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Thrashers' Gearon says owners not 'hitting the panic button' in search for new owner

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

ATLANTA - Michael Gearon Jr. says he's not putting a timetable on a search for investors which may determine if the Thrashers remain in Atlanta.

Earlier in the week he said there was a "sense of urgency" in the search.

"I want to be clear, my public comments are not intended to appear as if we're hitting the panic button, because we're not," Gearon told The Associated Press Friday.

Gearon and his partners say they have lost more than US$130 million since 2005. He said this week the owners could not suffer another $20 million in losses.

He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the team could be sold and moved to another city unless new investors are found to keep the team in Atlanta.

Gearon and Bruce Levenson are lead owners in the group which also owns the NBA Atlanta Hawks and operating rights to Philips Arena. Both said Friday they hope to find a new majority owner for the Thrashers and that they would be willing to remain in a support role.

When asked if his comments were intended to be a warning for Atlanta fans and potential investors to take action, Gearon said "I hate to say a warning. ... I'm not even thinking panic."

But Gearon said the financial drain can't continue indefinitely.

"I would love to think I'm Fort Knox and have a money tree, but over seven years we have put close to $150 million in the teams and it's very difficult and very rare to have individuals own multiple sports teams," he said.

"Long-term we need help. We need investors."

Gearon, the son of former Hawks executive Michael Gearon, grew up as a Hawks fan and remains the owners' lead voice in NBA matters.

"I'm a hockey fan and I love this team," said the younger Gearon. "My expertise is basketball and I'm candid about that. I don't know hockey like basketball because I didn't grow up around it.

"I think my message in no means is meant to be viewed as I want to sell. I would love to stay in and be an owner and shareholder in the Thrashers. It's just we need someone to step up and hopefully be the primary owner and help us subsidize the team with the dollars needed to make the team successful."

Gearon also downplayed the possibility of Los Angeles-based filmmaker and Atlanta native Stephen Rollins making a serious bid for the team.

Rollins, who last year first expressed interest in making an offer for the Thrashers, said Thursday he has new support from an investment firm.

Gearon said Rollins' group has not come forward with an offer.

"Stephen Rollins is a huge fan but he unfortunately doesn't have the resources to do something," said Gearon, an Atlanta native and resident. "I'm hopeful others within the community will step forward. I'm OK selling my interest completely if someone wants to own the team in Atlanta. That's great. I'm quite comfortable and willing to be supportive in an investor role, like I have."

Levenson, based in Washington, D.C., said Friday he's also willing to remain as a minority shareholder.

"Michael and I share the same goals for the Thrashers, and I too would very much want to be a part of and be willing to help fund the team's future in Atlanta," Levenson said in an email to the AP.

Gearon's comments this week also were a call for improved fan support. The Thrashers rank 28th in attendance.

The search for investors was hurt by a long legal dispute which ended when Gearon and Levenson bought out Boston-based Steve Belkin's 30-per cent share in December.

"That's really the first time we were in a position to do something," Gearon said of attempts to sell all or part of the team.

The ownership group has filed a new lawsuit against their former law firm, claiming faulty legal work is largely to blame for its predicament.

When asked when he might give up on finding a new ownership for the Thrashers to remain in Atlanta and open his search to those wishing to move the team, Gearon said "That's a Gary Bettman question."

Bettman, the NHL commissioner, has said the league wants the team to remain in Atlanta.

Bettman said Thursday "there are no plans to do anything" with the Thrashers. But Bettman said any problems with the Thrashers "ultimately will have to be dealt with."



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