"If the Thrashers left Atlanta, would anybody notice?"
That question was asked during Illegal Curve's radio program on Sports Radio 1290 in Winnipeg, along with the bold prediction that the Atlanta Thrashers, rather than the Phoenix Coyotes, will be the franchise to eventually relocate to Manitoba.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly appeared on the program and was asked about the Atlanta market, as the Thrash are currently 28th in the NHL in tickets distributed per home game, with 11,902 on average through 13 games.
"I would acknowledge that Atlanta historically has been a difficult sports market, and I can't exactly put my finger on it as to why that's been the case. You make good points when you point to the fact that the Atlanta Braves make the playoffs 13 consecutive years in baseball, where it is a little more difficult to make the playoffs. And they are having difficulty selling out their home playoff games, which, you would think in most markets is unheard of. So, Atlanta has proven to be a very difficult market..."
"Again, it might be a situation where the building location isn't ideal in that market, and if it was built in a different location within the Atlanta Metropolitan location, it might be drawing better. But those are all issues that are important issues, obviously the building is not moving. We're going to have to look at the long term prospects of that franchise, and if the determination is made that it can't make it there, and can't be successful there, then something will have to be done."
This is, of course, catnip to Winnipeggers hoping for another shot at the NHL and to those who see Atlanta as a market with systemic, incurable problems.
What Daly said isn't breaking news on the NHL's approach to struggling markets, or Atlanta's potential portability. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News reported earlier this year that the NHL wouldn't stand in the way if a new owner swooped in, purchased the Thrashers and moved them. There was Hamilton chatter in 2009 as well.
But his words continue to shift the focus from Phoenix as relocation bait to Atlanta ... even if that focus might be misplaced.
Daly mentioned the bundling of the Thrashers and Hawks under the same ownership for the purposes of selling everything from sponsorships and naming rights for the arena, as the Examiner pointed out last year:
There are $9.25 million very good reasons why the Thrashers are staying here.
When the arena was completed in time for the 1999-2000 campaign, Royal Philips Electronics signed a 20-year, $185 million naming rights deal. The Thrashers and Hawks are required to both play in the arena or Philips can walk away.
Of course, that ownership situation is still in dispute.
Don Waddell and the Thrashers have been steadfast in claiming the team isn't moving, and told The Fourth Period they're identifying their fan base:
"What we decided this summer, and this was early in the summer time, is that we have 10,000 hardcore hockey fans that pretty much are going to come whenever they can," Waddell explained. "There are 4.5 million people in Atlanta; we need to reach a different population. We went out of the box, a little bit, and tried to do a lot of non-traditional hockey marketing. We know who our hockey fans are, but we need to reach other people to get them into a game. If you're not already a fan, it's a hard game to learn and get excited about on TV. We're trying to reach out to a lot of people who have never been down to our arena and get them to test it."
Daly told Illegal Curve that the CBA and the Canadian dollar have made it so that Winnipeg can be a thriving NHL market. But it's not enough to have an NHL-ready market; if you believe Gary Bettman (yeah, we know) and his philosophy on relocation, this is the litmus test, based on the relocation of the Nords and the Jets:
"The biggest litmus test ultimately was that no one wanted to own the team there. When the marketplace decides that they don't want to own a team there, it has no future," he said.
"Why someone wouldn't want to own a team there is [because] maybe there's no corporate support; maybe they can't sell enough tickets because the market isn't big enough or rich enough; maybe the arena stinks and there's no prospect of a new arena; maybe it's all of the above. That's why it's very hard to look at one factor and say it does or doesn't work."
The NHL is aware of Atlanta's challenges. The NHL is aware of Winnipeg's benefits. The question is when, if ever, it'll be time to determine if "something has to be done."