October 27, 2010
(Ed. Note: Puck Previews shall return on Thursday.)
Every so often since the summer, an email would arrive like this one from reader Wayne B. on the Atlanta Thrashers' multi-cultural roster:
On Friday night, when I went to look for bios on Nigel Dawes(notes) and Anthony Stewart(notes), I discovered that 5 black players (I'm not going to get into African-Canadian/Swedish/American non-sense) made up 25% of the Atlanta Thrashers dress-out roster for this weekend's games (Oduya, Kane, Dawes, Stewart and Byfuglien). Unfortunately, I don't have access to NHL records, but would that 25% constitute an NHL "record"?
Fact is that the Atlanta Thrashers have an unusually high number of black players in their system: Defensemen Dustin Byfuglien(notes) and Johnny Oduya(notes), and forwards Evander Kane(notes) and Anthony Stewart, on the NHL roster; with Nigel Dawes and Akim Aliu(notes) playing with the AHL Chicago Wolves. Sebastian Owuya(notes), drafted last summer, is playing in the WHL; him and Kane are the only players not acquired by the team via trades or signings.
The trend is made more unusual because of geography: The City of Atlanta is more than 50 percent black and is the second largest in the U.S. behind New York; and it's a population that, traditionally, isn't watching the Stanley Cup Finals every season.
So the speculation began that this roster was being put together by design, in order for a team struggling to fill seats to reach an untapped audience for hockey. Pass It To Bulis (Mainstream Media: "The blogosphere") published a well-received post about the trend, noting that by having six players hovering near the NHL level, the Thrashers had roughly 20 percent of the active black players in the NHL.
Was this on purpose? Was this a coincidence? In either case, are the Thrashers taking advantage of it? With the team in New York to face the Rangers, those questions are finally being answered by Atlanta management.
The Pass It To Bulis piece is explicit in its claim that the Thrashers' acquisition of these players was premeditated for marketing reasons:
From a business perspective, I support their strategy of acquiring black players. It is imperative to their success that they engage their community in the same way that Vancouver, Montreal, Indiana, and many other sporting communities do. As we've seen, the way to do this (short of winning, which isn't an option for Atlanta) is to give your team a local connection. A Georgian birth certificate is a rarity in the NHL, but black players are beginning not to be. In Atlanta, this needs to be apparent in order for hockey to gain any momentum there.
GM Rick Dudley, speaking with NHL.com's Dan Rosen, denied these moves were made for demographic reasons:
Atlanta may be heading in that direction, but as GM Rick Dudley adamantly pointed out, it's not on purpose, as some bloggers and journalists have been suggesting. "If it happens to work in Atlanta because there's a large black population, that's great. But to do it purposely? That would be ludicrous to me," Dudley told NHL.com.
"Dustin Byfuglien was the most sought-after guy in the Chicago purge and we pushed hard to get him," Dudley said. "Johnny Oduya we traded for because he's a darn good defenseman. Evander Kane we picked him at No. 4 and he was on almost every (draft ranking) list in the top four. Anthony Stewart is a guy that I know better than most people and this year he's proving himself able to play in the National Hockey League.
"I don't ever remember making a deal and saying this guy's white or black or whatever. I just really don't care."
Even if these moves weren't intentional, they're not being ignored for their promotional value. According to Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times, the Thrashers have started to advertise to black audiences via print and radio campaigns in Atlanta. From the Times, speaking to team president Don Waddell:
"We're not trying to exploit our players," Waddell said. "But we have an opportunity now to reach a different community, so we're doing a lot more advertising on urban radio stations, some magazines."
According to Jim Pfeifer, the vice president for marketing for the Thrashers and the Atlanta Hawks, the hockey team has placed ads in The Atlanta Tribune, the city's weekly black newspaper, as well as on V103, Hot 107, WAMJ and other stations classified as urban. Digital billboards throughout the area "focus more on Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Johnny Oduya," Pfeifer said, "and we're definitely reaching a more diverse audience in all of Atlanta."
Waddell told the Times that broadening the team's marketing scope was out of necessity, and that the Thrashers "don't have enough fans" in Atlanta:
"We've got four and a half million people in Atlanta, and there's still three million people who don't even know who the Thrashers are. Our small community of hardcore fans are going to come out anyway, so we started doing some things this summer to build some more interest, to try to attract a different fan than we normally would attract."
While not ignoring it, the players have all downplayed the trend; and, to a man, seek to point out its potential benefits. As Stewart told NHL.com: "It's not necessarily a big market yet, but it could help the casual fan just to come out and catch a game or two. We're all pretty good players, in my opinion."
Good players, but not a great team. And despite the interesting social marketing experiment playing out in the A.T.L., it all comes back to success on the ice. Tiger Woods doesn't have a large number of African-American sports fans tuning into golf for the first time if he were an over-par duffer. Boxing has seen more great white hypes than it can count through the years.
Winning, playoff appearances, championships ... these are still the easiest way to market a pro sports team to the non-believers. But perhaps the Thrashers' approach, incidental as they claim it to be, opens new doors when that success arrives.
UPDATE: Here's another interesting email we received this week, from reader Paul McManus:
I was at the Rangers-Avalanche game last week and a man & his son from Leeds, England were sitting next to me throughout the game. He didn't know much about hockey so he asked me many questions during the game which I was more than happy to answer since he was a polite gentleman. One of the questions he asked me was if there were a lot of players of African descent in the NHL after he noticed Chris Stewart(notes) of the Avalanche. Stewart played a great game netting 2 goals in the match. I told him that there were only a handful but there were now more than ever.
When I got home I started to wonder which team had the most players of African descent in the league and through some research noticed that the Atlanta Thrashers had 5 players: Johnny Oduya, Anthony Stewart, Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien & Nigel Dawes [now 4 since Nigel Dawes has been sent to the minors]. I was wondering if this was an NHL record and also if this was a deliberate move by the Thrashers since almost 56% of the population is of African descent.
Fans are taking notice as well.