|Tuesday, September 16
What's next for the new Atlanta owners?
By Darren Rovell
Buying two professional sports teams and the operating rights to the arena they play in for $250 million is the easy part. Getting the return on the investment is going to be significantly harder for the eight owners who agreed to buy the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers on Tuesday.
Despite the fact that Atlanta is the country's ninth-largest television market and has 3.5 million people living in its greater metropolitan area, its reputation as a sports town has taken some hits in recent years.
The Atlanta Braves have the National League's best record (again) and will be making their 13th straight playoff appearance, but the locals have apparently become complacent with success.
Despite the Braves' perennial success, attendance is down by at least seven percent for the third straight season, and the team is on pace to draw less than 30,000 per game for the first time since 1991.
If winning teams can't sell, losing teams can't either.
"In pro sports, winning solves most problems," said Jeff Chown, managing director of The Marketing Arm, a national sports marketing firm based in Dallas. "Before the Braves started winning, the fan base wasn't there, and the Hawks haven't won in so long that they have to win back the fans."
The crowd for Hawks games has been consistent, which is not a good thing. Over the past five season, the team has averaged about 13,400 fans per game. Last season, their attendance ranked second-worst in the league, behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers -- despite the fact that the team offered season ticket buyers a $125 refund if the team missed the playoffs. The Hawks finished 35-47 last season -- their best record since 1999 -- but the team's fourth straight lottery appearance reportedly cost AOL Time Warner around $500,000 in refunds.
The Thrashers attendance has declined every season of their existence. From a high of 17,206 fans per game in their inaugural 1999-2000 season, the Thrashers dropped to 13,746 last season -- second-worst in the NHL. That's with an average ticket price of approximately $40, which was below the league average of $41.56, according to Team Marketing Report. The Thrashers have not made the playoffs since they entered the league.
Nonetheless, the new Thrashers management team remains upbeat about the franchise's prospects.
"I think when the people of Atlanta get a taste of the excitement, the speed, the intensity, they'll come to this arena and they'll embrace this team," said Bruce Levenson, a partner in the deal who was formerly a minority owner of the Washington Capitals and will now oversee the Thrashers. "Season ticket sales for this year are up -- a reflection of the way this team finished last year and the excitement that we have in store for them this year."
Team president Stan Kasten told ESPN.com last week that he expected attendance to be up 10 percent this upcoming season.
The Atlanta Falcons, who previously had much trouble filling the Georgia Dome, are all of a sudden the example in the marketplace. New owner Arthur Blank cut prices last season and, as a result of the discount as well as the excitement surrounding Michael Vick, sold 20,000 new season tickets. This season, 97 percent of its season-ticket holders renewed, thousands more made the investment and the team sold out its season ticket allotment for only the second time in franchise history.
"I think if you look at the Falcons -- what their attendance was last year versus what their attendance is this year -- it shows that the Atlanta fans are sophisticated sports fans," said Steve Belkin, a partner in the ownership group dubbed Atlanta Spirit LLC, and an investor in the group that lost out to Robert Johnson for ownership of the NBA's expansion franchise in Charlotte. "You can't bring them into the arena with gimmicks. You need to provide a quality team, you need to provide a winning team, you need to provide an exciting team."
For the new owners, putting winning teams on the court and ice will be essential. But in the interim, they can look at Mark Cuban's success in building the Dallas Mavericks' brand as a model for the Hawks and Thrashers' new ownership group, Chown said.
"While ownership changes themselves don't normally drive ticket sales, if someone like Mark Cuban comes along and shows energy and commitment like he has done with the Dallas Mavericks, it's possible tickets could be sold and fans could be energized before the wins start coming," Chown said.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.