Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Filling the Empty Room

A friend recently asked if I was worried about the various rumors about the Thrashers leaving Atlanta. I said no -- first off, after that shitshow of a season (Thrashers tank, Avalanche do so much worse that scientists are working on new forms of the word "tank"), hockey ranks around tractor pulls and snuff films on the list of things I want to watch. We're still cool, me and hockey, but I'm seeing other sports for a bit.

Down the line, I'll get over it and want to watch hockey again. But I'm still not worried. All the stories about their problems (or those of the Coyotes, which seemed much more fraught) are -- to be generous -- rather thinly sourced, and generally pushed the most by outlets (I'm looking at you, Winnipeg Free Press and TSN) that have some interest in keeping this story alive. It's hard to believe that after bending over backwards to help out the Penguins, Predators, and Coyotes, Gary Bettman et al will wave dismissively as a team in one of the ten biggest U.S. metropolitan areas heads north. I'm no big fan of the "open letter" form of writing, but this post (via Puck Daddy) does a nice job of laying out the reasons why the NHL has some interest in keeping a team in Atlanta.

Feel free to throw all that back in my face if the ECHL is my only local option next year. But if I'm right -- and I usually am -- the Thrashers will still be here next season, and the Winnipeggers will be feverishly grasping on to rumors about the Islanders or Blue Jackets.

But there will still be a problem in Atlanta.

Put a happy face on it all you want -- and hey, I'm a relentless civic booster in all cases other than the otherworldly heat and the awful traffic and the Braves -- but the Thrashers' attendance will still suck. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I'll rely on someone else for the research here, but I'd guess that one of the major factors is that the team's primary audience is located outside the city. And considering how much fun it is to get around here (for the outsider: public transportation is useless and no one knows how to drive) the fan base might as well be located in South Carolina. There are a good amount of hockey fans intown, but the families are primarily located outside. Barring moving the arena to Cobb County (and hey world, please don't) there's nothing that can be done about that.

Meanwhile, intown -- Atlanta, according to some rather hasty internet research, has the largest gay population in the U.S. According to that article it's nearly 40 percent of the city. The city's sports teams, far as I know, have almost completely ignored them (and when they haven't ignored them, well, it isn't pretty at all). I can't speak for other big cities but by and large I'm going to guess that's still taboo in the big three and a half U.S. sports. It's sad. It's also stupid -- and perhaps the Thrashers could be a groundbreaking team.

The hockey world is, by and large, a conservative one. But it's also a fairly friendly one, if you stay off Twitter. Again, unscientific research, but I'd bet that Brent Sopel taking the Stanley Cup to a gay pride parade and Sean Avery coming out in support of gay players and same-sex marriage is more than we've heard from athletes in other major sports. And it was gratifying -- as a self-styled progressive who sometimes despairs about reconciling that with avid sports fandom -- to see people go in hard when a NHL agent took his shots at Avery's comments. Even history's greatest monster, Chris Chelios, has said a gay teammate wouldn't be a big deal.

So, Thrashers -- turn your marketing efforts that way. Yearbook shots featuring the players in their underwear. Lady Gaga on the sound system. Mixed drinks instead of Heineken. Eric Boulton doing a guest bouncer stint at the Eagle. Branch out, try new things. Philips would suddenly be a tough place to play -- an arena full of gay guys taunting the other team is gonna be a hell of a lot cattier than "Hey goalie, you suck!" Imagine Eric Staal breaking down in tears on the bench. It's sweet, isn't it?

Then imagine this: because the Thrashers have taken this step, because the Thrashers have reached out, they now have a sympathetic fan base in every city (except maybe Edmonton -- are there gay people in Edmonton?). Go on the road and there are supporters at every stop.

For the most part, and I'm gonna go out on a limb and speak for my fellow straights (you guys don't mind, right? cool) here, I don't think that most people would get too upset about this. Most of us would be united in love of hockey and are tolerant of others and are comfortable enough that we wouldn't feel threatened. We might lose a few mulleted guys with "69" jerseys, but addition by subtraction, y'know? Or those mulleted guys with "69" jerseys might learn something... about themselves.

I can't imagine that it'll happen. I also can't imagine that it would lose. Seriously, Thrashers, give it a shot. At the very least it's a more focused marketing strategy than whatever "Sons of Blueland" was all about.

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