This would have been more timely yesterday but with the NC State/UNC game on Monday and the Hurricanes back in action on Tuesday, I took the smart route and decided against doing ‘off the cuff’ because the topic has some sensitivity to it.
Those who track the team closely and are in the Raleigh area are probably aware of the chain of events, but since they are an important starting point, I will quickly detail them before proceeding. Since taking over as the majority owner, Tom Dundon has harped most loudly about two things — the fan experience and the need to put more people in the building. The two go hand in hand.
The fan experience is changing gradually, and initiatives have been added to boost attendance. In mid-January, the team rolled out a “Fanuary” promotion that offers a limited number of early bird parking spots for $10, a set of food concession items for $3 and domestic draft beers for $5.
More recently, the team announced a “Canes Pass” that offered tickets to the first 9 home games in February for a total cost of $97 with at least two of those games being lower level seats.
Finally, a two-pronged attack this week aimed to fill the lower bowl of PNC Arena for the Ottawa Senators game on Tuesday. First, during Monday’s NC State vs. UNC hockey game at PNC Arena, the team offered a promotion that included a lower level ticket to both Tuesday and Thursday’s games for a total cost of $10. That promotion had a line more than 100 deep and a single cashier busy from midway through the first period until about 30 minutes after the game concluded.
Then midday Tuesday, the Hurricanes announced that all upper level tickets for Tuesday’s game would be upgraded to lower level seats. It not clear whether the Fanuary and Canes pass promotions were already teed up prior to Dundon taking the reins, but the push to fill the lower bowl for Tuesday’s game seemed to more clearly have his stamp on it.
The series of promotions achieved the short-term goal of filling the lower bowl for Tuesday’s game. The lower sections were not 100 percent filled to capacity, but it was close enough that the game had the feel of a lower level sellout and the atmosphere in total in the building was different (in my opinion as an attendee).
Tuesday’s announcement that all tickets would be upgraded to lower level seats was met with mixed reactions on social media. My non-statistical impression is that most were either in favor of the promotion or at least neutral and willing to give something new a try in attempt to begin the process of boosting attendance and revitalizing the Hurricanes game experience that had gone stagnant. There were, however, lower level season ticket holders who voiced displeasure about everyone receiving the same lower level seats that they had paid at least $40 for.
A burst of publicity
One significant effect from Tuesday’s promotion was the volume of attention that the team received locally. On a random Tuesday afternoon in the middle of ACC basketball season, the Carolina Hurricanes were a headline news item not just across the sports spectrum but also in the broader media and also across social media. For one day at least, it was hard to live locally, be plugged into anything digital and not have the Hurricanes cross your mind. That in itself is significant for a team that has gradually lost mind share in the local community.
An assessment of the situation
Next I will try to offer a reasonably balanced assessment of the situation that does not simply just use the fact that I manage a Carolina Hurricanes website to put my opinion on the situation forward to the audience that spends part of their Hurricanes hockey time here.
Not one right answer
On Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, I said:
At the most basic level, I do not think there is only 1 valid opinion on today's #Canes program, and I do not think it is right for anyone to tell someone else that how they feel about it is wrong.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) January 30, 2018
There is not just one right perspective on this situation. It is more complex than that, and people legitimately have different viewpoints based on where they sit in terms of financially supporting the team. To be clear, that is NOT to say that people who do not buy tickets at all do not also have a legitimate viewpoint and it is not to say that those who spend more rather than less money get a bigger vote. It is simply to say that there are different angles to the situation, and the single worst thing about Tuesday in my opinion was the volume of people who were telling other people that they were wrong for what they felt.
Need for at least a few jolts to the system
Tom Dundon has a fairly sizable task in front of him to significantly change a product and its marketing that had frankly become stagnant over time. I think part of what is going on right now is Dundon trying to quickly put a few jolts of energy into the system to see if he can change the mentality and attitude and in the process revamp the product and the marketing of it. The best time to make certain types of changes will be the off-season, but before then he needs two kinds of information. First is that he and his team will benefit from having some indication of how big of an effect pricing can have on ticket sales. Second is that he very simply needs to get a read on whether he thinks he can chart the course forward with his current staff or if the off-season will also be a time to make personnel changes.
Need for willingness to try changes
I also think that as much as possible the core fan base needs to give Dundon some rope and leeway. The path forward will inevitably be imperfect, and there will be some missteps. To make changes and move forward fairly quickly, some amount of trial and error will be part of the process. That is not to say that the entirety of the new plan should be throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. But there must be some margin for error granted as changes are made. I also think that there needs to be an open-mindedness. Things are be changing dramatically based on Dundon’s immediate 180 on freebies and deeply-discounted promotions. Whereas Don Waddell dramatically decreased freebies at the expense of attendance but theoretically preserving value for season ticket holders, Tom Dundon has done the exact opposite in increasing the volume of complimentary and deeply-discounted tickets and with it attendance.
But also a balance with diligent consideration and respect for loyal customers
The challenge will be to move quickly but avoid haphazard trial and error that does significant damage to the current core of the business. While some willingness to try things and to shock the system a bit is necessary, this must be balanced with maintaining the core business and the loyal customers who are equally critical to future financial success for the team. While there is an element of figuring out the marketing mix to pull in new customers, professional sports revenue models are heavily reliant on repeat business from customers who are not one-off buyers but rather customers with deep relationships and regular commitment.
And that is something that Tom Dundon must not underestimate or ignore. If new programs add new customers but in the process alienate a sizable portion of the season ticket holder base, the result will be one step forward, two steps back.
And thus far things have been incredibly quiet on that front. Everyone benefits from the concession discounts, so that is a promotion for all. But as a season ticket holder, I am not aware of receiving any kind of information with any kind of details or even vague promises about what, if anything, will be changing for season ticket holders. I think that is an oversight. Potentially, it could be addressed either when playoff down payment information or 2018-19 renewals information come out, but I think the longer things go without something being said and the noisier things are on the promotional front for everyone else, the more loud the silence becomes.
What say you Caniacs?
My hope is to include a few related polls in the Thursday Coffee Shop without hi-jacking the hockey conversation, but I figured I would open the floor here for comments and discussion too.
1) What are your thoughts on the use of deeply-discounted ticket promotions to boost attendance short-term?
2) If you were Tom Dundon, how would you strike a balance between marketing to new (or dormant) fans and rewarding loyalty for current season ticket holders?
3) What are your thoughts on the ‘let’s try things’ approach thus far?