February 16, 2011
When Dustin Byfuglien(notes) signed a five-year contract extension Tuesday, Atlanta Thrashers blogger Ben Wright called it "some of the best news Thrashers fans have heard in a long time," and that's not hyperbole.
Here was a star player (or burgeoning star) agreeing to commit to the franchise in a way that so many others hadn't. It was a moment of stability for a franchise that, at times, has made the Phoenix Coyotes look like an Original Six team by comparison. Wrote Laura Astorian of SB Nation Atlanta:
This is a huge vote of confidence in the future of the franchise, and one that the ownership group obviously greenlighted.
One day later, the air gets let out of the congratulatory balloons. At least at first glance.
Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Atlanta Spirit co-owner Michael Gearon, who said the franchise could be relocated if new investors (or a buyer) aren't found in the near future.
"If we are faced with that as the only alternative, that's what's going to happen," Gearon told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview Tuesday. "I don't think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in losses. We just can't do it. The reality is we need fans showing up and we need investors, or a primary investor." [...]
Gearon said he is speaking out about the future of the franchise because he does not want potential investors willing to keep the team in Atlanta to step forward after a sale has been completed.
"Long term, it's important that a message gets out," Gearon said. "Hopefully, I think it helps having fans show up because it demonstrates that the city is committed to the team. More importantly, I hope one, two or three other wealthy guys say 'OK, we'll hop on this raft with you. Even though you are in choppy waters, stage four rapids, we'll get on this.'"
The timing of the interview, conducted Tuesday, is odd. On the one hand the franchise is in "stage four rapids"; on the other, it's just committed five years and $26 million to a player.
On the one hand, the franchise needs a buyer or investor to survive; on the other, Gearon makes several pleas for fans to show up and support this team during both a playoff push and what could be its demise.
So are these statements a way to whack the bushes and see what flies out as far as potential investors? Of course, and Gearon says as much. But that shouldn't diminish the severity of this situation for the Thrashers.
USA Today published a piece on the thrashers this week, writing that "Canada is calling" as the team struggles financially. The Globe & Mail, always first on the relocation beat, reported that the Thrashers owners' seven-year agreement with the league not to relocate the franchise is due to expire this fall. It also mentions Winnipeg as a prime candidate for a relocated team.
So in dire times for the franchise, who can keep the Thrashers in Atlanta?
This guy, of course. What the hell ever happened to him, anyway?
But more to the point: It's on the grassroots netizens and Gary Bettman.
It's a bold move, but having an online lobbying arm to coax new investors to look at the team isn't a bad move at all.
The other factor here is Bettman, who has steadfastly said he and the NHL will seek to keep teams in their current locations. He's done it time and time again, both as a message to NHL owners that the league is on their side before it's on the side of an outsider with deep pockets; and, as we wrote in December:
Moving a Bettman era expansion or relocated team (like Atlanta or Phoenix) north of the border carries with it a sense of defeat, of failure, of having staked a claim in a new market and then having seen that market, for whatever reason, reject the NHL.
And you expect Gary Bettman to symbolically admit to that?
To hear the Thrashers ownership tell it, he may have to.
As for the Thrashers, this is out of their hands. All they can do is keep contending, keep winning, keep vying for only their second playoff appearance in franchise history; a deficiency that is, of course, at the root of this entire mess.