By WILLIE DRYE
RALEIGH, N.C.—Sunday was a windy day, figuratively speaking, in North Carolina’s capital city.
Two Hurricanes descended on the sprawling North Carolina State Fairgrounds complex in west Raleigh that includes PNC Arena and Carter-Finley Stadium. About 17,200 watched NC State University’s Wolfpack drop a hard-fought 86-81 decision to the University of Miami Hurricanes in an ACC basketball showdown at noon.
And six hours later, another 15,303 showed up at 6 p.m. to watch the hometown Carolina Hurricanes take on the Vegas Golden Knights, a first-year NHL franchise and fellow sunbelt hockey market team that have captured headlines all season long en route to the highest point total in the league as of Sunday night. LVSportsBiz.com interviewed the Hurricanes’ team president and a University of North Carolina professor to find out more about this NHL southern market and offer a cautionary tale for hockey’s darlings and biggest improbable story — the upstart first-place Golden Knights
When it was all over Sunday, the two-sport doubleheader at the arena was a financial windfall for both home teams and vendors selling food and team mementos. Nels Popp, Assistant Professor of Sports Administration at the nearby University of North Carolina, estimated that perhaps $1.5 million to $2 million changed hands, including combined ticket sales to both events, parking fees, and food and souvenir sales.
The Golden Knights came into Raleigh as arguably the best first-year team in the history of major league professional sports. The expansion team sits comfortably atop the Pacific Division with a 31-11-4 record with 66 points, 10 points ahead of the division’s second-place club, the San Jose Sharks.
The Golden Knights faced an opponent with a new owner who is determined to recapture the luster and fan appeal the Canes enjoyed in their earliest days in Raleigh, when they made it to the Stanley Cup finals twice in three seasons, brought home the NHL crown on their second attempt in 2006, and claimed the distinction of having the loudest crowds in the league.
The Canes couldn’t cool the red-hot Golden Knights, dropping a 5-1 decision Sunday. Meanwhile, the best-in-the-league Golden Knights finished a four-game southern swing through Nashville (loss), Tampa Bay (win), Florida (OT loss) and Raleigh (win). The hockey crowd at PNC Arena—undoubtedly boosted by a temporary discount for most seats in the arena’s lower bowl—was larger than the Canes’ average of 12,800 fans per game and perhaps stirred some optimism among Canes’ management that a return to the glory days of yesteryear is possible.
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The new owner, billionaire businessman Tom Dundon of Dallas, has made it clear that he intends to put a first-rate team on the ice. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Dundon said he values winning more than money. And in a letter emailed to Canes fans the day after the sale was finalized earlier this month, Dundon said he was impressed with “the collection of young talent already on the team.”
“I am convinced that the Hurricanes not only have an opportunity to win now, but to be competitive year in and year out going forward,” he said.
Despite uncertainties about team ownership at the beginning of the 2017-18 season and speculation that the team might leave North Carolina, the Canes are playing steadily on the ice, fighting to make the postseason playoffs for the first time since 2009. As the NHL All-Star Game approaches, Carolina has a 21-18-8 record and has amassed 50 points in the NHL’s tough Metropolitan Division, where none of the eight teams has a losing record.
The sale of the team to Dundon has ended the relocation speculation, said Carolina Hurricanes team president Don Waddell.
Dundon reportedly paid $433 million for the franchise. (To offer some context, Golden Knights owner Bill Foley paid a $500 million NHL expansion fee to join the league.) Waddell said if Dundon had intended to move the Canes, he probably would’ve had to pay double that price for the team.
The Canes’ attendance problems began after the NHL lockout of 2012-13, when a contract dispute between the league’s team owners and the players shortened the season to 48 games. Waddell said the lockout, the recession of 2009 and the Canes’ prolonged playoff drought “eroded” the team’s sales of season tickets—the backbone of the team’s finances. By the time Waddell became part of the Canes’ management in 2014, season ticket sales had dropped from about 9,000 to around 6,000. To offer some perspective, the Golden Knights have 14,000 season ticket holders.
“We’ve stopped the bleeding and made inroads during the last few seasons,” Waddell said. “Now, we’re up to 7,500 season ticket holders. But we’ve got to get back to 10,000.”
The Canes also have cut back on handing out free tickets to increase attendance. And, in the long run, that’s a good move, said Popp, the sports administration professor at UNC.
“The more you let in for free, the more paying customers are upset,” Popp said. “Why buy a ticket when you can get one from so-and-so.”
Putting a consistently winning team on the ice is part of solving the attendance problems and getting a marquee superstar player could help attendance. Canes’ management isn’t ruling that out, but it’s not an immediate priority. Waddell says the Canes are looking at other ways to consistently put more fans in the PNC seats. One way is to create more “touchpoints” when fans can have a few minutes to meet Canes players.
For example, when fans buy team souvenirs and apparel at the Canes’ arena store, their names go into a drawing. After the game, 10 fans whose names were drawn get to be photographed with a player and have the player autograph their purchases.
“If I’m a fan and I get a player’s autograph, that lives for a long time,” Waddell said. “The fan starts telling friends that they got their picture taken with (a player).”
Such small events make huge hits on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, Waddell said.
Other improvements being considered include:
- A new scoreboard. The present arena scoreboard dates from 2009, making it nearly an antique into the ever-changing world of entertainment technology. “Scoreboards have drastically changed,” Waddell said. “We’re getting quotes on a new scoreboard for next year. It’s a nice amenity to make fans’ experiences better.”
- Adding several restaurants in the arena. “We’re talking about three or four sit-down restaurants,” Waddell said. “We want to make (PNC Arena) a gathering place for meetings, where fans come for a complete night of entertainment. We want to make it a destination place.”
The bottom line is that the Carolina Hurricanes’ management thinks Raleigh is a good hockey town, despite the attendance slump. “We’re reconnecting, rebranding with our customers and trying to reach them,” he said. “With 2 million-plus residents (in the Raleigh metro area) there’s no reason why we can’t have 15,000 to 17,000 in the building.”
Popp thinks the Canes are right to rebuild relationships with fans and market an entertainment package at PNC Arena. The number of hardcore fans who come to an arena or stadium only to watch the game is declining.
“You’re seeing a shift in spectator behavior,” he said. “People are going for social reasons, to hang out with friends and family. The game becomes secondary.”
The nearby Durham Bulls—a member of the AAA International League and one of the most recognizable teams in minor league baseball—have drawn huge crowds thanks in part to ingenious promotions. Popp recalled taking his kids to a Star Wars Night at at Durham Bulls Athletic Park during the 2017 season. “We had a blast,” he said. “We enjoyed seeing all the fans in costume. Who won or lost, I don’t know.”
Popp said the Golden Knights could learn from the Carolina Hurricanes’ experiences with attendance fluctuations—especially when the NFL’s Raiders arrive in Las Vegas in 2020. The Golden Knights are off to a spectacular start, but the team’s management should be intensely focused on building an enduring relationship with the community, he said.
Indeed, Golden Knights President Kerry Bubolz told LVSportsBiz.com recently that the business side of the first-year franchise is already planning for the 2018-19 Golden Knights season.
“I think it’s critical for the team to foster that relationship,” Popp said of the Las Vegas team bonding with its home fans. “It could get tough for the Golden Knights. They have to develop a fervent hometown fan base.”
Listen to IPPY Award-winning author Willie Drye talk about his latest book, For Sale—American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold an Impossible Dream in Florida, on NPR affiliates WUNC, Chapel Hill and WLRN, Miami. Visit his blog, Drye Goods, now in its 10th year. Follow him on Facebook.