Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Playing Below Capacity: Atlanta Thrashers

Welcome to the ninth edition of Playing Below Capacity, a series where I take a look at teams (as of December) that are playing below 85% capacity attendance. All previous editions can be found here. Today its off to Atlanta, Georgia where the Thrashers rank 29th in average attendance at 14,501 and rank 30th in capacity attendance coming in at 78.2%. Atlanta has not benefited from the second half attendance boost either, as attendance is down 1% from the end of the first half of the season. So lets get going.

*Note: Any "problems" that I suggest the Thrashers have are my opinion and are most likely not 100% accurate (but close to it, if I do say so myself). Enjoy and please do comment.

Here are the ideas I came up with that could be problems with getting people to go to Thrashers games on a regular basis...
  • Arena Location/Age
  • High Ticket Prices/Poor Promotional Events
  • Metro Population
  • On Ice Product
  • Location/History of Franchise
  • Other
First, some basic facts about the Atlanta Thrashers (Wikipedia):
  • Atlanta was awarded an NHL franchise in the summer of 1997, but with an insufficient arena, the plan was to begin play in the 1999-2000 season with the opening of the new Phillips Arena.
  • In eight completed seasons, the Thrashers have made the postseason once, winning their only division championship but losing in the first round in 2006-2007. In 2005-2006, the team was poised to make the playoffs but failed to in the second half.
  • The Thrashers home is Phillips Arena, which opened in 1999 and is also home to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. It was built on the exact site as the previous arena to the former Atlanta Flames (now in Calgary, Alberta), the Omni Coliseum.
  • The capacity for Ice Hockey at Phillips Arena is said to be 18,545.
- Arena Location/Age

Phillips Arena is a very nice new arena based in on the eastern side of downtown Atlanta. The sports road trip guys liked it a lot, as they say it is easy to get to and the buzz around the arena is great because of its busy downtown setting. Take a look from the satellite (click to enlarge):

Phillips Arena is noted by the arrow "C" and the big white dome next to it is the Georgia Dome. Phillips Arena is not the problem in Atlanta. It is a very nice and new facility. Take a look inside:
The way Phillips Arena was laid out is great to me, as all luxury boxes were placed on one side vertically, as shown. On the opposite side, there are only two levels of seating, which I highly promote as well (no steep and very high third bowl). I have been told though that the traffic in Atlanta is brutal, and actually has prompted discussions on when to start games (either 7 or 7:30 PM). But in general, Phillips Arena isn't the problem.

- High Ticket Prices/Poor Promotional Events

According to teammarketing.com, the Thrashers rank 22nd in the Fan Cost Index. The Fan Cost Index:
"The Fan Cost Index™ comprises the prices of four (4) average-price tickets, two (2) small draft beers, four (4) small soft drinks, four (4) regular-size hot dogs, parking for one (1) car, two (2) game programs and two (2) least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps."
Atlanta's FCI comes in a $262.48, up about 4% from last season. The Thrashers are about a dollar below the NHL average ticket price, at $48.51, which was up about 5% from last season. Finally, the Thrashers are about six dollars below the NHL average premium ticket price at $107.75. So it is a good thing that the Thrashers are below the average all around, otherwise their attendance situation might look worse.

On another note, I think the Thrashers could be doing more in terms of ticket offers. A look at the Thrashers ticket page on their site reveals a couple of pack deals along with a couple of promotions, but nothing that seems to target specific audiences such as college students or young couples, for instance. Does the ownership care?

- Metro Population

The city of Atlanta has just over 500,000 inhabitants, but over 5.1 million people are scattered around the area (US Census). This ranks the city 19th in the NHL in terms of population, but Atlanta's metro would be towards the top of the list (statshockey.net). And in our sport where race is the difference between many fans, Atlanta is the first city in this series where the racial makeup of a city is predominantly black rather than white. Atlanta is about 55% black, while only 37% white. On a note that Gary Bettman will most likely bring up in any Atlanta relocation/contraction talk, it was noted in 2000 by CNN that metropolitan Atlanta is the fastest growing metro area in the nation. This is obviously good, as much of the Thrasher fans come from the Atlanta suburbs.

- On Ice Product

The Thrashers will fail to make the playoffs this season once again, being mathematically eliminated in late February. Their second half average attendance will most likely drop from their first half mark as the team is playing for its pride and their paychecks. Lets take a look at the past couple of years (click to enlarge):

Looking at this a couple of things got me thinking. First, what prompted the boost in the 2003-2004 season? Well, in the summer of 2003 the team was bought by the Atlanta Spirit, LLC; from Time/Warner. The next boost was provided by two good on-ice seasons, bringing in some bandwagon fans. Since then, the attendance has slipped, and will undoubtedly fall to pre-lockout levels this season.

The future for the on-ice success of the club is uncertain, to make matters worse. According to Hockey's Future, the Thrashers have the 10th best group of prospects in the league, which is a start. They have some promising young players in Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little, and Tobias Enstrom; and are still led by great Russian talents Ilya Kovalchuk (only 25 years old) and Victor Kozlov (36, on the other hand). The situation with Kovalchuk takes a different turn it seems every month, and with tomorrow being this seasons trade deadline, he may be on another team very soon. At the same time, this club may be good in 3-5 seasons, but immediate success does not look promising.

- Location/History of Franchise

Basic knowledge tells us that Ice Hockey in Atlanta will always be a tough sell. If the Thrashers could ever consistently average over 16,000, that would be considered to me a great success and one to validate staying in Atlanta. But unfortunately, the fan base for the Thrashers don't exactly make up the biggest following in the league, and I would imagine are made up of many fair-weathered fans. A quick search for rinks in Georgia returns only 10 results, so I think it safe to say that the Thrashers presence hasn't exactly brought a hockey boom in the state.

The Atlanta Flames eventually moved to Calgary because of their Owners personal financial difficulties but in their eight seasons provided the fans with six playoff appearances, but winning none of the series. Still, is the second coming of the NHL headed for the same fate? The on-ice product has been worse but at the same time the Atlanta Flames and the NHL had to compete with a rival league, the World Hockey Association.

- Other

If you didn't notice by know, I haven't spoken much at all about the Atlanta Ownership situation, which is a major issue with Thrasher fans. First, some links to summarize the situation as easy as possible:
  1. Why the Atlanta Spirit, LCC shoulnd't even own the Thrashers and Hawks (Gracisouly from reader Jen, Atlanta Journal Constitution)
  2. The fight between the majority owners (Again from reader Jen, AJC)
  3. More on the fight between owners (The Falconer at Bird Watchers Anonymous)
  4. Updated value of the Thrashers/Hawks/Phillips Arena package (Again, The Falconer)
From what I have read and comprehended, the ownerships level of passion about the two teams is dismal. Maybe all of that plays a role in the personnel decisions from management of the clubs to the below-average ticket offers to fans, because I certainly tend to think so.

Either way, it is a mess. The current ownership will not replace GM Don Waddell, (who has been out of favor with Thrashers fans for a while, I believe) and frankly I think a change in ownership would do both the Thrashers and Hawks good. Phillips Arena isn't going anywhere as it is a great place, so don't expect Bettman to favor pulling the plug in Atlanta anytime soon. On a final note, The Falconer at Bird Watchers Anonymous most likely knows 10 times more than me on this situation, so visit his site and if you have any questions I'm sure he could answer them with ease.

- Conclusion

Behind the Coyotes, I view the Atlanta Thrashers as the second biggest franchise mess in the NHL. They are the 27th most valuable club in the league at $158 million, and while they have been operating in negative numbers the past three seasons, the teams revenue has also risen about $3 million every year. The team is growing as well, with a 19% annual value change and a 6% one year change.

I have stated before that if I had my way, Phoenix and Atlanta would be gone quicker than you could name the nine partners (soon to be eight?) of the Atlanta Spirit group. At the same time, I'm going to pull a Rush Limbaugh and say I in no way wish the franchise suffers financially or on the ice. I wish the club could find new owners that care about the city and the sport and would put loads of efforts in to grow the game and create some tradition in Atlanta. Do I see it happening? Not anytime soon. I think once the Coyotes situation settles down (if it ever does in the next six months), the eyes will collectively shift to the Southeast division of the league and Atlanta may be a topic of discussion in the coming months.

That's about that here for this edition of Playing Below Capacity. I do have a bit of news though. As I lead off every edition of this series, nine teams were playing below 85% back in December when I decided to do this. Let's take a look at the same area now:

Nowadays, only four teams are below my 85% bar. Seeing that New Jersey was my first edition of this series and that L.A. and N.J. have passed Colorado, I'm announcing a bonus edition of Playing Below Capacity to be published next week at this time with the topic being none other than the Colorado Avalanche. I will not cover the St. Louis Blues though, as I already did a little piece on them in January (plus, they average over 18,000, they aren't hurting).

Check back later for a division average attendance by month update.

No comments:

Post a Comment