Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No Thrashers bailout coming in hard-hit Georgia capital

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FANS of the Atlanta Thrashers shouldn't hold their breath for a $25-million miracle.

An official from the mayor's office of the Georgia capital said the NHL hasn't approached it about covering the team's losses for the 2011-12 season and even if it did, it's highly unlikely the city would write the cheque.

"I can tell you the finances of the city of Atlanta would not allow for as rich a reward as what the City of Glendale has done (for the Phoenix Coyotes), if any kind of incentive would be possible," said Reese McCranie, deputy director of communications for Mayor Kasim Reed.

"Glendale can do what it wants. I really don't see this happening from the city of Atlanta."

Late Tuesday evening, Glendale city council voted in favour of funding the Coyotes' losses up to $25 million for next season, which would extend its window by another year to find an ownership group interested in keeping the team in the desert.

Instead of trying to find money in the civic budget to support the hockey team, Reed has been working the phones trying to find an investor or a group of investors capable and interested in buying the struggling team and keeping it in Atlanta. Unfortunately, McCranie said those conversations have yet to bear fruit.

"We have not been able to identify any investors who have the capital to invest in the Thrashers," he said. "But we remain hopeful that somebody is still out there to help put this deal together."

The Thrashers have been bleeding money for years and the team's owners, a group called the Atlanta Spirit, have been trying to unload the team for some time. Earlier this spring, Michael Gearon, one of its co-owners, said there was a "sense of urgency" to sell the team and admitted to the possibility of relocation if a new local ownership group could not be found.

True North Sports & Entertainment is widely believed to be pursuing the Thrashers with a plan to move them to Winnipeg in time for next season.

Both Atlanta and Georgia were hammered by the 2008 economic recession and are still years away from a full recovery. Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Centre for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, said while Atlanta is a hotbed of professional sports teams, he's not convinced hockey is bright enough on the radar screen to impact the Thrashers' fate.

"Hockey hasn't been the sport of choice by a large segment of the population. I'm sure there is a very devoted fan base (for the Thrashers) but I don't think it's broad enough to generate sufficient political support to generate any kind of public funds," he said.

The recession cost Atlanta 8.4 per cent of its workforce, considerably higher than the 6.3 per cent drop for the entire country. Housing prices have fallen through the floor as well, plummeting 30 per cent from peak levels, compared to just 16 per cent for the rest of the country.

"We've had a very tough time. We got hit much harder by the great recession than the nation was and our recovery has been much slower, much less vigorous. I don't think we're going to see a quick turnaround in local government finances," he said.

McCranie said city officials don't want to see the Thrashers leave because they bring in economic development dollars to the city.

"The team is good for business and good for tourism," he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2011 C3

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