Saturday, March 31, 2007

Want to see an NHL game cheap? Your best bet is Atlanta.

The Globe and Mail’s David Shoalts has sat down with pen, paper and calculator to take a look at the attendance stats of the Atlanta Thrashers, a team that has improved a fair amount on the ice and slowly made some progress at the box office.

But as Shoalts’ points out using a number of charts, the Thrashers still give away a fair amount of tickets per game 2,827 in the first twenty five games of the year to be exact, a papering of the house take that is a quite a bit ahead of last years totals.

Just behind the Thrashers in the check us out for free department are the Florida Panthers who cycled 2,806 test drivers through the gates per game in the first 25, down a fair amount from last years 4,155.

Shoalts examines the leagues announced attendance numbers, with the closely guarded official paid attendance, which judging by Atlanta and Florida seem to have some wild discrepancies.

And while Atlanta may be your destination for free tickets, the place to stay away from apparently is Edmonton, which only has 207 free tickets available per game for promotion purposes, a situation that may change next year judging by the results of this one for the Oil.

Troubling signs abound for Thrashers
Globe and Mail Update

ATLANTA — There is a lot more at stake than a playoff spot for the Atlanta Thrashers as the National Hockey League regular season winds down.

One year ago, the Thrashers almost made the playoffs for the first time since they joined the league in 1999. Even though they ran up 90 points for the first time, they wound up tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and both teams missed the Eastern Conference playoffs by two points.
This year, the Thrashers look like a much better bet. But their 89 points before Thursday night's game against the Leafs was only three out of seventh place in the conference.

If the Thrashers finish out of the playoffs or get blitzed in the first round, then the jobs of general manager Don Waddell and head coach Bob Hartley could be in danger. Even worse, the future of the franchise, which has yet to take Atlanta by storm, could be at stake.

"This is a critical year for our franchise," Waddell said this week. "Our attendance is heading in the right direction, but if we fall short, it could affect us for years to come."

Both Waddell and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman say they are not worried about the future of the franchise in Atlanta. But there are troubling signs aside from attendance, which is improving this season but still among the worst in the NHL.

The Globe and Mail obtained the NHL's private statistics on net gate receipts, ticket giveaways and paid attendance from the start of the season to Jan. 31. They show the Thrashers were among the league's worst in every category.

For example, the Thrashers led the NHL's 30 clubs in the dubious honour of most ticket giveaways each game. The league's numbers show the Thrashers gave away an average of 2,827 tickets a game in their first 25 home games. This appears to be part of a promotional effort this season, as it is a whopping jump of about 840 per cent from last season, when the team's average was 336 a game.

The Thrashers could argue they are much better in this department over the past two seasons than the Florida Panthers. The Panthers are just behind the Thrashers with an average of 2,806 freebies a game. That is down from last season's eye-popping 4,155, which was the most in the league.

"Our comp tickets are high and need to come down, no doubt," Waddell said. "But our gate receipts are up this year. That's the important thing." He also argues that the tickets for seats in the luxury suites, which are rented annually, are included in the giveaways because the league has no other category for them.

The league's numbers through 25 games do not support Waddell's contention on gate receipts. League documentation shows that the Thrashers' net gate receipts, after taxes, were an average of $487,890 (all currency U.S.) a game for 25 home games to Jan. 31. That was 26th in the NHL and 0.02 per cent less than last season. The Leafs led the league with $1.514-million a game.
However, the Thrashers say their attendance has improved and is up about 6 per cent overall from last season, although it's not clear whether that figure refers to announced attendance, which the league uses as its official figure for publication, or paid attendance, a figure the league closely guards.

"We're in a different [type of] market," Waddell said. "People weren't [angry] last year when we missed the playoffs, they were disappointed. They felt bad we didn't get there and that's why they rallied around us this year.

"So this is a pivotal year for our franchise. People hung in with us all year. We have to see it through."

Not only are the Thrashers near the bottom in attendance — a fact that Waddell says is eased because the club owns the arena — the club's ownership has gone to court to resolve a dispute related to control of the company that owns the hockey team and the Hawks of the National Basketball Association. Bettman tried to broker a settlement this season and failed, meaning the court action will likely continue.

The ownership dispute may ensure Waddell will not be fired if the playoffs are a disaster, although he says he cannot worry about his job.

"If ownership decides to make a decision, I don't own the team, I work for the team," he said. "I want be here a long time, but unfortunately, I can't control that."

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