On Thursday, it was announced that the sale of the Carolina Hurricanes to Texas entrepreneur had been completed. The News & Observer has covered Tom Dundon in some detail (most recent article here) in the past few days and is worth a stop if you have not been there already. The Athletic (subscription required) also wrote about Dundon’s relationship with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and that relationship’s potential impact on Dundon’s management of the Hurricanes.
The ownership transition and the official finalization of the deal is meaningful on multiple levels both on and off the ice.
I will go a couple layers deeper either later on Friday or possibly over the weekend, but for those who do not care for the layers of detail and additional thoughts, this article which is long enough in its own right attempts to boil down the transition into the most significant points and also takes a crack at predicting the upshots from the Friday media session before it happens.
Key points in the ownership change
The start of the next era of Canes hockey off the ice
On the ice, the transition to the next era started when Francis took over as general manager and begins in earnest when the team pushes into the playoffs. We are on the brink of seeing results from that side of the franchise. The off ice side of the franchise has felt like it has been in limbo for multiple years now.
Off the ice, the team has stagnated partly due to the on-ice product but also because the broader product lost its luster, place in the community and appeal to the local market. The published financial results suggest that the situation is better than it feels in the arena. Perhaps that helped Karmanos ride things out until he could find the right owner and maybe even helped the deal get done. But when I say ‘better than it feels in the arena’ that is exactly the point. The vibe, energy level and everything else in the arena has mostly grown stale. At a minimum and especially for those who are not die-hard Canes hockey fans who can look past the experience and entertainment value, the whole fan experience and engagement of the local market needs a fresh coat of paint at a minimum and probably more.
A shift from a cost cutting/expense mindset to a long-term investment mentality in terms of financial budget
During the past few years, my perception is that the team has been managed with a bias toward considering costs as expenses not investments. Many aspects of the season ticket holder experience have been downsized. The team’s salary has fallen to near the bottom of the league. And the team in general has just had an air of cost-cutting about it. Per my comments above, that might have been a positive in terms of getting a deal done or buying Karmanos time. Regardless, having a new owner who is in it for the long haul should open up the potential for more spending where appropriate if it will yield long-term returns that hopefully boost the franchise both on and off the ice.
Relocation rumor reprieve and worry relief for the core fan base
No doubt, recent years have been tough at times for Carolina Hurricanes fans. On the ice, the team currently owns the longest playoff drought in the NHL. Off the ice, an annual end of summer relocation/ownership/other kind of negative article from the News & Observer has become a rite of passage in the off-season that saps optimism and positive energy from the core fan base right when optimism should be building. Combine that with the intermittent relocation rumblings out of Quebec or wherever else, and long-term fan optimism has been intermittently under siege for multiple years now. Per the next bullet point, this deal offers a seven-year reprieve (or most of it anyway) for loyal Canes fans in terms of having to worry about, consider or address relocation rumors. For me personally, that is a weight lifted off my back, and I would guess the same is true for many others too.
A seven-year runway to rebuild and relaunch a newly-branded Carolina Hurricanes into the local sports market
With the purchase comes the requirement that the team stay in Raleigh for seven years before a relocation application could even be considered. Anyone who thinks that it is possible to have a ‘forever’ guarantee for a professional sports team is kidding himself/herself. Teams have moved from big cities, small cities, northern cities, southern cities and just about everywhere else. Seven years is enough time for Dundon to revamp the business side of the franchise and make improvements at the same time that Francis hopefully pushes the team up into the playoffs. If the team is unable to carve out a bigger place in the local sports community in that time frame, then relocation rumors will reappear and potentially have legitimacy to them this time. But from having experienced the early days of Hurricanes hockey when the local community embraced the team wholeheartedly, I am confident that seven years will prove to be plenty of time to rebuild the long-term viability of the team in the local market.
A blank sheet of paper/audit type mentality in reevaluating all aspects of the team
Related to many of my thoughts above, all indications are that Tom Dundon will be very hands on at least initially in terms of evaluating and reconsidering any and all aspects of Carolina Hurricanes hockey that are not part of the hockey operations side. Quite often people who are part of how something arrived at where it is currently are limited in their ability to evaluate it and consider changes because of an inherent bias in helping create the current version. As an outsider, Tom Dundon and his team will be able to look at the team through an unbiased lens and in the process should be able to make more striking changes where needed.
When I net it, the Carolina Hurricanes desperately need a fresh start in many regards. Timed well with the team improving, that is exactly what the team will get with the transition to new owner Tom Dundon. At some point in the future results will top potential for change, but the ownership transition at least make results possible.
Friday’s media session spoiler
At 12pm on Friday, Tom Dundon will address the media. By mid-afternoon reports from that media session will appear throughout the local sports media. Like everyone else, I will be tuned in for new information, but the vast majority of what will happen tomorrow can pretty easily be predicted and evaluated the night before.
At a high level, Dundon will use Friday to launch into the honeymoon and generate a positive vibe around the team and its new beginning. He will be complimentary of his new partner in Peter Karmanos, his new employee base, his customers (fans), his new city and everything else. Friday is a day of positive energy. He will likely make mention of ‘everything being evaluated’ or similar suggesting that positive changes will be made.
Along the way, he will also likely answer a few predictable questions very likely with predictable answers.
Will you consider moving the team?
No. The team is not moving. Per my comments above on the NHL terms, that is 100 percent true for seven years. After seven years any guarantees should be taken with a grain of salt not because Tom Dundon is dishonest but simply because in the long run a team staying is dependent on its financial viability. This is not a Raleigh or a Carolina Hurricanes thing. It is a sports franchise thing. Seven years is enough time to rebuild the franchise locally, and as noted above, I am confident that this can and will be successful.
Will you invest more in player salaries to try to make the playoffs/win?
Dundon will obviously say that he plans to do what it takes to win. There is no other answer for this question. But the reality divides fairly neatly into two different approaches. The first is to spend fairly aggressively short-term to make a splash with a playoff appearance and more quickly chart a positive course. The second is a bit more of a patient business approach that increases player salary budget at least somewhat line with team revenues. Dundon’s words, something along the lines of ‘We will do what it takes to win’ mean nothing. The first real read on how aggressive he will be in this regard could come at the NHL trade deadline. The second and potentially more meaningful measuring point will be during the off-season.’
How active will you be in making changes?
Dundon will likely balance talking about ‘building from the positive foundation’ or similar with talking about the ‘need for change.’ The former is important in terms of not immediately alienating all of his new employees, but he has been in the arena and without the bias that the current version is normal because of years of experiencing it. The read on how aggressively he makes changes will not come from calculated comments on Friday but rather will come from how quickly and to what degree he makes personnel charges and also what role he personally plays early in the transition process.
What prompted him to buy the team?
He thinks it is a wonderful team and a wonderful business with a great history and also future. And he wants to bring the Stanley Cup back to Raleigh. This is another motherhood and apple pie type question/answer that allows him to talk about all kinds of positive things on the way.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your early impressions of Tom Dundon as an owner?
2) Do you agree that this marks the beginning of a new era in Carolina Hurricanes hockey?
3) What gives you the most optimism from the transition?
4) Do you have any concerns or reservations with Tom Dundon and/or the path forward with new ownership?