The decision to sell Atlanta's hockey team to a group that will move it to Winnipeg came after years of searching for investors who would keep the money-losing Thrashers here, according to part-owner Michael Gearon Jr.
That search produced limited interest and no viable offers, he said, and suffered from the long litigation with a former co-owner.
Before Tuesday's agreement to sell and relocate the NHL team, one of Atlanta's four major league sports franchises, Gearon said he talked with a wide range of wealthy people who he thought might help the Thrashers survive here. He traced those talks as far back as a December 2007 meeting in Atlanta with BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie and a July 2008 meeting in Santa Monica, Calif., with famed film and television producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
The brief discussions with Balsillie ended, Gearon said, when Gearon sensed that the co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion would eventually push to move the team to Ontario. And the flirtation with Bruckheimer ended, Gearon recalled, when the Hollywood mogul said that as much as he likes hockey, he didn't have an appetite for an investment hemorrhaging as many millions as the Thrashers.
"I was looking for somebody back then -– 2007, 2008 -- because I was saying, ‘I know there's going to come a time this train is going to hit a wall,'" Gearon said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "So years ago, I'm doing everything I can to avoid hitting that wall. ... I believed I could find somebody."
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Gearon said he remained optimistic of finding a buyer or investor to keep the team in Atlanta until 8 p.m. on May 21, when Thrashers president Don Waddell informed him that the last long-shot potential bidder -- the wealthy widow of a man who had dreamed of owning an NHL franchise -- decided not to proceed.
Ten days later came the announcement that the Thrashers, after 11 seasons in Atlanta, were being sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, a Canadian group led by businessman Mark Chipman and billionaire David Thomson. The price is believed to be $170 million, with $110 million going to the sellers and $60 million to the NHL as a relocation fee. If the deal is ratified by the NHL Board of Governors, as expected, the Thrashers will be in Winnipeg, presumably with a new name, for the start of the 2011-12 season.
Gearon, a lifelong Atlantan who made his fortune in cell towers, is a key member of the Atlanta Spirit group that bought the Thrashers, Hawks and Philips Arena operating rights in 2004. The group has incurred heavy losses on the hockey team -- $130 million since 2005, according to court filings.
"We have tried for years to find others that would invest alongside us and be a partner with us," Gearon said. "The desire I had was not to sell [my stake] but just to bring in others that could make us stronger so that we could have the financial resources necessary. ... We are having each year to write that check in order to support the team being here and you reach a point you just can't do it. I'd love to be [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen and have so much resources that it just doesn't matter, but I'm not."
Gearon said investment banker Joe Ravitch, a well-known sports dealmaker, has been working on the Thrashers situation since 2007, initially seeking investors and later a buyer or investors. Gearon insisted that until this month the efforts were focused exclusively on those who would keep the team in Atlanta but that there was never a plausible offer for the Thrashers as a stand-alone entity or for a Thrashers-Hawks-Philips Arena package.
One person known to have been interested at one point was Chicago businessman Don Levin, owner of the Chicago Wolves, the Thrashers' top minor-league affiliate. But those discussions, like many others, came during the five-year stretch in which ownership of the Thrashers was clouded by the dispute with former part-owner Steve Belkin.
In fact, Gearon and his partners contend in a lawsuit against their former law firm, King & Spalding, that the Belkin dispute "and the resulting cloud" prevented selling the team.
"There's nobody that would put a dollar in without clear title, so we had that hanging over us," Gearon said. "But I wasn't going to wait to have that resolved. I was out chasing investors."
When the Belkin litigation was finally settled last December, the other owners still had not identified a prospective buyer or investor and were near the end of their rope as far as sustaining losses on the Thrashers. In February, Gearon publicly expressed a "sense of urgency" to find a solution. But the team's history of deep financial losses in Atlanta made for a hard sell.
"Where we stand," Gearon said, "is we can't afford to keep funding the losses and nobody who is financially viable made us an offer to keep the team in the building."
Several recently rumored potential bidders did not have the financial ability to make such a deal, Gearon said. Some claimed they were backed by foreign money but could not verify it, he said.
"A lot of [rumored bidders] were not real," said Gearon, adding that some of them probably couldn't afford season tickets.
Gearon said he approached a long list of wealthy Atlantans and found none interested in investing in a money-losing hockey team.
"I haven't had a single person say, ‘OK, here's a check,'" Gearon said.
Gearon disputed the suggestion that selling to the Winnipeg group was simply more lucrative than selling locally. The sale will spare the Spirit the Thrashers' losses, although the savings will be offset to some degree by making Philips Arena less profitable. It would be better financially, Gearon said, if the Thrashers had been sold at a much lower price to someone who would keep the team in the arena as a tenant.
Gearon said there were no negotiations with True North until mid-May, several days after the city of Glendale, Ariz., committed $25 million to cover losses by the Phoenix Coyotes to prevent that team from moving to Winnipeg.
Since then, Gearon said, emotions have been high in his home, where his youngest son, a first grader, has his room decorated in Thrashers motif.
"I can assure you this is more painful for me and my family than you could ever imagine," Gearon said. "No one publicly can comprehend what it's like to know I've done everything I can and still have to face this with my own child.
"Fans deserve to be angry. It's an emotional process and I can understand it and appreciate it. Dealing with that with my own family has been brutal."