Given the strong Winnipeg slant in articles lately, I contacted fellow writer and friend of the blog Laura Astorian (@hildymac on twitter) to make an argument that the "failure" of Atlanta as a franchise is NOT, in fact, the fault of the fans, as Mitch argued. Here she is, and make sure to read her other stuff.
Arik wondered if I would write a rebuttal of Mitch's pro-relocation piece, and I figured why not. Out of all the pro-Winnipeg pieces that I've read, it's been the best and most well thought-out one. People in Atlanta are extremely tired of reading "Derp your fans suck/your market sucks/your country sucks/HOCKEY'S OURS, DAMMIT" pieces from around the press and blogosphere. It gets old, so reading something like Mitch's was a breath of fresh air. Not necessarily one that I agree with, but I still respect his opinions and ideas.
A bit of background if you're not sure who I am. I am one of the contributors for Birdwatchers Anonymous, SB Nation's Thrashers blog. I also am the hockey editor over at SB Nation Atlanta and I contribute a weekly piece (even though it's on hiatus) at St. Louis Game Time called "Tuesdays With Hildy." That last one should tip you off that I'm not from Atlanta, so you guys'll be free from any "you stole our last team!" fussing.
I'm not going to lie - Atlanta is not organically a hockey town. When I moved here in 1993, people thought that I was just bizarre for enjoying the sport as much has I do. All I had was a copy of NHL '94 and the pages of the sports section that I was mailed whenever the Blues did something noteworthy. It was atrocious. It was a relief when it was announced in 1997 that Atlanta was getting NHL hockey back, and I've been going to the Thrashers' games since their very first one.
The situation down here with hockey started off well, and then as the Thrashers continued to not improve, it dropped. And then, lo and behold, when they started playing well again, attendance and excitement went up. And then it dropped. Atlanta's that kind of sports town. We have too many options for people down here, so if one team is underperforming, fans in this city don't see them, because they can just go watch something else. When the Braves underperform, going to Turner Field is like going to a ghost town. When the Falcons were horrible (pre-competent ownership) no one went. The Hawks are actually decent, but thanks to no marketing whatsoever from Atlanta Spirit, who seem to have the attitude of "they'll market themselves!" their attendance is very sub-par.
Atlanta sports fans are fair-weather. It's a phenomenon that I don't understand. Coming from a city where the Cardinals would draw three million fans a season even if they fielded a team of bat-boys to a city where folks could care less about their marquee teams, it's just odd. People here are either transplants or just apathetic. Some might say, especially where the Braves are concerned, entitled. They're entitled to their sports franchises. The concept of one leaving, even one that they might never have seen, is foreign to them. That's why you haven't seen much viral marketing, or petition writing to local companies (though that has happened). The population here, not the fans, but the average population feel like there's no way a major league would abandon a huge market such as Atlanta, so why put forth any extra effort?
That's why the situation here's so precarious. You have a large group of fans who are still a minority in the Atlanta sports market thanks to competition with things like college football and the like. It turns into a family, and the small market hockey family is a great thing. The feeling around the team here is so much different than it would ever be somewhere like Calgary, or Toronto, or Montreal. The fans feel like we have a direct stake in the team like it's us (which includes them) versus the rest of the world. We're more than willing to expand and grow that family to 5.5 million people, but the ownership group has made that more than difficult. Would you like to be adopted by a dysfunctional family whose patriarch has no idea that you exist? A patriarch who gives you the bare minimum of what you need to survive while taking your hard earned time and money?
Hockey's a wonderful sport- the best that there is. It belongs everywhere. Not just in cold market climates, not just in big cities or small cities with rabid fanbases. It belongs everywhere, but it has to be given a chance. It's so easy to get people to love the sport. I have converted many of my Southern friends to it just by taking them to one game and explaining the rules. There's no reason that this city couldn't be a hockey town. It's got the market right here. It's got the Northern transplants, it has a passionate fanbase, and it has a team with a great deal of growing potential. Unfortunately, regardless of how many fans we bring to games and we do bring people and try to get as many butts in the stands as possible, it's very difficult to grow a market when the owners don't care if that market grows or not. They recently admitted on television that they don't know a thing about hockey. Can you imagine if the Flames were owned by an ownership group who had no clue about a single rule? Or, and this happened on the radio here, could only name one member of your current team? How does that encourage community participation and growth?
Hockey in Atlanta- not just the Thrashers - grew when Turner owned the team, and hockey can grow when someone other than these incompetent boobs own the team. I'd hate to see the league give up on a potential market of this size because of the stupidity of seven individuals.
I would love to see Winnipeg get a team back. I was aghast at the thought of them moving to Phoenix. But seeing the fans in Phoenix, and seeing the fact that when stable hockey can work there, I'd hate to see the 'Yotes get shipped north. Knowing what I know about the Atlanta fan base, I'd hate to see us get shipped north as well. Give us a chance to get stable and grow. The kids who were here when the Thrashers began are graduating college and buying season tickets. Some of them even have kids who they take to the games in their little teeny Byfuglien jerseys. I'd love to see them have a chance to grow up and grow the fanbase. Ten years isn't enough time.
C'mon, guys just a little while longer? I promise you won't be disappointed.