Thrashers’ owners lacked long-term vision

There would seem to be one obvious guideline in purchasing a professional sports team: the buyer should have a long-term plan for success in mind.

Honestly, this concept really isn’t even something that just applies to pro sports teams—it’s something that applies to any business in any walk of life. And yet this, above all else, was where the Atlanta Spirit Group failed miserably. In seven years of owning the Atlanta Thrashers, the Spirit Group never once showed any indication of investing in the long-term success of the franchise either on or off the ice, much less both.

The result? Atlanta has lost its NHL team—again. Thirty-one years after the Flames left town to move to Calgary, the Thrashers are off to Winnipeg, making Atlanta the first city ever to lose two NHL teams.

To be fair, it’s hard to pin all the blame on the Spirit Group and managing partner Michael Gearon. Despite the general incompetence, Gearon’s interest in the team appears to be genuine. After all, during a Tuesday media session, he broke down in tears to express his apparent sadness at being forced to sell the team to a Winnipeg-based group.

Well, it all looks genuine if one were to ignore the fact that in January, the Spirit Group filed a lawsuit against a prominent Atlanta law firm because the firm’s handling of a contract prevented Spirit from selling the Thrashers at any point in the past seven years.

There’s something to be said for not wanting to manage a business that loses millions of dollars each year. But rather than trying to work to turn the Thrashers into a profitable entity, the Spirit Group started trying to bail out at the first sign of trouble.

As ESPN’s Scott Burnside has pointed out, several NHL teams across the southern United States have prospered thanks to concerted efforts by ownership groups to grow the game of hockey within their respective communities. The Spirit Group did little in this regard, focusing their efforts on escaping rather than working to attract more of Atlanta’s youth to the game.

All of it just makes Gearon’s attempts to direct the blame back to other groups—including the fan base—come across as hollow and misdirected.

In that same Tuesday media session, he took a shot at the team’s lack of fan support. Gearon said that the Thrashers were some $20 million in the red even during the 2006-’07 season, when the team won the Southeast Division and earned the only playoff berth in team history. The implication was that the fan base did not support the Thrashers even when they were playing well.

The counterpoint is simple: the fact that the Thrashers only had one playoff appearance in 12 seasons is a sad reflection of the lack of commitment of both ownership and upper management to produce long-term success.

A look back at the 2006-’07 campaign provides further evidence. With young stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa leading the way, the Thrashers were finally contending for the playoffs and had an opportunity to build their way to annual contender status.

The team needed to continue to develop young talent, as the vast majority of the team’s main contributors that season were on the wrong side of 30. Instead, agreeing with the owners’ desire to win immediately, longtime Thrashers general manager Don Waddell went all in for one playoff run, giving up a 22-year-old defenseman and four draft picks for two 35-year-old rentals.

The gamble failed. The Thrashers were swept in the first round of the 2007 playoffs and have not been back since.

What seemed to be an opportunity to establish a winning tradition in Atlanta instead dissolved into the status quo. In the four seasons since that run, the Thrashers have had four head coaches, have lost both Kovalchuk and Hossa, and have generally struggled to build an identity.

There’s a simple truth when it comes to sports teams: most fans will withdraw their interest if they believe a team is not committed to producing a successful product. Sure, there are occasional exceptions where large-scale interest exists regardless of the situation, but ice hockey in Atlanta never fell into this category—something that the Spirit Group apparently did not realize when it purchased the team in 2004.

There could be plenty of interest in this town if an owner were committed to growing both the Thrashers’ brand and the game itself in the Atlanta community. The Spirit Group never gave fans any reason to have faith in the team, and in doing so they blew Atlanta’s second chance. It’s highly unlikely there will be a third.

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