Atlanta: A case study in how to kill a fan base

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The prices keep getting cheaper and cheaper for tickets. For five years I purchased full season tickets. In most years it was my primary entertainment expenditure. To have NHL season tickets was a dream of mine since I was a 15-year-old kid envious of those ticket holders in Joe Louis Arena in Michigan.

The Thrashers were bad when I first bought, but I was patient and the tickets were cheap. I rejoiced in the victories and sorrowed in the many many losses. But I figured better days were ahead and we would someday have great seats for playoff games. But the good days never arrived and every year we had to deal with drunk college students with discounted tickets in front of us standing up in the middle of the play like they were at a Braves game and the pitcher was up to bat. Every year the people sitting around us paid less than what we had.

— Thrashers blogger The Falconer

Atlanta's announcing 14,181 fans per game this season, a total that keeps them out of the basement in Islanders country but that ranks 27th in the NHL. And my guess, from seeing a half dozen games on television and an empty rink, that the Thrashers lead the way in fans disguised as empty seats.

Turnout at Philips Arena has been poor in the past, generally when the team has bottomed out in the standings. But according to the locals, the tickets that are being bought cost less and less every year and the season's ticket base has been almost completely eroded:

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Don Waddell has incredibly been the GM of the Thrashers for more than 10 years now, since June of 1998, and he's not a popular figure in Atlanta. The majority of his recent high-profile signings and trades have been busts, and Ilya Kovalchuk is likely to be the latest star to make his exit.

Waddell, however, is in tight with the team's troubled ownership group, and there were even rumours he would be promoted into a senior administration role prior to the season. He has hung on while 22 other NHL clubs have made a change (or two) in the GM position, outlasting all but Lou Lamoriello, George McPhee, Jim Rutherford, Darcy Regier, Ken Holland, David Poile and Larry Pleau.

Waddell's recent moves, among others:

  • Coming out of the lockout, signed Mike Dunham, Bobby Holik and Peter Bondra
  • Dealt Dany Heatley for two and a half seasons of a more expensive Marian Hossa and two seasons of Greg De Vries 
  • Traded Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik, whose bloated contract was bought out prior to this season
  • Traded a first, second and third round draft pick along with Glen Metropolit for 22 games of Keith Tkachuk

Marc Savard, currently fourth in NHL scoring, also walked for nothing as a free agent in 2006.

Somewhere in the rubble there is a solid NHL team, but Waddell hasn't been able to assemble it. Not even close. And this season, Atlanta's on pace for just 67 points, the third-worst total in the NHL and the team's worst performance since the expansion days seven years ago.

A pick in the top three in 2009 would be the Thrashers' sixth selection that high in 11 drafts. Under Waddell, the team has an all-time record of 249-343-45-51 and a points percentage of .432 that is worse than every other active franchise not named the Blue Jackets.

Fans like The Falconer are tearing up their season's tickets and going to games for free, waiting for the franchise's troubled ownership group to throw the fan base a bone and finally, mercifully find someone new to take over this team:

Will the Thrashers ownership make the major changes that are required. Will they recruit away the Sharks Director of Scouting? Will they find a new GM who has more than IHL experience to run a NHL team?

Or will the Atlanta Thrashers join the ranks of the Oakland Seals — a terribly managed franchise that eventually left that city and finally disbanded in Cleveland? The truth is that the franchise is certainly losing millions of dollars. ... Whoever wins the ownership lawsuit could easily blame the fans and complain that "hockey just didn't sell in Atlanta" and try to move the team. But the truth is Atlanta is just as capable of supporting a NHL team as Dallas or Tampa — but you have to win some games to draw people in.

As a fan, there is nothing I can do but wait for ownership to make the HUGE changes that will reinvigorate the NHL in this city. People are tired of losing and they're not coming back until there is a team worth spending their money on.

The worst part of it all is that things could get uglier when (if?) Waddell tries to deal Kovalchuk, something we're hearing more and more about as the rumour mill churns. It will be a difficult deal to make, a potential train wreck right up there with his previous muffed trades, and Kovalchuk has been the face of this troubled franchise ever since he was picked first overall in 2001. 

The fan base will become even more disillusioned (and absent) should the deal go wrong.

Hockey in Atlanta needs a saviour and I don't know that they're going to get it. And you can't blame the fans for turning up their nose at this point.

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