Atlanta Thrashers need investors, buyer

Updated: December 7, 2010, 10:29 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The search continues for new investors or a buyer for the Atlanta Thrashers, but team president Don Waddell believes the NHL will not allow the team to be moved to Canada. At least not in the short-term.

"I don't believe Gary Bettman's going to allow someone to come in and buy it and move it," Waddell told ESPN.com Monday at the NHL's Board of Governors meetings.

"The league's not going to allow it to happen," he predicted.

That's not to say the team's future in Atlanta is assured. It's not.

The team's attendance continues to sit near the bottom of the league, and current ownership has been embroiled in a lengthy internal legal battle between different factions within the original group that bought the team.

Atlanta Spirit, the owners of the NHL team, the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena, have been candid about looking for additional investors and/or a buyer for the hockey team.

It's believed the Thrashers could be purchased for a bargain basement price -- say somewhere in the $125 million neighborhood -- if a prospective owner was willing to keep the team in Atlanta.

The team's future has been a hot topic of discussion in recent weeks for a number of reasons.

With the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer expected to be completed before the end of the month, the possibility that the Coyotes would be relocated to Winnipeg now appears dead.

With an ownership group in place in Winnipeg, the popular rumor has Canadian billionaire David Thomson buying the Thrashers and moving them to Winnipeg.

There is also the Quebec City angle, as there is an ownership group that has expressed interest in buying a team and bringing the NHL back to that market.

There has been discussion among various levels of government about helping to fund the building of a new arena, but until such a facility becomes a reality the NHL won't be returning to Quebec.

Still, that won't stop the rumors from swirling that the Thrashers could be on the move.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly recently discussed the Atlanta situation in an interview on a Winnipeg radio station and suggested that at some point the Atlanta market has to respond to the team.

He clarified his remarks Monday saying nothing is imminent. But he also repeated his warning that at some point if a market can't succeed steps have to be taken.

"I don't think there's anything we've ever said that would be inconsistent with the concept of trying to be successful in the markets we're in over an extended period of time, giving them every opportunity to be successful," Daly said.

In the event they can't succeed, "for whatever reason, obviously you look at other alternatives and relocation is another alternative. I didn't mean to suggest anything was imminent in Atlanta. I obviously think that over time you've got to look at the viability of the marketplace," Daly said.

Waddell understands the predicament the team is in.

They are competitive on the ice with new head coach Craig Ramsay working wonders with a talented young team. But attendance often lags behind on-ice success. The team's season ticket base has shrunk to about 6,200 which means they are heavily reliant on walk-up sales.

Certainly rumors that the team may be moved don't help the process of selling the team in the marketplace.

"It's frustrating because we seem to be dealing with this all the time," Waddell said. "But it's also the reality with how our crowds are."

Because of various lease arrangements and ownership situations around the NHL, Waddell said there simply aren't many portable franchises, ie. teams that could be bought and moved somewhere else.

Because current ownership owns the arena and the NBA Hawks, along with the Thrashers, they are one of those teams that in theory could be purchased and then relocated.

"The question is when would it be moveable. That's the million dollar question," Waddell said.

The team loses about $15 million, but if an owner came in and was able to restructure the lease arrangement with the current owners, it's not improbable that those losses could come in at less than $10 million. If the team can make the playoffs -- they have qualified for the postseason just once in its history and were swept by the New York Rangers -- and attendance goes up, the economics of keeping the team in Atlanta look rosier.

"We're putting a good product on the ice. We have a chance to have a successful year," Waddell said. "Now the challenge goes back to the fans."

One thing is certain, Waddell hasn't lost his sense of humor.

During a recent television interview with analyst Darren Eliot, Waddell ended the interview by pulling a sheet of paper out of his pocket and holding it in front of the camera. On it he had written a request that viewers buy Thrashers tickets and the number to call.

Scott Burnside is a hockey writer for ESPN.com.