It appears that Atlanta is just days away from losing their second NHL team, once again to Canada. In fact, the Globe and Mail reported the deal as done a full week ago. As Winnipeg fans are gloating celebrating, there has obviously been a lot of talk about how the fans could have somehow saved the team if the attendance were better. However, is it really fair to blame the Thrashers fans for the loss of the team?
Note to Winnipeg: I would think you guys would remember how you felt when you lost the Jets, so maybe you should stop taunting those fans of the Thrashers, just saying.
In the post-lockout era, the Thrashers have perennially been one of the bottom dwellers when it comes to NHL attendance. They have finished above the bottom 10 just 2 times in 6 seasons, and have cracked the top half just one time, when they were 12th in 2006-07. Is there enough evidence to make the claim that Atlanta didn’t support the Thrashers? Yes there is.
However, it doesn’t always lie on the shoulders of the fans to breathe life into a dying franchise. The Chicago Blackhawks provide a perfect example of this fact. The Blackhawks had been struggling before the lockout, and things didn’t change much when play resumed. OWNERSHIP changed, they put all the games on TV, they embraced the legends of past teams. It certainly didn’t hurt that they acquired top-notch talent through free agency and drafting. And what happened? Fans started showing up. The Atlanta Spirit Group didn’t do anything to raise awareness and excitement for the team.
I lived in Lawrenceville, which is about 30 miles out of Atlanta, or about a 5 minute drive to the mass transit system and a 10 minute train ride into downtown Atlanta. The roundtrip ticket cost 2 bucks. In short, it would have been easy to get to Atlanta to see a game. I can’t remember ever hearing any ads on the radio or seeing anything on TV. There were no billboards. In fact, I heard almost nothing about the Thrashers and I worked for a hockey team. I’d say management is to blame for this one; you have to market yourself and make yourself relevant to grab fans.
But the fans aren’t blameless. In the same post-lockout time span, Montreal has led the league in attendance in three of the six years, and was second in the league for the other three. Their success wasn’t much better than the Thrashers. Montreal went to the playoffs twice in the three years of leading the league in attendance, and won a playoff series just one time. The Thrashers went to the playoffs once, and didn’t win a series ever. So Montreal won one more playoff series and made one more appearance, and averaged about 5,500 more fans per game. Of course, Montreal is the NHL leader in Stanley Cups won, so they have certainly had their success.
The Blackhawks jumped from 19th in league attendance in 2007-08 (they averaged about 1,000 fans per game more than Atlanta that season) to first in the NHL the next year, and they didn’t even make the playoffs in 2007-08. Since taking over as #1 in the league in 2008-09, the Blackhawks have lost in the Western Conference Finals, Won a Stanley Cup, and lost in the first round. In other words, it helps to be successful, but it isn’t everything.
The real part that is telling about the fan base in Atlanta is the number of times they finished higher in the standings than they did in attendance. They finished higher in attendance than they did in the standings only one time, when they were 22nd in attendance and finished 28th in the NHL standings in 2007-08. Montreal never finished higher in the standings than they did in attendance, and Chicago has just twice in the last six years.
Final conclusion: The fans do deserve some blame, although that doesn’t apply to the diehards who showed up no matter what. You can’t expect to only show up when the team is winning, because every team slumps, sometimes for a long time. On the other hand, management was indifferent at best, and the only marquee player they ever brought in was Ilya Kovalchuk. Combine that with basically no media presence and you get low attendance. And with all the low finishes the Thrashers had in the standings, they should have been able to find a Sidney Crosby, or Jonathon Toews, or Carey Price somewhere in the mix. If you’re looking at where to assign blame, I’d say management 85 percent, fans 15 percent.
Bob Mills is the Broadcasting and Media Relations Manager for the Condors, and part of the Broadcast team. He just completed his first season with the Condors. His blog will be posted every Thursday on bakersfieldcondors.com.
Follow Bob’s new Twitter: @Mills_Bob