With the Thrashers' season at an end, it is time for us here at the Chronicle to step back and look at thins from a distance just as the Atlanta Spirit Group is hopefully doing. Toward that end, I will be posting a four part series designed to examine Atlanta as a sports market (parts one and two), then the Thrashers' place within that market (part 3), and finally the things that can be done to improve Atlanta's place therein (part 4). We will re-run the series after the playoffs for folks who missed it among the playoff hysteria around the rest of the league.
Most of us in Atlanta have probably heard our city called a "terrible sports town" so many times that we just take it for granted. As a hockey fan who takes full advantage of the global accessibility of hockey news these days (remember when all we could do was check the box scores on page 14 of the AJC sports section?), I hear it more and more these days as Canadians salivate over the Thrashers' ownership squabbles and empty seats in Philips Arena.
On the way up to Nashville for the Thrashers/Preds game in January, Rawhide and I discussed the old conventional thinking that Atlantans don't support our teams. We'd both been present for Tuesday nights in Philips where there were probably less than ten thousand people present, and we remember the days when Atlanta Fulton County Stadium hosted a few hundred people who were only there because they got their tickets free with a tank of gas. But is the old adage really true? Are we a lousy sports market? We refused to believe so.
We were exchanging our knowledge of the fanbases of Atlanta's various teams when it occurred to us that we were naming a lot of teams. Atlanta sports fans have a lot of options, and that means a lot of competition for people's attention, passion, and dollars.
Atlanta is of course home to one professional team from all four major sports: hockey, baseball, football, and basketball. Now, here is where the logic will start to escape our neighbors to the north. Those professional franchises also have to compete with the two local Division I-A NCAA programs, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. Unless you live in Ann Arbor, Columbus, or State College, northerners and Canadians don't get how big college football is. To put it in perspective, the highest drawing NFL team in 2009 was the Dallas Cowboys at 89,756 average per game. Every year since 2004, the University of Georgia has averaged a 92,746 sell out for every game. Add that to Georgia Tech's average 48,238 per game and that is a huge factor to add in that is simply not present in most northern sports markets.
I gathered some numbers to see how Atlanta really does stack up against other sports markets when it comes to attendance. I'll go over my findings in this post, then in another post I'll discuss the factors that have led to low attendance for the Atlanta Thrashers. In a final post, I will discuss what the front office has done wrong in trying to sell hockey to the Atlanta market and how they can turn it around.
As I said above, to get a full picture of Atlanta as a sports market, we have to look at attendance figures for the Thrashers, Hawks, Braves, Falcons, Yellow Jackets, and Bulldogs. We will only consider the football teams of the two college programs, though college basketball is certainly a factor in the landscape, as are the minor league Rome Braves, Gwinnett Braves, and Gwinnett Gladiators. For the sake of simplicity, we will stick to the big four professional sports and college football.
Since this is a Thrashers blog, we'll start by looking at the Thrashers' attendance over the past ten years. Over that time, they have averaged 14,809 people per game. Every year the Thrashers have finished in the bottom third of the league in attendance. As we all know, in that time the Thrashers have also failed to make the playoffs all but one year and only really came close two other times.
The Thrashers' sister organization is the Atlanta Hawks. They have managed only 14,694 over the same ten year span. For several of those years I know the team was terrible, but the Hawks have made the playoffs numerous times in the past ten years.
The Atlanta Falcons enjoyed a renaissance in the 00's thanks to drafting the once uber-popular Mike Vick. Attendance figures for the first half of the decade weren't readily available, but for the past five years the Falcons have averaged 68,619 fans per game. Meanwhile, the Georgia Bulldogs have sold out every game for the past six years and averaged 91,103 for the decade. The Bulldogs finished in the top 20 almost every year during that span. The Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech have also finished in the top 20 most years this decade and averaged 48,238 per game in a much smaller stadium (for some reason the 2004 data wasn't available).
The Atlanta Braves were not the powerhouse of their days in the 90's but still averaged 31,627 per game in the 00's.
Taking just the per-game averages for all six teams, Atlantans attend at a rate of 269,090 per game (adding the average per-game attendance of all six major local teams) and per sport average 44,848 per game (adding average per-game attendance of the six teams then dividing by six). We do this with a metro area population of 5,278,904 (according to Wikipedia).
But what do those numbers mean? To understand these, we'll have to see them in contrast to other markets. Again, this is a hockey market, so we'll start with that shining city on a hill, Toronto, Ontario. Referencing Wikipedia again, we see that the TO metro area population exceeds that of metro Atlanta at 5,555,912. That is almost 280 thousand more people than Atlanta.
Remember that the theory here is that Atlanta has more options for sports fans looking to spend their money and their emotions than most other cities that are deemed "good sports towns." Toronto is home to the NHL's Maple Leafs, MLB's Blue Jays, the NBA's Raptors, and the CFL's Argonauts. There are also the minor league Marlies and various minor league teams.
How do the Toronto area teams stack up to the Atlanta area teams? Well, the Maple Leafs draw an average of 19,339 per game(all figures are over the last ten years using as much data as I could gather). That is roughly 5000 more per game than the Thrashers. I found it very interesting that the Toronto Raptors also outdraw the Atlanta Hawks at an average of 18,495 per game.
The Blue Jays do not fare as well in contrast to the Braves. The Toronto MLB team has filled about 24,972 seats per game for the past ten years.
The CFL obviously doesn't compare favorably to the NFL as the Argonauts have posted only about 24,006 per game for 2001-2007 (those were the latest numbers posted on the official website).
So using figures for the four major sports teams in the metro Toronto area, we see that TO sports fans fill their stadiums to the tune of 86,812 in total, and average 21,703 per pro team per game. That is less than half of the per team per game figure for Atlanta.
Most Canadians who are still reading probably just cursed at me and started spattering about how those figures aren't fair because Atlanta has two more teams and those teams draw higher than any of the others. But of course. That is exactly my point. Atlantans attend our sports at a much higher rate, but we have to spread it out over more teams, which makes some attendance figures (specifically those of the Thrashers and Hawks) suffer.
Some will still not be satisfied, so we'll make this more fair. Football is obviously throwing these numbers way off. The Falcons, Bulldogs, and Yellow Jackets outdraw the Argonauts by 136,198 per game. So let's throw football out and run the numbers.
The Hawks, Thrashers, and Braves average 20,376 in a metro area of 5,278,904. In the 5,555,912 strong Toronto metro area, the Maple Leafs, Raptors, and Blue Jays draw 20,935. So, 28 million more people, but only about 600 more people per game on average. Atlantans attend baseball, hockey, and basketball games at a rate of 0.0039 per capita per game while that figure for Torontoans is .0038. Pretty similar.
It certainly appears that even if you just look at the three comparable sports franchises, it really cannot be said that Toronto is a better sports town than Atlanta. Torontoans just focus their attention and dollars more on hockey and basketball while Atlantans are more oriented toward baseball, and far more interested in college and professional football. In a later post we will examine the reasons for that and how a competent front ownership group and front office could go about changing that balance.
Are these differences limited to Canadian cities? In the next installment we will compare Atlanta sports attendance with other US cities that are considered to be better "sports towns."