While they're partying in the streets up North, I feel a little sad for the folks in Atlanta.
Unlike Canada, where modern hockey was born, hockey in Georgia is a relatively new experience.
Other than the brief appearance of the Atlanta Flames in the 70s, the southern hockey market hasn't had much exposure to the game.
In the 90s with the Canadian dollar struggling and interest in the U.S. waning, the NHL decided to expand to non-traditional hockey markets to increase it's exposure.
The league made its first thrust into the South with Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers in '92-'93. It continued with the relocation of the Minnesota Northstars to Dallas in '93, expansion to Nashville ('98) and Atlanta ('99) and the relocation of the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina (1997).
The Southeast Division was created in 2000-2001 with Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Carolina, Florida and the Washington Capitals grouped together to create regional rivalries.
Nashville and Dallas had to fend for themselves in the Western Conference.
Since the 2000-'01 season, only Tampa Bay and Dallas have finished a season in the top 10 in attendance in a season.
Attendance in the South has a strong correlation with winning. When the Lightning were doing well on the ice, the team finished as high as second overall in attendance. When the Stars were winning a Cup and conference championships, Dallas ranked as high as sixth.
Unfortunately, winning hasn't translated to success at the gate for Carolina or Nashville.
Since 2000-'01, Carolina has never finished higher than 15th in the league despite winning a Stanley Cup and making the Conference finals three times (winning twice).
After not making the playoffs in their first five seasons, Nashville has made the playoffs in five of the last six years but has never ranked higher than 21st in attendance.
Florida hasn't made the playoffs since 1999-'00 and their attendance has shown the lack of success, never finishing higher than 17th.
With only two winning seasons in their 11-year history, the Thrashers have also felt that southern indifference.
Atlanta has never finished higher than 21st in attendance.
Are the collective attendance problems an indictment of hockey in the South as a whole? I personally don't believe so.
For passion to be developed, you have to reach the children. It typically takes an entire generation to establish that fanbase.
Clouding the issue even further is that in many of the southern communities are highly transient. There are people who move from the Northeast or Midwest and relocate down South.
Many of these folks love the game, but with Internet and NHL Center Ice they stay fans of their old team, never adopting the team where they now live. They only show up to games when their team comes to town and never display the passion for the local team that you get in the non-transient communities.
Those fans will die out and be replaced by their children who would begin to develop a love for the local teams.
Over time and with some solid, winning seasons, the foundation of a passionate fanbase is laid.
Already, hockey is being played in high schools in Florida and youth hockey has had a tremendous upswing in the southern states. Hockey is starting to develop a place in the southern sports scene.
The NHL understands this and has been steadfast in trying to keep their southern hockey markets alive. The league has done everything it could to resolve ownership issues in Tampa Bay, Florida and Atlanta (as well as other non-traditional markets like Phoenix).
Unfortunately, the bad stewardship of Atlanta Spirit Group has stripped the Thrashers of a competitive team, stars the fanbase can identify with and belief that it will get any better.
Is Winnipeg a better market? Certainly. They have passion for hockey—that's without question. But in the last 17 years of their NHL existence, the Winnipeg Jets never averaged more than 13,592 in a season. Atlanta has bested that mark eight times in their 11-year existence.
Further, the MTS Centre (where the team would play) only houses 15,015 for hockey.
An article on a report of the viability of hockey in Winnipeg and Quebec City, Toronto Globe and Mail (published May 4th) says Winnipeg could struggle to support the team.
"The biggest obstacle to a team like the Phoenix Coyotes moving back to Winnipeg, which they left in 1996, according to the report, is the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. To support both a CFL and NHL team, the authors said a city needs a population of just over 1 million—800,000 to support a hockey team and 250,000 to support a football team.
"'With Winnipeg’s population of 750,000, fans would face a challenge of supporting both NHL and [CFL] teams,' said Mario Lefebvre, director of the Conference Board’s Centre for Municipal Studies, and co-author of the report with Glen Hodgson, the board’s senior vice-president and chief economist. Most fans would not buy full season tickets for both teams, the report said, and would either buy one team’s tickets or split their entertainment budget between the two."
I don't think the NHL wants to abandon the Atlanta market, but I believe the Atlanta market seems to have turned its back on the NHL.
In my opinion, it's bad for the league and bad for hockey's development in the South.
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