Thrashers ‘Not Trying to Exploit’ Black Players in Marketing

Greg Wyshynski, Yahoo! Sports, October 27, 2010

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Fact is that the Atlanta Thrashers have an unusually high number of black players in their system: Defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Johnny Oduya, and forwards Evander Kane and Anthony Stewart, on the NHL roster; with Nigel Dawes and Akim Aliu playing with the AHL Chicago Wolves. Sebastian Owuya, drafted last summer, is playing in the WHL; him and Kane are the only players not acquired by the team via trades or signings.

The trend is made more unusual because of geography: The City of Atlanta is more than 50 percent black and is the second largest in the U.S. behind New York; and it’s a population that, traditionally, isn’t watching the Stanley Cup Finals every season.

So the speculation began that this roster was being put together by design, in order for a team struggling to fill seats to reach an untapped audience for hockey. Pass It To Bulis (Mainstream Media: “The blogosphere”) published a well-received post about the trend, noting that by having six players hovering near the NHL level, the Thrashers had roughly 20 percent of the active black players in the NHL.

Was this on purpose? Was this a coincidence? In either case, are the Thrashers taking advantage of it? {snip}

The Pass It To Bulis piece is explicit in its claim that the Thrashers’ acquisition of these players was premeditated for marketing reasons:

From a business perspective, I support their strategy of acquiring black players. It is imperative to their success that they engage their community in the same way that Vancouver, Montreal, Indiana, and many other sporting communities do. As we’ve seen, the way to do this (short of winning, which isn’t an option for Atlanta) is to give your team a local connection. A Georgian birth certificate is a rarity in the NHL, but black players are beginning not to be. In Atlanta, this needs to be apparent in order for hockey to gain any momentum there.

GM Rick Dudley, speaking with NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, denied these moves were made for demographic reasons:

Atlanta may be heading in that direction, but as GM Rick Dudley adamantly pointed out, it’s not on purpose, as some bloggers and journalists have been suggesting. “If it happens to work in Atlanta because there’s a large black population, that’s great. But to do it purposely? That would be ludicrous to me,” Dudley told NHL.com.

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“I don’t ever remember making a deal and saying this guy’s white or black or whatever. I just really don’t care.”

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According to Jim Pfeifer, the vice president for marketing for the Thrashers and the Atlanta Hawks, the hockey team has placed ads in The Atlanta Tribune, the city’s weekly black newspaper, as well as on V103, Hot 107, WAMJ and other stations classified as urban. Digital billboards throughout the area “focus more on Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Johnny Oduya,” Pfeifer said, “and we’re definitely reaching a more diverse audience in all of Atlanta.”

Waddell told the Times that broadening the team’s marketing scope was out of necessity, and that the Thrashers “don’t have enough fans” in Atlanta:

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Good players, but not a great team. And despite the interesting social marketing experiment playing out in the A.T.L., it all comes back to success on the ice. Tiger Woods doesn’t have a large number of African-American sports fans tuning into golf for the first time if he were an over-par duffer. Boxing has seen more great white hypes than it can count through the years.

Winning, playoff appearances, championships . . . these are still the easiest way to market a pro sports team to the non-believers. But perhaps the Thrashers’ approach, incidental as they claim it to be, opens new doors when that success arrives.

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