Published by Dan Cunning on Jun 1, 2014
Updated on Jan 3, 2020

Why the Thrashers left Atlanta

Atlanta has become a hockey punchline. We've lost two NHL franchises: the Flames in 1980 and the Thrashers in 2011. Here's why the Thrashers leaving had more to do with America Online than with the city or its hockey fans.

The Fans

If you ask someone in Atlanta "why the Thrashers left", you'll likely hear about all the empty seats at Philips Arena (home of the Thrashers). Just how bad was it? Let's take a look at who had worse attendance during the franchise's history:

Season Teams with lower attendance than Atlanta
1999-2000 Dallas, Nashville, LA, Boston, Chicago, Florida, Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Calgary, New Jersey, Phoenix, Vancouver, Washington, Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Carolina, NY Islanders
2000-2001 Chicago, Tampa Bay, Florida, Phoenix, Anaheim, Carolina, NY Islanders
2001-2002 Phoenix, Anaheim
2002-2003 Phoenix, Nashville
2003-2004 New Jersey, Anaheim, Washington, NY Islanders, Chicago, Nashville, Carolina, Pittsburgh
2004-2005 Season not played due to lockout
2005-2006 Anaheim, Nashville, New Jersey, St. Louis, Washington, Chicago, NY Islanders
2006-2007 Florida, Nashville, Phoenix, Boston, New Jersey, Washington, NY Islanders, Chicago, St. Louis
2007-2008 New Jersey, Washington, Florida, Boston, Nashville, Columbus, Phoenix, NY Islanders
2008-2009 NY Islanders
2009-2010 NY Islanders, Phoenix
2010-2011 Phoenix, NY Islanders

Notice some current powerhouses: Chicago, Anaheim, and Boston showing up multiple times. They turned it around with good drafts, smart coach/manager changes, and even an ownership change. If poor attendance is the reason for relocating, why are the NY Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes still playing hockey?

Ask the fans of the North Stars, Nordiques, or Whalers how much fan support matters.

The Team

In their inaugural season, the Thrashers finished with 14 wins and 57 loses, followed by 23 wins in 2001 and 19 wins in 2002. They didn't break .500 until 2006 and in 2007 earned their lone division title and playoff birth but were swept by the Rangers in the first round.

Don Waddell was the team's general manager for all but the very last season (he became team president). Instead of moving with the team to Winnipeg, he became a scout for the Pittsburgh Pengiuns, a job he may have earned by trading them Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, "highly regarded prospect" Angelo Esposito, and a 1st round pick. Hossa and Dupuis have become major contributing forces in several Stanley Cup Championships. Armstrong and Christensen had short NHL careers while Angelo Esposito never had one.

The League

The NHL made numerous decisions that hurt the Thrashers.

They created the Southeast Division with Atlanta, Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay, and Washington. The division lacked hockey history and rivalry. Washington was the oldest, founded in 1974 with its first winning season coming in 1983. Tampa Bay and Florida were established in 1992 and 1993 respectively, while Carolina moved from Hartford in 1997. The league added more divisional games to the schedule, hurting Atlanta's transplants from Chicago, New York, Boston and Buffalo who would rarely get to see their family's team come to town. Read this for more information on the dynamics of Atlanta's northeastern transplants.

The league promised Atlanta would host an all-star game to expose Atlanta's new fan-base to the stars of the league. The date was set to 2005, which was cancelled due to that year's lockout and couldn't be rescheduled until 2008.

In 2009, the NHL approached Mark Chipman about moving the Phoenix Coyotes back to Winnipeg but provided an unrealistic timeline, so the NHL eventually took over ownership. The league then refused to sell to anyone wishing to relocate the team. Atlanta was not provided the same luxury, mostly because the Thrashers had some of the worst owners in sports.

The Owners

Turner Broadcasting Systems is a staple of Atlanta sports, owning the Braves, Hawks, and Thrashers. However, Turner became a subsidiary of Time Warner in 1996, and four years later Time Warner made the biggest mistake in corporate history getting purchased by America Online for $164 billion, who fraudulently inflated sales numbers to appear more financially viable. In the midst of huge financial troubles, AOL Time Warner sold the Thrashers, the Hawks, and operating rights to Philips Arena to the Atlanta Spirit, a new partnership between nine businessmen from Atlanta, Washington D.C., and Boston.

Two years after buying the team (2005), the partnership developed a dispute involving a trade with the NBA's Phoenix Suns. As a result, Boston-native and 30% partner Steve Belkin wanted to buy everyone out, and everyone else wanted to buy him out, so like all good businessmen they sued each other. A circuit court in Maryland (the corporate home of the Atlanta Spirit) ruled that Steve Belkin was entitled to buy everyone out but was later overturned. Belkin would be bought out, but no one agreed on a price.

From 2005-2010, the Atlanta Spirit spent more time in court than watching their team, except for partner Bud Seretean who died in 2007. In the process, they say they lost $174 million. In fact, the remaining owners became very vocal that hockey wasn't going to work in Atlanta, helping them lower the price of buying out Belkin. Don Waddell remained general manager through their distraction and apathy.

Finally in December 2010, Michael Gearon and Bruce Levenson became the lead owners buying out Belkin, but the group wasn't finished suing. They sued their lawfirm for $195 million, blaming them for botching the contract between them and Belkin. In this lawsuit, they claim the bad contract thwarted their attempts to sell the Thrashers for six years, dating back to 2005 (two years after buying the team).

With the ownership status now clear, the Atlanta Spirit quickly moved to sell the team, but they would not be selling the rights to Philips Arena. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted to become a partner or the tenant of a lawsuit happy landlord. At the end of the 2010-11 season, the NHL jumped at the chance to rid themselves of these owners along with taking a $60 million relocation fee (one they would not receive if moving the league-owned Coyotes back to Winnepeg).

The Answer

The fans didn't break any attendance records, but they were never the worst. The team wasn't great, and its long-time general manager and president could only land a scouting job after Winnipeg fired him. The NHL scheduled around 40% of each season (32 games a year) versus the same young division then purchased the Coyotes to keep them in Phoenix (a team Atlanta out-attended 8 of 11 seasons). All annoying but none are the reason the Thrashers left Atlanta.

The Thrashers moved because AOL Time Warner sold them to a dysfunctional ownership group that were only interested in basketball and arena rights. Here's some further reading:

If you love this disaster, you'll also love what happened to the Atlanta Braves when AOL Time Warner sold them to Liberty Media, including "sport's worst TV contract", brash political manipulation, and back-room dealings. I miss Ted Turner, but at least we have Arthur Blank.

Update On September 7, 2014, Bruce Levenson announced he would sell his interest in the Atlanta Spirit, explaining the reason was a racially insensitive e-mail he sent to the Hawks GM in 2012 (one year after selling the Thrashers), saying the team's low ticket sales were due to the Hawks alienating the white suburbanites.

Update On January 2, 2015, the Atlanta Spirit put the Atlanta Hawks along with the Philips Arena rights up for sale.

Update On June 24, 2015, the NBA approved the sale of the Atlanta Hawks to an ownership group led by Tony Ressler.