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Wagons South: The NHL falters in new territory

Even as a capacity crowd packed the RBC Center for Sunday's all-star game in Carolina, and as commissioner Gary Bettman tried to quiet relocation talk, concerns continue to cloud the NHL's two-decade-long foray into the Southern United States.

The question is not whether the South will rise again but whether it will rise at all.

Twenty years after the NHL awarded a franchise to the Tampa Bay area to introduce hockey to markets in the southern United States outside of California, the league has had only sporadic success. Year after year, for every step forward there were two steps back.

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The talk is different this season, only in that most of it concerns the Atlanta Thrashers. The perennial money pit is the subject of whispers that the team owners are getting ready to sell to Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment, which would move the franchise to the Manitoba capital. There is actually a sense of optimism around the other two problem children in the NHL's southern brood, the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers, where attendance is up although revenue may not be.

But Atlanta is different. Even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have mused in recent months that the Thrashers should consider alternatives, such as moving, despite the team being a playoff contender this season. Shortly before a crowd of 14,592, about 4,000 short of capacity, turned up recently to watch the Thrashers play the Toronto Maple Leafs, the man who runs them issued a warning to the team's fans.

"I believe in the second half of the year, the way we're going [in attendance]is a huge statement one way or the other," Don Waddell said.

Waddell, president of Atlanta Spirit LLC, the company that owns the Thrashers, the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and controls Philips Arena, implied that if ticket sales do not improve and the owners cannot end their long search for new investors or owners, then it might be time to take Bettman's advice.

At this point, the Thrashers sit 28th in the NHL in average attendance -13,053 a game, down 554 from last season. Until recently, both the Predators and Panthers were up, with the Predators sitting 20th in the NHL with an average crowd of 15,999 (up 1,020 a game). The Panthers slipped a little this month are now 22nd at 15,123, a drop of 117 fans a night.

Despite the warning to the fans, Waddell thinks hockey can work in the South, and league sources say the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg is not a slam dunk despite all of the manoeuvring said to be happening behind the scenes. Waddell and his fellow bosses with the Panthers and Predators are in agreement on the major problem facing the southern teams: losing.

Since the Thrashers joined the NHL in the 1999-2000 season, they've made the playoffs just once, in 2007, but failed to win a single game. The Panthers made a magical run to the Stanley Cup final in 1996, the third year of their existence, but last played a postseason game in 2000. The Predators have yet to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning, in 2004, won a championship.

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"Ten years of no playoffs is too long for any brand, sports or no sports," said Michael Yormark, president of the Panthers. "We all believe we can be successful in our markets. But we need to provide value in our product versus ticket price. If we do those things we will be successful."

Waddell, Yormark and Jeff Cogen, chief executive officer of the Predators, all say performance means much more in selling tickets in a non-traditional market than it does in a traditional market.

"Up in Toronto, with all due respect, what do you do in the winter time?" Yormark said. "You go see hockey. You can't go to the beach. There's not as many distractions.

"Obviously, hockey is bred into the fabric of that community. You can't compare the two. The reality is, we have to perform."

There, too, the results are mixed. In Atlanta, Rick Dudley succeeded Waddell as the general manager and put the team in playoff contention even though it lost its lone star attraction, forward Ilya Kovalchuk, last season. Thanks to assets received in the Kovalchuk trade, Dudley was able to strip his former employer of some prime talent. Dudley brought defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel and forwards Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager south from the salary-cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks.

At the all-star break, the Thrashers held the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But January was not kind, starting with a 9-3 whipping at the hands of the Leafs and the Thrashers went into the break with a 3-4-3 record in their previous 10 games.

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The Panthers also turned to the Blackhawks for a new GM. When Dale Tallon was fired by the Blackhawks he wound up with the Panthers. The team is still bumping along well behind a playoff position but Yormark says hiring Tallon allowed the Panthers to create some excitement last summer in a market where the NBA's Miami Heat was getting all the headlines by landing LeBron James and Chris Bosh. However, the team is still not in a playoff position.

His voice rising with evangelical zeal, Yormark says the team notorious for its ticket giveaways has reduced its freebies by 52 per cent this season and sold the equivalent of 10,000 full season-ticket packages.

"The community is responding," Yormark said. "They see we have a plan. We have the right pieces in place."

In Nashville, Cogen, who worked for the Dallas Stars and the Panthers before joining the Predators last summer, is taking the opposite approach. One reason for the jump in attendance is an increase in the number of free and discounted tickets.

Cogen installed a plan where fans can get vouchers for free and discounted tickets in exchange for an e-mail address that is used for follow-up sales pitches.

"At our stage, it's efficient and strategic to get that person in our building, find out who they are and then try to get them to come back two times, three times, six times," he said.

The Thrashers are more aggressive marketers this season, cutting back on freebies and trying such tricks as the misguided fake arrest of the team mascot, but Waddell says it is difficult selling tickets when your season-ticket base is less than 7,000. "We have 10,000 tickets to sell on a nightly basis, so you have no chance [of a sellout]" he said.

Along with his giveaways and discounts, Cogen makes sure the Predators' season-ticket holders get lots of extras and that few of the discounts work out to be cheaper than their ticket prices.

"That activity, at least to date, has us tracking up, both in dollars and bodies," Cogen said. "Over time, when volume grows and demand and supply start equalizing, then you can start dealing with the average ticket price."

And that is where the persistent talk of annual losses and franchise moves is rooted. The Maple Leafs may be able to boast of a top price of $650 (Canadian) but southern prices are much more modest. The Thrashers single-game prices range between $14.25 and $290 (U.S.), including surcharges, while the Panthers' range is $16.50 to $136.25. The Predators are the highest of the group with a range of $33 to $263. But each team also offers a dizzying number of discounts which keep the overall revenues down.

Each of the three teams are regular participants in the NHL's revenue-sharing plan to the tune of millions of dollars a year. The Predators also get close to $10-million a year from the city of Nashville in subsidies, so they have turned the odd small profit.

All three teams are looking for investors. But the Predators recently refinanced their bank debt, which will help in negotiations with the city for a new arena lease and Broward County agreed to reduce the Panthers' debt payments on their arena by $7.5-million over the next three years, which leaves the Thrashers with the biggest financial headaches.

At this point, the most prominent Thrashers co-owners, Bruce Levenson and Ed Gearon, who both declined to be interviewed, say they are looking only for investors interested in keeping the team in Atlanta. This was confirmed by a banking source familiar with the ownership group.

The search is not going well, though. "Know anybody interested in investing in a really exciting hockey team?" Levenson said in an e-mail message last month to The Associated Press.

However, it is too simple to say the Thrashers are the most likely candidate to move to Canada. They may not be tied to Philips Arena by a long lease and the owners recently settled a long and bitter dispute with minority owner Steve Belkin by buying him out, which makes a sale easier, but there are reasons to stay put.

The Thrashers' agreements with the NHL and at least one major sponsorship deal mean a move is difficult. For example, the 20-year arena naming rights deal for $182-million says Philips Electronics can walk away if either the Thrashers or the Hawks leave.

Waddell argues that as the eighth-largest television market in the United States, Atlanta is strategically important to the NHL, which will be negotiating a new U.S. television contract this year. But one prominent television figure said ratings are such in southern markets that few have any impact on the negotiations.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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