Professional sports franchises are, at the core, businesses that are typically characterized as well-run, immensely profitable, and inextricably rooted in a community. The Atlanta Thrashers, now the second NHL franchise to depart Atlanta for a Canadian city in 21 years, lacked all of these traits with an uncommitted ownership that never bought-in to achieve success.
After 11 seasons with only one playoff appearance and exactly zero postseason victories, the Thrashers are no longer part of Atlanta. Having been sold to True North Sports & Entertainment, a Canadian ownership group, the team will be relocated to Winnipeg, Manitoba. This is the same city that just 15 years ago suffered as the last North American city to lose its own NHL franchise when the Jets moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes.
It is no secret that Atlanta Spirit, LLC, owners of the Thrashers since 2004, never truly committed to the on-ice product. Even before the Spirit took the reins, the franchise’s short history was marked by poor operations decisions and struggling efforts at marketing hockey in the American south. The Spirit focused a majority of the effort to finances on legal battles with one another, which resulted in the roster operating at league minimum and a plethora of empty seats in Philips Arena.
The team floundered, and never garnered a positive reputation within the National Hockey League. The sale of the team was imminent as news of the deal was popularized in the last few months. However, it was widely known that the Spirit had been soliciting the sale for several years, despite repeated false public statements from the group claiming otherwise.
The success of the Thrashers franchise hinged upon tapping into the hearts of the city’s people and the wallets of the corporate community of Atlanta. Just as a coach needs his players to buy-in to a system in order to win, a franchise needs the city to rally behind it in order to find lasting success. Unfortunately, with ownership’s lackluster support for the team, who could blame the sponsors and the fans for abandoning ship, or perhaps never boarding the ship at all?
The demise of the Thrashers should be a cautionary tale for businesses everywhere. Confidence and belief in the potential of a business’s offerings are pivotal. Businesses must believe in the value of their brand for others to stand behind them in order to build success.
We’ve seen it over the years in Atlanta where major professional sports like baseball, football, basketball and hockey easily play second fiddle to college football. The brand visionaries and strategists need to account for periods of time when they will operate in a react and adapt mode to accomodate for the changing competitive sports landscape. For a niche market like the hockey crowd, there was never enough proactivity in their initial roadmap to allow this franchise to succeed, especially in an 11 season history with only one playoff appearance and no postseason wins to their credit. Fans can’t be blamed, they showed up in droves and bought in year after year initially, but nothing really changed because the vision and strategy they implemented became known as the same old “song and dance” AKA another season of miring in mediocrity. This business venture failed because of the resistance to react and adapt to customers. Coincidentally, hockey fans are a passionate extension of the brand, as loyal as fans come, but like anything else, they need incentive to spend their hard earned dollars. They gave back to the Thrashers ownership group what they got in return: half the energy and half the investment, so the same mediocre return in the stands mirrored the mediocre performance on the ice. This business failed because the teams strategy and vision were antiquated.