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A Lightning fan poses for photos with a sand sculpture of the Stanley Cup and the real Stanley Cup on Saturday, June 4, 2005, outside the Sirata Resort in St. Petersburg, Fla. The NHL's struggles to generate fan interest in the southern United States continues to be a major problem for the league. (AP Photo/Scott Audette/Tampa Bay Lightning, ho) (SCOTT AUDETTE)
A Lightning fan poses for photos with a sand sculpture of the Stanley Cup and the real Stanley Cup on Saturday, June 4, 2005, outside the Sirata Resort in St. Petersburg, Fla. The NHL's struggles to generate fan interest in the southern United States continues to be a major problem for the league. (AP Photo/Scott Audette/Tampa Bay Lightning, ho) (SCOTT AUDETTE)

David Shoalts

Wagons South: The NHL falters in new territory Add to ...

The Panthers also turned to the Blackhawks for a new GM. When Dale Tallon was fired by the Blackhawks he wound up with the Panthers. The team is still bumping along well behind a playoff position but Yormark says hiring Tallon allowed the Panthers to create some excitement last summer in a market where the NBA's Miami Heat was getting all the headlines by landing LeBron James and Chris Bosh. However, the team is still not in a playoff position.

His voice rising with evangelical zeal, Yormark says the team notorious for its ticket giveaways has reduced its freebies by 52 per cent this season and sold the equivalent of 10,000 full season-ticket packages.

"The community is responding," Yormark said. "They see we have a plan. We have the right pieces in place."

In Nashville, Cogen, who worked for the Dallas Stars and the Panthers before joining the Predators last summer, is taking the opposite approach. One reason for the jump in attendance is an increase in the number of free and discounted tickets.

Cogen installed a plan where fans can get vouchers for free and discounted tickets in exchange for an e-mail address that is used for follow-up sales pitches.

"At our stage, it's efficient and strategic to get that person in our building, find out who they are and then try to get them to come back two times, three times, six times," he said.

The Thrashers are more aggressive marketers this season, cutting back on freebies and trying such tricks as the misguided fake arrest of the team mascot, but Waddell says it is difficult selling tickets when your season-ticket base is less than 7,000. "We have 10,000 tickets to sell on a nightly basis, so you have no chance [of a sellout]" he said.

Along with his giveaways and discounts, Cogen makes sure the Predators' season-ticket holders get lots of extras and that few of the discounts work out to be cheaper than their ticket prices.

"That activity, at least to date, has us tracking up, both in dollars and bodies," Cogen said. "Over time, when volume grows and demand and supply start equalizing, then you can start dealing with the average ticket price."

And that is where the persistent talk of annual losses and franchise moves is rooted. The Maple Leafs may be able to boast of a top price of $650 (Canadian) but southern prices are much more modest. The Thrashers single-game prices range between $14.25 and $290 (U.S.), including surcharges, while the Panthers' range is $16.50 to $136.25. The Predators are the highest of the group with a range of $33 to $263. But each team also offers a dizzying number of discounts which keep the overall revenues down.

Each of the three teams are regular participants in the NHL's revenue-sharing plan to the tune of millions of dollars a year. The Predators also get close to $10-million a year from the city of Nashville in subsidies, so they have turned the odd small profit.

All three teams are looking for investors. But the Predators recently refinanced their bank debt, which will help in negotiations with the city for a new arena lease and Broward County agreed to reduce the Panthers' debt payments on their arena by $7.5-million over the next three years, which leaves the Thrashers with the biggest financial headaches.

At this point, the most prominent Thrashers co-owners, Bruce Levenson and Ed Gearon, who both declined to be interviewed, say they are looking only for investors interested in keeping the team in Atlanta. This was confirmed by a banking source familiar with the ownership group.

The search is not going well, though. "Know anybody interested in investing in a really exciting hockey team?" Levenson said in an e-mail message last month to The Associated Press.

However, it is too simple to say the Thrashers are the most likely candidate to move to Canada. They may not be tied to Philips Arena by a long lease and the owners recently settled a long and bitter dispute with minority owner Steve Belkin by buying him out, which makes a sale easier, but there are reasons to stay put.

The Thrashers' agreements with the NHL and at least one major sponsorship deal mean a move is difficult. For example, the 20-year arena naming rights deal for $182-million says Philips Electronics can walk away if either the Thrashers or the Hawks leave.

Waddell argues that as the eighth-largest television market in the United States, Atlanta is strategically important to the NHL, which will be negotiating a new U.S. television contract this year. But one prominent television figure said ratings are such in southern markets that few have any impact on the negotiations.

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