Caniac fandom – A choice not an obligation
First, I think it is very important to note that people do not have an obligation to support a professional sports team. It is a business. It is entertainment. And it is something that people rightfully choose if and how much of their budget and energy that they dedicate to it. This applies to die-hard fans but also equally to casual fans many of whom have been absent from PNC Arena in recent seasons for their own personal reasons. People have every right to choose how to spend their free time and entertainment $. And if at some point attending Carolina Hurricanes games was not worth the cost or time commitment for some, they have every right to choose to cut it out of their plans. They are not lesser fans or lesser people for it. And if the Canes fortunes turn and hopefully many of those people return, I will welcome them back.
Basic Hurricanes financials require a solid core
But to make sure our NHL franchise is viable in Raleigh long-term, there must be a core group of fans and people in the community who take a more active role in driving the Carolina Hurricanes success. This comes in many forms. In talking about supporting the team, most people immediately think about the financial aspect and buying tickets. I will get to some other things later in this article, but by no means, do I mean to downplay the importance of supporting the team by putting your butt in a seat at PNC Arena for home Hurricanes games. It is vitally important to have a core fan base that supports the team financially in good times and bad because inevitably professional sports teams experience both. Being a season ticket holder, regular attendee or business owner who supports the team by buying tickets or through a financial sponsorship is incredibly important. There must be this foundation that sticks with a team through thick and thin.
Carolina Hurricanes financials are largely a function of winning and losing
Before trudging further down the road of analyzing how the Hurricanes can improve from where it is now and our role in that effort, I think it is important to stop and note that sports attendance is cyclical in most markets and driven to a large degree by winning. This is NOT unique to Raleigh or the Carolina Hurricanes. It is not a southern or small market NHL phenomenon like some of the BS in the broader hockey media and even the local media suggests when it wants to question the viability of the Raleigh market based on recent attendance during down times. Attendance being tied largely to on-ice performance applies pretty broadly across the NHL with at most a handful of exceptions.
Pittsburgh Penguins attendance woes: The Pittsburgh Penguins had arena and attendance issues before winning the NHL draft lottery that netted Sidney Crosby instantly changed everything. The Pens attendance had fallen to an average of 11, 877 in the 2003-04 season, and though few remember it, this combined with arena issues had the Pens at the top of the list for teams rumored to be on the move. In time for the next season (after the season lost to the strike), the Penguins won Sidney Crosby, and season ticket sales jumped which also helped resolve the arena situation.
Chicago Blackhawks attendance woes too: The Chicago Blackhawks who now fill the 19,700-seat United Center regularly had a similar dip in attendance not too long ago. Mired in a run of mediocre or worse hockey and questionable marketing by the ownership group, the team’s attendance declined gradually and bottomed out at only 12,727 for the 2006-07 season. The run of bad hockey yielded the draft selections of Jonathan Toews 3rd overall in 2006 and Patrick Kane 1st overall in 2007. Only 2 seasons later the Blackhawks reached the Conference finals and averaged more than 22,000 fans in attendance in a rapid turnaround that quickly rebuilt a great hockey franchise.
I put forward these 2 examples not to compare Raleigh too directly to Chicago and Pittsburgh as NHL hockey markets. They are quite different. But for whatever reason, many of the discussions of the Carolina Hurricanes attendance struggles, especially from the broader North American hockey media, seems to include a bias that focuses in on the small market and paints the situation as unique to it. Too many articles and commentary completely ignore a nearly universal truth of professional sports attendance. When teams are winning attendance is rarely a problem. When they are losing, it often is.
And Carolina Hurricanes history shows the same
Early attendance struggled with a difficult start in North Carolina that saw the team playing in Greensboro which is a challenging 1-hour plus drive from the team’s eventual home in Raleigh while an arena was being built. But after finally arriving at home for the 1999-00 season and achieving some success, attendance grew step-wise to an average of 15,562 in for the 2002-03 season following the team’s Stanley Cup appearance in 2002. Attendance hit another plateau at 17,386 not surprisingly following the team’s Stanley Cup Championship.
Just like with many other markets across professional sports, the Raleigh market has proven more than capable of supporting NHL when the team is good (and arguably worth supporting) but has struggled to do so so after an extended 7-year run of putting out an inferior product.
But there is a role to play for the core fan base
All of this suggests that attendance will rebound when the team does. While there is an element of truth to this, I think there is also a role to play (again voluntarily not out of obligation) for the die-hard Caniacs who make up the core of the fan base.
1) Support Canes coverage in the media channels that reach the broader public
I think it is incredibly important for those of us who are part of the core to support the local sports channels that give the Hurricanes a fair shake and reach the broader public. The broader media has the megaphone that will reach the broader public most directly and efficiently when there is good news to share. I like to think that independent sites like Canes and Coffee and others make a difference, but these outlets are more effective at reaching and ‘feeding’ the people who are already engaged.
It was part of a broader radio/sports radio shake up (some of which was detailed by R.L. Bynum in this Raleigh & Company article) more so than directly a Canes thing, but we lost a key member of the Canes media when Mike Maniscalco was let go from 99.9 FM. Maniscalco had been the voice of the Hurricanes radio pre-game and post-game for almost 10 years. Probably more significantly, we lost a knowledgeable and supportive Hurricanes hockey voice that was sprinkled in throughout the day on daytime sports radio.
Without going into details, some of the other major sports media locally seem to lean negative or even worse apathetic about the Canes. Beacause of this, it is even more important that Canes fans support the local sports media sources that give the team a fair shake.
=> To-do: One small to-do for Canes fans is to go out of their way to support Cory Lavalette at the North State Journal. Cory has covered the Canes for many years at Canes Country. He writes with an appropriate reporting neutrality for a news publication but has been a big enough part of our Caniac community for long enough that he speaks well for the franchise. As a newer publication, NSJ provides an important alternate news source to reach casual and/or departed fans. And as a newer publication, how well we support Cory’s work will play a part in how much the publication continues to invest in Canes coverage. You can find Cory Lavalette on Twitter and also read Cory’s most recent Canes article. And without starting a fire storm, let’s just say that the Hurricanes could sometimes use another traditional media outlet locally.
Cory is a great channel for reaching and pulling back departed Canes fans. Support him.
2) Continue to introduce/re-introduce people to Hurricanes hockey
My rough estimate says that there are about 5,000 more people per game who once found Carolina Hurricanes hockey fun and worth their entertainment investment in terms of $ and time. Especially when the team re-finds its winning ways, it is important to offer opportunities to bring people who were once burned back for a new taste of Canes hockey. In addition, there is still a huge untapped volume of fans who either are new to the area or just have not tried Canes hockey yet. The vast majority of passionate, die-hard fans started as casual or exploratory fans but somewhere along the way found the hockey passion. Winning will obviously help, but there is also an element of simply having people to experience or re-experience Hurricanes hockey and hopefully learn to love the game and/or the team the same way many of us did.
To-do: If/when the team finds a higher gear in terms of winning, do your part to make sure more people know about it. Until then, there are plenty of good stories with young players. And when possible take opportunities to talk Canes hockey with casual fans and include people who have never been in your trips to PNC Arena to watch Canes hockey.
3) Keep doing what you have been doing
Writing this article feels a bit like talking to the people who already contributed to a big fundraiser and asking them to do more. But if you are reading a small, independent Canes hockey blog with minimal if any hockey content in the middle of August, you have self-selected into our group that is the core of the fan base. After 7 seasons without a playoff reward to show for it, I commend you for your loyalty and commitment. At the same time, we need to stick to it and continue to find small ways to do more.
To-do: Make sure you find things to enjoy in the midst of it all. Canes hockey is supposed to be fun, and it is important not to lose sight of that. The 2015-16 season was full of possibilities despite the playoff miss with all of the young success stories. The introduction about it needing to be fun applies to everyone, even the die-hards. After you take care of yourself, look for an occasional opportunity to introduce or re-introduce someone to Canes hockey.
Our best days as a Caniac Nation are in the future not the past
As tremendous as the 2005-06 season was, our best days as a fan base lie ahead. We are just reaching the point in time when young fans have grown up with the Carolina Hurricanes as part of their childhood and do not remember a time before Carolina Hurricanes hockey in Raleigh.
We are deep enough into our Canes hockey journey that long-time fans have stories, history, traditions, memories and all of the great things that are part of the fabric of great fan bases. We are just reaching the point where they get passed down from 1 generation to the next.
For long-time fans who have had not been rewarded much of late, I think it is important to expect this future but also important not to take it for granted. As a small market team in a non-traditional market, we all have a part to play in the next round of Hurricanes success and history that is on the way.