Friday's post with pictures from an EN reader in Atlanta prompted a Thrashers fan to e-mail us with some background information on the lack of fans at Philips Arena:
"Basically, I wanted to comment on the above referenced blog post regarding the Penguins at Thrashers matchup from Thursday night. I am an Atlanta resident and avid hockey fan, so I wanted to take some time to post my thoughts.
Now, regarding the empty seats. If I remember correctly, It wasn't too long ago that Pittsburgh had its own problem filling Mellon arena. Am I right? The fans here are very disappointed at how the team performed last year, and the lack of attendance is indicative of continued disappointment. I read the comments that were posted on your blog, one of which claimed Atlanta is a bad market for a team. I wonder if your readership is aware that in the inaugural season, the Thrashers sold out all except one of their home games. Some "bad market."
Moreover, the continued employment of general manager Don Waddell has really angered a great many fans, most of whom decided to not renew their season tickets when given that option over the summer. Many believe Waddell didn't do enough to convince Marian Hossa to re-sign here. When Hossa asked for a top center, Todd White was Waddell's response. Need I say more? Marc Savard could have been re-signed, but Waddell balked at the asking price. He's now playing good hockey in Boston, and Ilya Kovalchuk is now looking for that top center. A center that could have been re-signed here instead of in Boston. Finally, Waddell's draft record is suspect. You needn't look far to see that.
There is so much that your readership needs to understand about the state of hockey in Atlanta. It has nothing to do with market, and everything to do with the willingness of fans to pay for a sub-par product. That's just how Atlanta sports fans are. You or your readership may believe that I am simply making excuses, but all you really need to do is look at how full the arena was in 2006-2007 compared to last season, and now compared to this season. It all hinges on a disappointing and lackluster on-ice product, not with the market. If more reporters took the time to understand (and publish) that when highlighting the poor attendance, it might help dispel some of those folks who look at the empty seats and think the market stinks."
EN Says: First off, when fans in other markets are writing to us to address anything we post or comment on here, that makes us feel good about our product. People are paying attention.
Second, While Alan didn't use the word "boycott," that's essentially what he has described. According to him, the fans down there are staying away because of Don Waddell (right). It's similar to how Detroit Lions fans held the "Millen Man March" to protest the employment for former team president Matt Millen.
The criticism of Waddell is valid. He's failed to build much of a team around Kovalchuk who is one of the best talents in the league. Kovalchuk has been there 2001 and they have have made one brief playoff run in 2007. The Penguins made a Stanley Cup run within three years of acquiring Sidney Crosby. The Capitals won a division title within three years of having Alex Ovechkin and took the Flyers to seven games in the 2008 playoffs.
The trade that sent sent Hossa to Pittsburgh has easily been the most high profile deal during Waddell's tenure. It will take time to tell if it was worth it given the acquisitions of former Penguins prospect Angelo Esposito and a first-round pick but the immediate dividends of Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen have been meager.
While the Hossa deal might be the most well known during Waddell's tenure, perhaps his largest failure was a dealing young, raw defenseman full of potential in Braydon Coburn to the Flyers near the 2007 trade deadline in exchange for an old and worn out blue liner in Alexei Zhitnik. Coburn has become a top-two defenseman and one of Philadelphia's most valuable players while Zhitnik was essentially run out of Atlanta in less than a year.
Another thing to bring into argument is the state of the economy. The Penguins have seemed somewhat immune to it having seen sellout after sellout this season. But so many other markets are not. Take a look at Detroit where the auto industry's issues have been well documented. Atlanta is hardly the only city in North America where entertainment budgets are tight.
The comparison to the Penguins' situation 4-5 years ago is a little off given how it was feared the team could relocate or even fold. While that threat ultimately ended up being completely bogus, the fear existed and kept many fans away. Additionally, the Penguins were not even attempting to be competitive on the ice and waiting for the looming lockout and the eventual economic stability it would hopefully bring. To our knowledge, the Thrashers have never been seriously considered for relocation and most of their wounds have been self-inflicted and not caused by financial strife.
Regardless, there were a lot of empty seats in Mellon Arena during those seasons and there weren't a lot of people bragging about how this was a great hockey market. But to simply look at the attendance figures during that time and declare Pittsburgh as a poor hockey city would be ignorant.
Perhaps the same could apply to Atlanta.
(Photos: Philips Arena-Mike Hudson/EN reader; Waddell-Dave Sandford/Getty Images)