Leaving with the Jets’ Plane
Since Steven Brunt of the Globe & Mail reported a deal was close, it has been glaringly obvious (except to TSN), Winnipeg would be getting their NHL team back. The only tweak at the end of the two year process is that that team came from Atlanta, and not Phoenix.
The city of Scottsdale gave the Phoenix Coyotes a yearlong reprieve by providing $25 million to cover last season’s losses. It has said it will not do that again, so the fans in the desert need to go support their team if they don’t want it to suffer the same fate as the way it actually arrived there 15 years ago, from Winnipeg.
The 5.2 million people in Atlanta simply do not support a professional team. They’ll watch their NASCAR heroes turn left for 500 miles on TV. It is a college town where they cheer on their SEC football teams. But as for pro sports: they could not fill the stadium during the Braves World Series championship, rarely sell out the NFL Falcons games forcing many local TV blackouts during the season, and have serious attendance issues with the NBA Hawks. So this “new team” in the mix didn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who has watched a game involving the Atlanta Thrashers. I’ve seen several games on Sportsnet when they played against the Ottawa Senators. There only seemed to be about four thousand people in the stands for each game. Each year in existence they had amongst the worst average attendance. Last year, they managed to scrounge up an average of just over 13 thousand tickets sold per game. With very little fan support, and absolutely no local buyers available for the owners the “Atlanta Spirit” group, the Thrashers were the obvious choice as the team to finally come to back to Winnipeg, which by the way, is Cree for “muddy waters”. There’s your history and language lesson for today, you may thank me later.
There are far too many comments on CNN and ESPN’s websites sarcastically saying “Atlanta had a hockey team?”. But they sum things up perfectly. The Thrashers were an old joke that everyone told. The only person who didn’t get the punchline was NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman. Any reasonable businessperson would think the NHL would want to move this horror show to a much more viable location, where fan support is great, and local ownership available. But, we’re dealing with the NHL here, run by the most moronic, greasy, egomaniacal commissioner in sports history. His desire to force-feed hockey down the throats of an unwanting southeastern United States is insatiable.
Bettman’s demeanor during the announcement of the sale to the True North Group, led by billionaire David Thompson and local Winnipeg businessman Mark Chipman, was more suited to a funeral, than a celebration. I understand they had been awake all night hammering out the final details of this agreement. Yet he looked defeated, defiant, and seemed to be threatening the Winnipeg fans with the words, “This is not going to work, unless this building is filled for every game”.
The name for the team has not been announced, but is in the top three priorities for the management team. The NHL still owns the rights to the Jets. Bettman has said he will allow them to use that name if they so choose. Others think they may go in a new direction, to start a new path for the team’s history. I have to figure True North will stay with brand recognition and stick with the Jets name, but maybe update the logo thereby driving revenue with new team apparel.
How to build the team is the next step. In the first interview after the announcement, the ownership group made it clear they would NOT be going on a spending spree, trying to buy a winning team. Instead, they would be using their farm system, and growing the team from scratch, and using draft picks to the best of their discretion.
We will also see how many current players are actually willing to play and raise their families in “Winter-peg, Mani-Snowba”. The physical climate change is going to be massive for these players who were drafted by the Thrashers, then married a nice southern girl, settled down and had a family while playing in Atlanta. I know how much of an issue I have with a -36 degree temperature without factoring in the windchill. I cannot imagine how someone who grew up making jokes about how cold Canada is will handle this extreme life transition. It may not matter how much you pay the player, if he (or his family) doesn’t want to be there, he won’t be there. Both Edmonton and Calgary have had troubles holding on to unrestricted free agents as soon as their original contracts are up, even during the years when they were winning the Stanley Cup.
The question that remains, even after the sale has been completed is: will this team work in the long term for Winnipeg? We keep hearing about how the economic environment is much different than it was when the Jets had to leave town. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, the average family income in the city in 2008 was just over $70,000 per year. The city was still benefiting from a housing boom due to the oil and gas industry like the rest of Western Canada at that time. The new NHL salary cap and TV deals are providing much needed revenue to small market teams preventing sudden skyrocketing salaries and operating expenses. This can only help the new Winnipeg team.
This is a young, talented team with a history of four playoff games. That just will not do. The potential is there, but this team will need to win, and win fast. Non-performance is not an option. However, I have serious doubts that this team is going to be economically viable past three or four years. The honeymoon period will be over, and the original three year commitment for a low-end season ticket holder will be up. That’s when we will really see how many of these regular working people, making $10.50/hr, who skipped work yesterday to dance the conga in the streets, are willing to drop another $1,755.00 per year in another three-year commitment. If they are not, Bettman will have them moved to a U.S. city before you even blink. It will be a case of the 1964 blues song “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had”, by Muddy Waters.