As Winnipeg and the rest of Canada celebrate getting one of their own back, it’s worth remembering that the financial woes that chased the Thrashers from Atlanta are awfully similar to what cost Winnipeg its first NHL team.
Owners, those who want to be owners and league commissioners can scour maps for years in search of the ideal home for wayward franchises or expansion teams, and gush about how wonderful life will be in their new city. But there’s a hard truth buried beneath the moving blankets: Some cities simply can’t support a major league team. Some sports are never going to sell in certain markets.
Two NHL teams have now left Atlanta. Winnipeg’s previous team, now the Coyotes, are hanging on in Phoenix – barely. Ditto for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. The NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and San Diego Chargers routinely flirt with TV blackouts for not selling out their stadiums. The NFL is determined to return to Los Angeles despite the nation’s second-largest city barely being able to stifle the yawn as it lost not one, but two teams in quick succession.
”This is a very complicated and nuanced area,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. ”I don’t think there’s a simple answer of, oh yes, team owners should always be able to relocate. Nor do I think the answer is that the league should have absolute control and decision-making power over a team.
”There’s got to be some compromise.”
Not to mention a lot of thought and good dose of reality before anybody goes anywhere.
It’s no secret why relocation and expansion are attractive. There’s money – and lots of it – to be had whenever there’s a new suitor. The Thrashers sale includes a $60 million relocation fee, to be split by the NHL’s other 29 owners. The Thunder now play in a Ford Center that underwent a $100 million makeover, courtesy of Oklahoma City taxpayers, after repeated failures to get a new or renovated arena in their old home of Seattle. NFL owners got a cool $700 million just for letting the Houston Texans join their club, a figure sure to be dwarfed if the league expands to Los Angeles.
And that’s just the up-front cash. New teams or teams in new cities expand the market and create more demand for merchandise. At River City Sports Winnipeg, T-shirts with the old Winnipeg Jets logo were ”flying out the door” Wednesday, customer service manager Rob Main said. The online demand is rivaling that for Canucks merchandise, and Vancouver is in the Stanley Cup finals.
”I don’t see it letting up now until we find out what the team’s new logo is or what the name is,” Main said.
That, of course, will mean a warehouse’s worth of new merchandise for enthusiastic fans to buy.
But just because a place looks great on paper doesn’t make it a smart long-term investment. And simply plopping a pro team somewhere isn’t enough to guarantee its success.
Hockey in the South and West was never going to be an easy sell. Even with significant numbers of transplants from the Northeast and Midwest, there’s no natural affinity for a cold-weather sport in a warm-weather climate. It’s not part of the daily conversation. Kids don’t grow up playing it, and there are no powerhouse college programs to generate interest.
The Atlanta owners claim to have lost $130 million since taking over the franchise, though being a tenant in Philips Arena didn’t help. In a city of more than 5 million people, the Thrashers averaged less than 14,000 fans this season.
It’s not much better elsewhere. Of the five teams with the worst attendance, three were in warm-weather markets.
”The NHL made a mistake in the ’90s by pushing this Southern strategy,” Zimbalist said. ”(Commissioner Gary Bettman) thought all he had to do was cover the U.S. map with hockey teams and hockey would become magically popular. That didn’t happen. Now you’ve got some teams limping along.”
Conditions in Winnipeg are far different than they were in 1996, when Canada’s eighth-largest city lost its beloved Jets. The Canadian economy, struggling back then, is stronger, Zimbalist said, with its dollar about equal to the U.S. dollar. More than a sport, hockey is engrained in Canada’s culture.
There’s no questioning the commitment of the new ownership group, True North Sports and Entertainment, either. The group includes billionaire David Thomson, and was so determined to bring a team back to Winnipeg it went after the Coyotes first before turning its attention to Atlanta. True North also owns the MTS Centre, a 15,015-seat arena that opened in 2004.
”I don’t think this is a problematic market at all for hockey,” Zimbalist said.
Keep your fingers crossed he’s right. Otherwise Winnipeg will join Atlanta as one of those rare cities to lose a team not once, but twice.