pressure on Leonsis to toughen up the Caps. If that works, it doesn’t matter who or where we play. If it doesn’t, we’ll see how large a hard-core nucleus we have “south of the Mason-Dixon line”.

    1 June, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink
  4. Rich wrote:

    Atlanta’s fans are amazing, but they are too few and far between. Struggling teams don’t end up being relocated because they are mismanaged and have weak ownership. If that was the case then there would no longer be a team playing on Long Island and possibly even New York City. Both the Islanders and Rangers have had to deal with long stretches of failure in the very recent past.

    Still, both teams remained in business without having to relocate because there are owners willing to make sacrifices to keep hockey in these places. This is not the case in Atlanta. If there was someone willing to keep a team in Atlanta, they would have done so.

    No matter how great the fans are, and Thrashers fans are as amazing as they come, there needs to be people willing to take a financial risk on hockey in Atlanta.

    Maybe they should try an AHL team for a while, I hear the Manitoba Moose need to relocate!

    1 June, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  5. I’ve friends in Atlanta, and for years they’ve told me, ‘When it comes to pro sports, we’re not tier I.’ This is a refrain I’ve encountered widely this spring about this town. Atlanta’s a big, big metro region, with plenty of disposable income, but for whatever reason, at the pro sports level, conspicuously, they don’t impress. I think you would have to rate the Atlanta Braves’ organization, for instance, as one of the better run ones in all of sports the past quarter century. I think I know what Camden Yards would look like were the Braves’ brass running that team the past decade. Yet down there, it’s legion, the difficulty that organization has selling out playoff games! Anyway, the market with respect to hockey in Atlanta has now spoken twice.

    1 June, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  6. Mike Rucki wrote:

    A big factor in the Jets’ relocation to Phoenix was the horribly weak Canadian dollar at the time. I don’t think the Jets fans ever thought it could happen in a million years — a Canadian team moving to the desert?!?

    The most interesting aspect of this from the Capitals’ perspective is a “Southeast” division rival whose home is now 1,560 miles away… think of the players’ frequent flier miles! Detroit, the most-traveled team in the NHL, must be enjoying this twist.

    1 June, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  7. NHL_Observer wrote:

    Atlanta was a ridiculous place to return NHL hockey to from the start of Experiment #2. The only thing Atlanta had going for it was a huge TV market and exposure regionally on Turner South. The NHL saw deep pockets in Ted Turner and Time Warner and hoped that the free flowing cash and media exposure would help develop a National Footprint for a Network TV Contract. There was no anticipation that the Thrashers/Hawks/Arena would get dumped within six years to 8 guys who hate each other, or that the team would be run into the ground by bad drafting and mediocre management. You can’t really blame the fans, because they came out with enthusiasm at the start, when the team was awful. When it appeared that Atlanta Spirit was not going to spend money to attract higher-end free agents, the handwriting was on the wall for the fans, and they started to stay home.

    All things being equal though, youth and senior hockey did not explode in Atlanta and there was not a surge in rink building when the Thrashers were there, like it has in DC or Philly over the last 40 years. No new fans were really created in Atlanta and the interest in the team stagnated. Is that the fate of the Coyotes? I’m not sure it’s anymore their fate than that of the Florida Panthers, who are wallowing in yet another rebuilding, and still not growing a new fan base. I would even be willing to bet that that the Kansas City Panthers exist before the Seattle Coyotes or the Quebec City Islanders. People actually are interested in buying the Coyotes, if the deal is sweet enough. Interest in Miami and Long Island is dwindling pretty fast.

    One last point, the court of public opinion does not write Gary Bettman’s paycheque. The owners do, and he’s made them more money than any of his predecessors. He’s staying as long as the bottom line gets better every year, no matter how many land mines like Atlanta he steps on. There’s a fat new US TV deal that he’s just squeezed out of Comcast/NBC for the next few years. There is a building in KC that needs a tenant and Seattle, Baltimore, Hartford and Quebec City are looking for ways to build new arenas to attract the tenants, and the Islanders are desperately seeking a solution to build themselves a new house on Long Island. Gary Bettman’s mandate is to increase the profits of the owners, and if that means moving two or three teams over the next five years, or locking the players out in two years to get a bigger cut of the revenue pie, nobody gives a damn about how much non-NHL owners hate Gary Bettman. The greatest threat to Gary Bettman isn’t public opinion, it’s a weak Canadian Dollar, which is currently worth 3% more than the US Dollar. He’s not going anywhere.

    1 June, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  8. Provocative and much appreciated input, Observer. The Miami market, for obvious reasons, interests me the most now. Vast and durable emptiness, joined by durable rebuilding, bad drafting. Equals bad formula, I think. I know many folks think that the Thrash’s position in the Southeast will easily be filled by an East-moving club from out West in a year’s time. Maybe. But I think the division as a whole is in fragile territory. More market corrections coming, I think.

    1 June, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  9. NHL_Observer wrote:

    Hockey can work in non-traditional markets, with an important caveat: You better win fast. Carolina is struggling right now, because the team has had three down years in a row. They have built a good fan base and recreational hockey has taken off in Raleigh, but Peter Karmonos is looking for at least a strong local minority investor, in order to stop his own personal bleeding. The downturn in Raleigh is reversable, as long as Jim Rutherford can get the team back into the playoffs sooner than later.

    Nashville had a good first few years for attendance, but interest waned when the team didn’t make the playoffs quickly, and the money problems accelerated. The team has dodged that bullet for the moment, because they have finally started to do some post-season damage. I don’t know that this has translated into more kids and adults playing hockey or getting more people involved in the game.

    Miami got a fan-friendly jolt early in their existance, because they got the finals in the mid-90′s, but that is a distant memory. They’ve burned through coaches, GMs and owners faster than players. The player development cupboard is pretty bare and the team might not last in Miami to finish this rebuild. Nobody cares about the Panthers, as long as College Football, the NBA and the NFL produces a winning product. It’s too easy to spend money on a WINNING product.

    The one team that nobody really talks about, because they are largely non-descript, is Columbus. That situation should probably be watched more closely. There are murmers that they are looking for a better lease deal from the city. The on-ice product is actually decent, but they have drafted badly over the years and they really need to reload the farm system and spend a little money while Rick Nash is still young.

    1 June, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  10. OldPhil wrote:

    My only reaction is to your following statement: “…their rink is stupidly situated, virtually impossible to access by car from Phoenix in rush hour. Kinda like old Capital Centre was.”

    It’s really a case of “where you stand is where you sit.” We had Caps season tickets for 20 years at the old Cap Centre, and it was great for us. When they moved downtown, we had to give up the tickets because it doubled our travel time, and we couldn’t afford the time or expense. The arena downtown is great and we get there once in a blue moon, but the old location was much better for most Maryland fans. Just sayin’.

    1 June, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  11. JoshC wrote:

    The kids being drafted into the WHL out of Phoenix, Scottsdale and Peoria would be shocked to learn there’s no productive youth hockey organization in Arizona.

    1 June, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  12. I saw Observer mention Baltimore? That’s not really even an option is it? Would the DC/Baltimore market support 2 teams? (3 teams in a 2 hour radius if you count Philly)

    Besides, Baltimore is actually pretty Caps crazy. It would really suck to see that part of the fan base siphoned off to some new entity. (Or at least to see it attempted)

    1 June, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  13. Baltimore of course has an American League legacy. To the extent that a new arena gets built there, you’d have to think it’d be with designs on fielding an AHL tenant. The region I think would welcome any hockey team that could play well in spring.

    1 June, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  14. I hear the Moose are looking for a new barn.

    The Baltimore Natty Bohs. :-)

    1 June, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  15. NHL_Observer wrote:

    Dan (2inthebox) – Just saw that the Moose are headed to St. John’s Newfoundland. I’m old enough to remember the Bandits, Skipjacks and Clippers and if the reports are true that the city is seriously looking at how to finance an expansion of the convention center and a new 18,500 seat arena (First Mariner Arena gets leveled), Baltimore would be a pretty good hockey venue, provided the locals would support the AHL. Can’t see the NHL allowing another team between Washington and Philly, without some whopping big compensation money involved, but then the Rangers, Isles and Devils are ridiculously close to each other, so stranger things have happened.

    1 June, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  16. DMG wrote:

    I don’t think it’s fair to say the “market has spoken” in Atlanta, let alone twice. It’s radically different now than it was when the Flames left, but in any event the pathetic state of the franchise was such that it would have destroyed interested anywhere. We’re talking more than a decade of never being a serious contender, making the playoffs once and getting swept and ownership that made Polin’s interested in the Caps look like a passion and Bill Wirtz look like kind hearted old gent.

    That’s what drove down attendance and interest in Chicago, Boston, Long Island, and even Minnesota. St. Louis and Colorado have seen attendance and interest drop, too, and their teams don’t draw nearly as well as they once did now that they’re rebuilding. With a very few exception, winning teams are supported and losing teams are not – especially losing teams with crap ownership and no discernible plan.

    I don’t doubt, remembering how the MCI Center was after the lockout, that the Caps (or the Pens as another example) would have seen pathetic numbers in terms of butts in seats and people watching in TV (and people caring, generally). It’s possible Atlanta wouldn’t have supported even a good NHL team, but I think the evidence points to the contrary and the reality is we won’t ever know.

    1 June, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  17. Ted wrote:

    This coming season:
    Winnipeg joins Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Colorado
    Minnesota to Central Division
    Predators to SE

    Next Season:
    Phoenix to Quebec.

    Montreal, Quebec, Boston, Buffalo, Ottawa

    Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Minnesota – Norris Division back together again.

    Colorado joins Pacific division.

    1 June, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  18. Ted wrote:

    Dang it Columbus has to go somewhere.

    1 June, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  19. Mia wrote:

    I’ve MANY issues with this post. It took me this long to quiet some of my thoughts about it. Instead of posting all the assorted perspectives not quite relayed here, I can thank you for inspiring the subject of my next blog post.

    The only thing I will contribute is that I am in agreement with “OldPhil” in that we who live East, North and South of Baltimore and in parts of Virginia, the Verizon Center is FAR more difficult and costly in terms of travel. The metro may cut some traffic and parking issues out for us, but the metro (plus parking during weekdays) costs the same, if not more, than parking in and around the VC. It also adds time to the trip. Exactly how much MORE passion and commitment do those who find the VC convenient have over the thousands of us who live in Virginia and MD who find I-95(I-495) more convenient than RT.50 or the metro?

    I’ll be sure to let you know when my post is uploaded.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    7 June, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

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