Thrashers to Winnipeg (Part 2 - Why it will happen and how it affects your team)

I casually wrote a article on April 28, 2011 predicting the Atlanta Thrashers would be moving to Winnipeg before the drama in the desert had concluded. There was a quasi-backlash to the article, I got called a hack, an idiot, accused of using unjustified sources (turns out the only recognized sources for some is the Atlanta media). The most recent chapter had not concluded in Phoenix and who was I to anticipate what was to come.  

I suppose it was a little brazen to make that prediction so early but I always felt that way, I have for years. I have always seen the Thrashers as the team that would be sold and moved to Winnipeg, not the Coyotes and it is nothing personal. It is just NHL business.

It is the simple fact that a divisional shuffle with the Coyotes to Winnipeg did not make as much sense as one in which an Eastern Team was moved to Winnipeg, allowing some divisional tweaking to occur with Western Conference teams down South. 

Now with the Drama in the Desert concluded, at least for next season. It is 99.9% that the Coyotes will play in Phoenix for at least next year so we can now safely move on to discussing Atlanta in more detail. Personally, I think the Yotes will be in Phoenix for much longer but I won't get into all that too much in this article. Maybe later Yotes fans but I think your team is more secure than many of you may think. 

A little caveat this time. This is an opinion. I empathize with Thrasher’s fans that face the grim reality of losing their team but I also remember the anticipation and elation of getting an NHL team that Winnipeg hockey fans have. 

More after the jump and for those who want links to support my original premise from April 28, 2011 of the Thrashers being sold to True North and moved to Winnipeg, well I have a boatload and all from the Atlanta media ready to go this time.

I don't personally have any trouble speculating forward into the future because the business perspective to me is obvious and sadly, I remember all too well, as I am sure Jets fans do as well, that a sports team being sold and moved really doesn't have anything to do with the fans. It is strictly about the owners and money. 

It is probably driving Bettman up the wall that the story of the Thrashers to Winnipeg is actually starting to overshadow the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Well, very easy for you to quash it all Gary, just say "No, they aren't" or "Yes they are." and we can all get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Here is a very telling Q&A from Bill Daly, Deputy NHL Commissioner. I recommend reading it and also watching the interview between Bruce Levenson and NBC.

Q: Can you guarantee the team will be in Atlanta next season? A: "Nope. I can’t guarantee that."

Don't know how much more obvious you can make it. 

Regardless, there is a consistent murmur out there of why the Thrashers will not move. Lets go through a few of them. 

Reason 1: Look at what the NHL did to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, they will do the same for the Thrashers in Atlanta.

I don’t understand why people think Bettman and the NHL will embark on the same path they did in Phoenix with Atlanta. What is the reasoning? There are other reasons why the NHL wanted to make a stand in the desert, divisional travel costs, T.V. time zones etc. What are Atlanta's reasons? 

From the big picture you can understand why the Coyotes are important to the NHL travel schedule. If you had to pick between the two big markets in the South, Phoenix or Atlanta, you would prefer to keep Phoenix for intangible reasons like divisional travel.

While it is true that Gary Bettman’s consistent message is that he is against relocation, there is a rational limit to it. In hindsight, if the NHL knew what was going to happen in Phoenix with Goldwater etc do you think they still would have embarked on it? They may not have, in fact the experience probably has them more leery than ever of doing something similar ever again.

 

 Reason 2: The Atlanta market is 5 million; Winnipeg is not large enough at 650,000 people to support a NHL team.

 

It isn’t the size of your population; it is the size of your slice of the sports market in the city. No matter how big your city is you have to have a population willing to spend its income on your sport. Mexico City has 9 million people, will there ever be a discussion of a hockey team there? No, for a variety of reasons - the least of which is not the simple fact that there is a cultural preference for other sports. 

 

The problem in Atlanta is that hockey is just too far down the line for the consumer’s sports dollar. After 11 years, hardly a short time period, hockey simply has not been able to penetrate that huge market of 5 million sufficiently. I speculate, fairly safely, that hockey isn’t even the 4th sport; it probably lags behind College Football and even College Basketball.

In pegging the Peg, so to speak, as too small a market people neglect to give enough accolades to the fact that it will also be the #1 sport in the city. In fact CFL football may bleed off some attendance.

 

It isn’t like this community preference for one sport over another is unique to hockey either. Vancouver has a population of 2.6 million and had the NBA Grizzlies until the team was moved to Memphis, TN, which only has a population of 650,000 in the city and a metro population of 1.2 million.

 

Reason 3: Playoff success is all Atlanta needed and therefore it is the Owner’s fault for not building a playoff team.

 

I am not letting the owners of Atlanta Spirit completely off the hook but I think if they believed that a playoff team would change matters significantly, I don’t think they would sell. They would ride it out. New local owners would also be easier to find if the detailed market analysis revealed the potential for growth of hockey in Atlanta. Part of that market analysis would be brand recognition and if you can take a poll of the Atlanta market after the Thrashers being there for 10 years and find that many people can not even name the NHL team, well you have a problem. 

 

Playoff success does not necessarily lead to financial success. The most successful southern expansion team, playoff wise is easily the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have won a Stanley Cup and are in the Conference Finals again this year. In fact based on what I saw last night against Boston I think they are a legitimate Cup Contender.

Yet this article from Forbes illustrates how the Bolts still are struggling despite a good season this year, it may surprise a few people who state all the Thrashers needed was playoff success.

I am not sure if I should highlight Leafs fans and the fact that despite failing to put forward a strong playoff team for a generation they remain the most profitable NHL team.

 

Reason 4: Atlanta has huge potential to grow a hockey market

 

You have to defend this statement at this point because (1) Hockey has been in Atlanta before and failed. The Atlanta Flames were a respectable team in the 1970s. They played for 8 years in Atlanta and made the playoffs 6 times - where was the market growth? (2) The population may be huge but is the potential hockey market? After 10+ years it is the realized market that matters, it is no longer acceptable to state simply "big population equals big hockey market," not after a decade anyway.

 

Winnipeg doesn’t have to grow a hockey market. It already exists and although it is a smaller population it does have the advantage of hockey being the #1 sport, first in line for the consumer sports dollar.

 

Reason 5: It isn’t just about Atlanta it is about the NHL as well

The NHL is not thinking just of hockey fans in Atlanta or even in Winnipeg, in fact it is probably thinking the most of owners and helping them make money.  It is thinking of the League as a whole, keeping it balanced and making travel costs equitable. It is looking at the financial implications of shuffled divisions and lowered air miles for some and with the goal of keeping it similar across all divisions. It is also considering some teams like the Dallas Stars and how they will be better served in a better time zone. The NHL does not serve one set of owners, they serve them all.

 From a neutral perspective you can see how the Western Conference was in need of a shuffle. 

One of the reasons why I didn’t see the Coyotes being moved was that it left a huge hole in the divisional structure. It took an already challenging situation in the Western Conference for travel and actually made it worse.  It would have made the Pacific division the most air-mile heavy division in the NHL. 

 

Reason 6: Divisional Shuffles

This is always an interesting discussion to me. The NHL has three main criteria that it considers for divisions. (1) Geography which is the most obvious, teams closer together have lower costs to get to each other. (2) Time Zones because the same or close time zone means a television audience that is more likely to be larger and (3) Rivalries which are generally protected and allowed to grow over time. 

 

Divisional Shuffles are probably the most interesting consequence to other hockey fans of other teams regarding this potential sale of the Thrashers to Winnipeg. They are to me anyway. These divisional shuffles are not confirmed anymore than the sale of the Thrashers to Winnipeg is confirmed. Like my other article it is forward looking and an anticipatory premise, of which you can agree or disagree. 

 It should be indisputable that a

 Divisional shuffle with a team from the Western Conference heading to the Eastern Conference to fill the void left by Atlanta made sense from a lot of business perspectives.

 

Winnipeg will be put into the NW division pushing out Colorado. This will lower the air miles and travel time of the Wild as Winnipeg is 394 miles away by air compared to 705 miles to Denver. See the below charts for air mile distance in kilometers for all cities given the Divisional shuffle I anticipate.

 

Colorado will be moved to the Pacific division pushing out Dallas.  I anticipate the following divisional structures. Observe the total air miles before and after the divisional shuffles for the teams. All figures are in Kilometers, 350 km is approximately 1 hour of air travel time. 

This is a useful link if you would like to repeat the analysis for yourself with a different divisional alignment based on air miles. Sport Map World

 

Pacific Division

 

The Pacific Division benefits the most from this anticipated restructure. The Dallas Stars are the most geographically challenged NHL team. No other NHL team is even remotely close to them. The Colorado Avalanche will clearly benefit by moving into the Pacific Division, as will all other 4 teams in the Pacific Division. It is an indisputable advantage. There will also only be two time zones in play. PST and MST for better television timing for audiences. Dallas is in Central time and this predictably has hurt their local T.V. draws.  

Old

Dallas

New

Colorado

Ducks

1960 km

1322 km

Sharks

2334 km

1493 km

Kings

1995 km

1339 km

Phoenix

1441 km

947 km

Total

7730 km

5101 km

 

Central Division

The Central Division is the most disadvantaged by far in this configuration. It benefits Dallas both geographically and by time zones. It will help the Stars from both lowered travel costs and a more favorable time zone. Central and Eastern time for T.V audiences. All the remaining Central Divisions teams will see their travel at least double to visit Dallas instead of Nashville.

So why will this happen still? Well, look now at the new total travel for all three Western Conference divisions. They are all close to the same overall number of ~ 5000 km. In the old configuration the Central Division had a distinct travel advantage over both the Pacific and the NW. In this Divisional Configuration travel is more equitable amongst all three divisions in the West.  

Old

Nashville

New

Dallas

Red Wings

758

1609

Blackhawks

642

1294

Blues

408

882

Blue Jackets

538

1470

Total

2346

5255

 

SE Division

Nashville will be moved to fill the void in the SE that Atlanta leaves. From Nashville's perspective this will increase their air miles but from a hockey competitive perspective they will prefer it. This does not dramatically impact the other teams in the SE. In most cases we are talking about an extra hour in travel time with the assumption that 350 km is about 1 hour of air travel time. 

Old

Atlanta

New

Nashville

Capitals

874

913

Bolts

673

1001

Hurricanes

567

727

Florida

932

1271

Total

3046

3912

 

NW Division

Once again all teams in the NW, like the Pacific benefit from this realignment. Time zones continue to be a factor for the NW with all three time zones in play but travel is reduced by ~1100 km overall in the division. 

Old

Colorado

New

Winnipeg

Canucks

1779

1870

Flames

1440

1191

Wild

1136

634

Oilers

1666

1190

Total

6021

4885

 

Here is a interview with Chris Mason goalie of the Thrashers, worth a listen to get the players perspective on travel. 

I stated it on April 28 and I'll state it again today. Winnipeg will have NHL hockey next season. It won't take long for me to be proven right or wrong because there is a deadline for making the schedule that is usually sometime in the first week of June. 

So if the announcement is not made by mid-June. Feel free to come by and give me the old "Ha Ha - you're wrong" otherwise the spreadsheets and schedule makers will be buzzing and the new divisional shuffle and schedule will be out.

I think Gary Bettman and the NHL would like to manage the press release for being after the Stanley Cup playoffs but really he should announce it sooner rather than later. Put the issue to rest instead of letting it fester and bleed attention from the playoffs. 

Just my 2 cents Mr. Bettman, take it or leave it. 

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