UNIONDALE NY - DECEMBER 11: Dustin Byfuglien #33 of the Atlanta Thrashers warms up before playing against the New York Islanders on December 11 2010 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Nothing more clearly shows the fault of the Atlanta Spirit Group in the Thrashers' mismanagement than their trip down racial lines.
It's not your fault, Atlanta.
No matter what TSN or ESPN bloviates in the coming days, the reason for the Atlanta Thrashers' relocation to Winnipeg is the piss-poor job of ownership by the Atlanta Spirit Group. Decades from now the term Atlanta Spirit Group might even replace Rankin Smith on local effigies.
Fans might have noticed that ASG wasn't a great fit to run a hockey club this past fall, when it became apparent that the ownership group had consented to (and possibly constructed) one of the single most insulting marketing ploys in history: trying to lure African-American Atlantans into becoming hockey fans by loading an inordinate amount of African-American players on the Thrashers' squad.
Unfortunately, the media didn't get suspicious. In fact, they swooned; the New York Times, profiling the five black players on Atlanta's roster, let the Thrashers' front office speak out of both sides of its mouth without a challenge. Here's GM Don Waddell claiming that the sudden one-year proliferation of minority players in "Black Mecca" was just a coincidence:
"It all just kind of happened," he said. "It wasn’t like we went out and tried to pick up black players."
Fair enough, and no hockey reporter or blogger seemed to disagree. After all, free agent Dustin Byfuglien, the centerpiece of the Thrashers new blackness, was coveted league-wide after winning a Stanley Cup in Chicago. Yet while denying any kind of cultural altruism for the sake of marketing in one of the blackest markets in the United States, in virtually the same breath the team acknowledged black hockey players would become a marketing theme for 2010-11.
"We’re not trying to exploit our players," Waddell said. "But we have an opportunity now to reach a different community, so we’re doing a lot more advertising on urban radio stations, some magazines."
Certainly a marketing department works with the hand it's dealt, and Atlanta, like most of the Sun Belt, was and is always a hard sell for hockey. And even in an ASG-run franchise, I doubt the guys writing copy for season ticket renewal ads had much say on Draft night. Hokey promotions are in the fabric of hockey marketing. Hell, if the Sedin twins were anchoring a first line in Raleigh instead of Vancouver, I'd hand out plastic helmets for Ginger Viking Night.
But the ASG-led Thrashers elected to ignore any variety of tactics to draw in fans, increase local TV ratings and generate that oft-overused concept of buzz all to juggle the single most polarizing conversation in American culture - race - in front of the local and national media and blogosphere.
Then the stupid started. Canadian sports blogger Bob Mackin at Bulls and Bears speculated that Byfuglien could "save hockey in Atlanta" where Ilya Kovalchuk had failed. Because the team might win more? No! Because Russians are prickly, but the new superstar is one of those black guys - and hey, Atlanta's got a ton of black guys! Too bad they don't like hockey:
Atlanta is the eighth-largest media marketplace in the United States and it is rich with sports, where the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons dominate the pro sports scene and the Georgia State Bulldogs are the college mainstay. Basketball’s Atlanta Hawks are a bigger wintertime draw than the Thrashers, who averaged only 13,607 fans last season. That’s the third-worst attendance in the league.
(Georgia State Bulldogs! Bill Curry takes minimal offense to that slight, sir, and has a few brochures he'd love to go over with you.)
Atlanta's own CNN followed suit with a nearly unwatchable segment - some kind of weekly minority culture feature sponsored by Essence Magazine, in which reporter Richelle Carey peppered Byfuglien (from Minneapolis), Evander Kane (from Vancouver), Johnny Oduya (from Sweden) and Anthony Stewart (from Quebec) with questions like "You know why this is SUCH a big deal, right?"
But Canada's own TSN might have reached the apex of mush-mouthed pandering. While the video is no longer available, in the piece roughly the same group of black players were reminded that they were indeed black, playing hockey, and doing so in the city of Dr. Martin Luther King. Don't they understand HOW IMPORTANT THAT IS? SB Nation Atlanta editor Jason Kirk recounts:
TSN had an eager white Canadian ask Byfuglien, Kane, Stewart and Oduya about the true meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and what it meant for them to play in Dr. King's hometown. The four young men, born decades after the Civil Rights Movement and each more-or-less an entire country away from the Deep South, obliged his earnest questions, but it was clear none of them had spent as much time pondering the roster's significance as the media had. What's it like to finally be free, 28-year-old Swede? AWK-WARD.
You have to assume that Byfuglien, a Minnesota native months removed from a Stanley Cup in Chicago, must have been flabbergasted at this line of positioning. In a market so desperately in need of a focus on the sport of hockey's unique and engaging features, ASG was fine with letting the race of its players score cheap publicity. Not surprisingly, ticket sales never picked up.
If the broadcast nets achieved new lows, Harrison Mooney of the blog Pass It To Bulis best and most passionately examined the concept of marketing black hockey players to non-hockey-fan blacks. He also expertly tagged that lazy NYT article while highlighting the volatility of such a marketing campaign:
The Thrashers' story is fascinating and engaging, but it's difficult to discuss without using conversation-ending buzzwords like "exploit," as Thrashers GM Rick Dudley did in denying everything. I felt that mainstream writers and hockey people would have a hard time even broaching the subject unless they were responding to somebody that had already made the necessary explicit claims. Then you're just reacting, not noticing. If it sounds stupid, that's because it is. But consider the title of Jeff Klein's article: Thrashers Don't See Race, Just Opportunity. How did they see opportunity if they didn't see race? The line the race conversation forces people to toe is not only ridiculous, it's outside the realm of common sense.
Mooney, a black hockey fan, embraced the Thrashers' move, but acknowledged its riskiness. While he nailed the situation at almost every turn, even he seemed enthralled with the idea that the Thrashers would somehow live and die exclusively by African-American attendance:
Atlanta's black community could not only support a hockey team and produce talented players from within its black middle-class families; it must, in order for the Thrashers to reap a large enough chunk of the market share to survive.
Certainly such a connection with Atlanta's black community could have defied stereotypes against both African-Americans, the American South and the sport of hockey. Trust those of us from this city and state - nothing would've made for a better story about our culture's positive room for growth. But none of that has to do with a winning hockey team that draws fans. And other than pandering to and therefore insulting the city of Atlanta, ASG's greatest sin was ignoring the glaring fact that minorities in sports don't attract new fans - minorities WINNING at sports do.
That whole "winning" concept has eluded ASG at almost every level. Per the 2000 Census, the city of Detroit was 81.6 percent black (at the time Atlanta was 55.8 percent), yet the stability of the Red Wings' future never hinged on developing a black fan base then or now. That's possibly because the Wings could fall back on a state of hockey-playing whites, or decades of history in their franchise, or maybe the 11 Stanley Cups.
The past year's racial experiment is among the strongest of signs that ASG is a corporate abortion. It's hard to say who should be insulted the most - the black community in Atlanta, who were out-and-out pandered to, Thrashers fans of any color for their team's numbnuts tactics, or hockey fans across North America, whose sport apparently needs particular racial liasons to attract minority viewers.
The Thrashers are all but officially gone, but ASG's embarrassment lives on with the NBA. Maybe when they're left to focus solely on imploding their focus franchise, fans of all ethnicities in Atlanta and the greater hockey world will see that Atlanta's ticket-buying sports culture was innocent of this crime.
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