As has been covered numerous times, both on this website and others, the Atlanta Spirit ownership group has been embroiled in monetary controversy for an extended period of time. From finally settling their lawsuit against minority owner Steve Belkin- which was a suit that was constantly denied as a factor for distraction in running the Thrashers and Hawks - to finally admitting last month that they've been trying to "dispose" of the team practically since the day that it was purchased, ASG, LLC has done little to inspire fans of the Hawks and Thrashers that they're a competent ownership group. Today flat-out proved that.
In an interview with the AJC's Chris Vivlamore, owner Michael Gearon shoots up a flare gun that is surely visible in Quebec City and Winnipeg - there's a possibility for sale of the Thrashers to someone who could move the team. Granted, such a sale would have to be approved by the NHL's Board of Governors and general managers, as well as given Gary Bettman's blessing. Bettman is basically on-record with the AJC questioning the competency of the ownership group. In an interview with Jeff Schultz, Bettman called out the group's inability to work together:
"Ultimately, the ownership situation has to be straightened out," Bettman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It’s difficult to operate a franchise when owners aren’t getting along. It’s even more difficult in a recession climate. A team has to be at its very best. Issues have to be resolved and everybody has to be together so they can interact with fans. But that’s difficult when the owners aren’t together."
Not exactly a vote of confidence from the guy that runs the entire league. When pressed for an opinion on the latest ASG lawsuit, Bettman told Vivlamore, "There seems to be lots of litigation that goes on with respect to that franchise."
Bettman is more than aware that the problem in Atlanta isn't the market, or the fans, or the players on ice. It's the ability of the ownership group to effectively manage an NHL business and property. It's embarrassing for the league to have to work with individuals who evidently do not take the business of hockey seriously. Furthermore, it's embarrassing for a major market like Atlanta to lose another NHL team because a competent local investor is unable to be found.
None of this is a surprise, though. Gearon is just confirming what fans have known, but might not wanted to admit, for a few seasons - the team loses money like a sieve, and relocation if a local investor isn't able to be found is a very real proposition. Atlanta Spirit can't be blamed for wanting to not lose money. The hilarity of the situation lies, though, in the fact that them losing $20 million a season is their own fault.
Marketing and PR has always seemingly been run on a shoestring budget. In fact, most of the marketing department is made up of interns (remember that awful "Become One" campaign from a few years ago - that was actually an intern's idea). There aren't radio ads on stations other than 680 The Fan and maybe 96.1. TV commercials are played on SportSouth and FoxSports South, and nowhere else. The owners are two cheap to authorize money be spent on advertising outside of places where the team'll be advertised for free. There is no PR for any charity work unless Hawks players are involved. If you want to make money, you have to have fans in the arena, and the management does the bare minimum of advertising.
Gearon has the gall to put responsibility on this situation on fans.
"We need fan support. We need investors," Gearon said. "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."
Apparently they have not put money into the ways to get fans into the seats, which is why fans aren't coming. You want season ticket renewals to go up? Don't give an interview to the AJC about how the team could move in a few years. You want people to come to the games? Tell people when they are and advertise the fact that this city has a hockey team.
In further proof that a PR and marketing department is non-existent, this interview was given and released the day after the team announced that they re-signed Dustin Byfuglien to a five year extension. The fanbase barely had a chance to celebrate, and my op-ed on the re-signing of Byfuglien and what it means to Atlanta was passe in about 15 hours. Why would you release this news right after you state that you signed your star defenseman to an extension? Did they think that less attention would be paid to this news? Also, why announce this when the team's trying to fight their way back into a playoff spot? Is this their new version of a morale boost? Any momentum the team must have felt about Byfuglien being re-signed went out the window of their charter flight to (hilariously) Phoenix.
The most infuriating thing about this announcement is that Gearon is opining about how they need fans in the seats, and yet he tells tales of doom and gloom in the middle of season ticket renewals. Do you want people to renew? Don't tell them that the product that they're purchasing will be available in a nice Canadian city in a few years. How are you supposed to get fan support when you're threatening to lose their product?
It's not about fan support - this team had it before ASG purchased it, and fully had it during the season that led to the playoffs. Where support got disillusioned was when obvious cost-cutting measures were taken that impacted the team's ability to perform. Not replacing Bob Hartley with an NHL coach after he was fired? Prime example. They owed Hartley another year of payment, so why not put Don Waddell - who was already getting paid as GM - into that role for just a modest bump in pay? Free agents? Let's not make it comfortable for them to stay here, let's make the rumors of our incompetence and the lack of interest in the team well known.Oh no! Players like Marc Savard and Marian Hossa want to leave because of this? Let's ok the general manager to fling huge amounts of money to counteract our bad reputation towards unrestricted free agents like Brian Campbell - it gives us the ability to say "See? We care - we're willing to spend money to remedy a stupid situation that was our own fault to begin with!"
Kovalchuk left because of this gong show. Hossa, who never had anything bad to say about the city or the team, left because of it. Byfuglien obviously hasn't been exposed to it enough, because he re-signed one of the ASG's huge contracts. This contract wasn't meant as a good will gesture to how the ownership feels about the future of the team, it was made to cover up today's announcement with a layer of "but we care."
Evidently, not enough, and not ever.