Winnipeg Jets / Atlanta Thrashers Relocation: Lessons learned and why everyone should support it

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 21: Atlanta Thrashers fans hold a rally to keep the team in Atlanta, someone with a marketing eye can immediately see an issue here, can you? (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

 

I nonchalantly waded into this issue almost a month ago. I was quickly enlightened and surprised that the very mention of relocation regarding the Thrashers went over like a flatulence at a Royal Dinner for most sports bloggers around the horn. There is a hard-core, vocal group of hockey fans in Atlanta and they were not happy to hear a pro-Winnipeg perspective. 

 

So how is the relocation good for everyone? Aside from the obvious financial benefit to the NHL overall, it is good because it sends a message to all hockey fans in all cities that NHL hockey is a privilege, not a right.

 

Relocation is something that is completely alien to a young Bettman generation of hockey fans but older fans are very familiar with it. Every hockey fan should be reminded not to take their team for granted. 

 

Atlanta's marketing failure provides several lessons for hockey fans in other cities and it is good for NHL hockey overall. As a hockey fan you should support it - Yes, even if you are a hockey fan in Atlanta. 

 

Some may be thinking "You would not be saying that if it was the Calgary Flames being moved" Actually, yes I would be and I was in the 1990s. I was exasperated with my fellow Calgarians in this time period and I'll get into that after the break. There is a group of hockey fans who are very familiar with the threat of relocation. Either they experienced it or they went through the serious threat of it. 

 

I grew up with an NHL in flux. It is nothing unusual or sacrilegious to me for a team to move cities. I've seen it happen many, many times. 

 

Collecting my first hockey cards I had a few cards from the California Golden Seals (one of the original 1967 expansion teams) and the Cleveland Barons who pitched their NHL tent for a mere two seasons in Cleveland. The Kansas City Scouts were another very short lived team that spent two years in KC before becoming the Colorado Rockies and that was just the 1970s. 

 

In the 1980s the Flames moved to Calgary from Atlanta and the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey. In the 1990s the North Stars moved from Minnesota to Dallas. The Nordiques moved to Colorado, for round two of NHL hockey in Denver. The Jets moved to Phoenix and the Whalers moved to Raleigh, NC. 

 

If you go way back in NHL history you will find that teams either dissolved or they moved cities a total of 18 times. It is not like the recent relocation of the Thrashers to Winnipeg is anything new for the NHL. It truly isn't. 

 

The Bettman Era (1993 - current)

 

Gary Bettman, bless his heart, came into the NHL with a clear mandate to grow the game in the United States, to solve the skyrocketing cost of player salaries and to present a modern era expansion plan. Overall you have to give Bettman his due, he has been successful on several fronts. He deserves at the very least a B grade on his performance.  

 

Very few hockey fans are critical of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the Salary Cap for the role it has played in improving the NHL although a terrible price was paid with the loss of a season. The NHL has also, even in the middle of the Great Recession, been one of the few sports leagues to continue to grow financially, that is an amazing accomplishment. The first significant T.V. deal in NHL history is also notable. 

 

Bettman has brought unheard of stability to NHL hockey. Not since the original six era has NHL hockey been so stable for hockey fans. For 14 full years, since 1997 not a single NHL team has moved cities. Gary Bettman's zealous Southern expansion has had over 15 years to germinate though, the game certainly has gotten a better shake down south than it ever did in Kansas City or Cleveland. 

 

No longer are teams being traded like hockey cards between multimillionaires. Getting an NHL hockey team now requires more than just showing up with a couple truckloads of money and I applaud Gary Bettman for his rigorous demands on NHL owners for commitment. I applaud him for the stability he has brought to the NHL BUT I also think it is time to admit that the sun is beginning to set on Sunbelt hockey, if the fans are not there and the owners want to sell the teams they will move. 

 

 10 years by any rational analysis is more than long enough to allow market penetration of a product in a city. IF there are new cities, new owners who meet the rigorous standards of NHL ownership and membership, sorry Jim Balsillie your abrasive approach to buying an NHL team is not how you play golf at the country club if you want membership, then it is only rational to allow relocation of teams. There is a limit to what should be done to keep NHL hockey in some markets.  

 

Bettman has done the right thing in bringing in high standards of both the city and owners before he allows a team to be moved. The fact of the matter is that today, after the Thrashers move to Winnipeg there simply will not be any other city or group of owners who will be NHL ready. Quebec City is years away from even having a NHL caliber Arena so we will not see relocation again for some time. 

 

Don't think it is not on the horizon though. 

 

Is the sun Setting on Subelt hockey? 

 

The Ottawa Citizen thinks so

 

The relocation of the Thrashers to Winnipeg should be interpreted as the equivalent of shot across the bow or an air raid siren going off for the rest of NHL teams under financial strain. Trust me on this.

 

I remember when the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas. It was a Holy F*** moment, if the North Stars can go, so can the Flames. Sure enough two years later the Nordiques went, the following year the Jets went, the year after the Whalers went. This time around it will not be as fast but you can be certain that the hold fast and defend the Alamo at all costs mentality is gone. 

 

For the record I personally supported the logic of Bettman's Southern expansion, from strictly the business perspective it was hard to be critical of it. It was completely logical, large markets, they only need a small fraction of market share to work. By all accounts the growth potential was huge but in some cases it simply did not materialize. 

 

Lessons to be learned for other hockey fans from Atlanta?

 

The first lesson is right there in the headline picture. Do you see it? 

 

Does the word 'family' imply a closed market or a growing market? 

 

Fixed family or expanding market?

 

The NHL has explicitly stated that it wants to grow the market in the south yet an Atlanta fan made a sign about staying in an NHL family? It is very telling. The NHL does not want a family because that implies a fixed market, they want a growing market. If the sign said "NHL: Help Atlanta grow its hockey family" then the sign maker would be closer to saying what the NHL and Business Sponsors want to hear. 

 

When the Flames were under threat of being moved I did not get together with my friends and hunker down and talk about our Flames 'family' of fans. We didn't hold 'member only' or 'fan only' meetings. We talked about getting the word out, using something that is called Buzz marketing, word of mouth to get support for the team. Back at the time the Flames were under threat they started marketing something called Power Packs - which were 10 game packages you could buy instead of season tickets. They are the norm out there now. 

 

I went out and actually pitched this to people I met casually, the grocery cashier, a guy at the gym, all in conversation in my personal life, not for commission or personal gain but for love of my team. In retrospect it was probably my first venture into sales and the experience served me well later in life.

 

My thought process was simple. If only 9,000 people are going to Flames games and the Dome sits 18,000, well all that needs to happen is that 9,000 Flames fans need to get 4 people to buy the 10 game Power Packs and the Dome is sold out. Did anyone in Atlanta do this or think like this? In their 5 million thick market? 

 

How about Guerrilla marketing

 

Were Atlanta fans out there with stickers of the Thrashers logo, sticking them on lamp posts or in bar bathrooms and writing in black felt - Save the Thrashers! Buy a Power Pack! - I know, mock me if you want, I don't care, I did it for the Flames. I'm too old to care about being a cool hockey guy, I was a fan of the game and I was doing everything I could to save my team in my city. Were you?

 

I was doing this sticker thing before I had even heard of the term Guerrilla Marketing and before you could easily create stickers off a computer, when you actually had to buy them. Now there are so many more ways to promote your team from youtube videos to you name it, you are limited only by your imagination. 

 

Why should you help out the Atlanta Spirit, well it is your team too and bad owners need the best fans. To this day it amazes me that Harold Ballard, one of the worst owners in the history of the NHL could not undermine the Leafs financial success, the fans were just too rock solid. 

 

How about contacting business sponsors / advertisers?

 

The pen is truly mightier than the sword. To this day I remain convinced that what saved the Flames in Calgary was not the fans, it was the business community. Calgary is full of small and medium sized oil and gas companies and I am certain it was them that stepped up and opened up the wallet. 

 

Atlanta is home to a zillion Fortune 500 companies. Did Atlanta hockey fans write letters / e-mails to these companies asking for sponsorship. Did they threaten to stop drinking Coke and start drinking Pepsi if Coke didn't help out? I don't know, maybe they did. 

 

Has anyone written a letter to Gieco and said how they saw their commercial on Versus for the Stanley Cup playoffs and were considering switching their insurance, did you ask for a quote for the rates in your local city? I assure you someone at Gieco will blow their load over such a letter. 

 

I used to walk in and test drive cars and then ask the dealer if they had season tickets to the Flames and if they would consider throwing in a Power Pack of tickets with the car. They never had any and I would walk out in a huff and say that I would never buy a car from a Car Dealer that didn't support the Flames. 

 

(Secretly, I had no intention of buying a car at all. All I really wanted to do was test drive the car but one dealer I visited, later put up a sign that said a Power Pack of Flames tickets was included with every car purchase - it was my personal victory moment in my one-man campaign) 

 

Are you a Hockey Fan in a Troubled Market?

 

Don't waste your time trolling or arguing with another hockey fan a thousand miles away via the interwebs. That is as pure a waste of your time and energy as you can imagine. 

 

Focus your time and energy on your own market and convincing people around you to support the team, meet new people and talk hockey, convince your local buisnesses to sponsor it, get all hipster and make hockey cool, start running around with your hockey jersey flashing. Ok, I jest on the last one, actually if you have a bikini top on go for it, whatever, MARKET YOUR OWN TEAM. That is how you will save it. 

 

The minute you hear a whisper of your team being moved you should be considering some creative action as a fan. You know your city and community best, you should know what will work. Hockey fans are different from city to city and what works in one city may not work in another. 

 

By the end of it I was personally getting quite frustrated at the time in the 1990s in Calgary, I did not know then that a key part of sales is being able to accept rejection. I was dejected in the 90s that more people were not buying Flames tickets despite my best efforts. I am sure I got a couple dozen people to buy the Power Pack of tickets but past that I am not sure if I ever closed the deal on the hundreds of other attempts I made and that is why at the end of it I was ready to accept the Flames leaving Calgary in the 90s. 

 

I wasn't looking for the CBA or whatever it was back then, to rescue the Flames, I wasn't looking up in the sky at Gary Bettman shaking my fist at him for not saving my team. No, I looked around my own city of ~750,000 people and I said to myself, you know if enough people here can not appreciate and support the Flames here, let them go. 

 

My view was simple. The team is a gift to the City of Calgary, it is a privelage to have NHL hockey, not a right but the team does not belong to me, it belongs to the owners and the community overall. The community overall has to value them as much as I do, if they don't, well, economics is economics.

 

I remembered all too well what it was like to have no NHL team. If the majority of the City of Calgary could not care less if they were here or not, so be it. Let the team go where they will be wanted and appreciated, even loved and that is why all hockey fans should support the move to Winnipeg. 

 

The Thrashers are not just wanted by a core group of fans in Winnipeg, they will be cherished by a whole city, an entire community and you will see the explosion of support for them when it is announced, when you see it, ask yourself seriously if you could get that many fans out for your team and if the answer is no. I would suggest that you consider a little bit of fan marketing for your team...

 

Taking your NHL team for granted in your city is a mistake. 

 

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