If you missed it last week, this is part 3 of a series covering the ownership transition from Peter Karmanos to new majority owner Tom Dundon.
The wedding which was scheduled back in early December officially happened on Thursday and Friday when the deal was finalized, announced and followed by a press conference. The honeymoon is underway and will last for awhile. But at the same time, the beginning of the next era of Hurricanes hockey is officially underway and with it the process of changing from the old one.
New majority owner Tom Dundon has made it clear that he will be hands on and will move quickly in terms of implementing some changes. Most notable thus far is the announcement of a January promotion offering lower level tickets to a limited number of games for only $40. (I cannot verify that this is attributed to Dundon, but the timing suggests that it is.) We can expect changes to be rolled out as the second half of the 2017-18 season plays out. Interesting will be to watch the piecemeal changes, but more interesting will be to see how they hopefully fit into a cohesive plan to improve the team off the ice and possibly to some degree on the ice.
I will use my usual ‘what I’m watching’ game preview style to stay sharp during the bye week. 🙂
‘What I’m watching’ for the transition to owner Tom Dundon
1) Tom Dundon’s and the team’s activity in the community
Most of the talk thus far has been somewhat inwardly focused on things like improving the fan experience, fixing what is broken, winning and other topics close to PNC Arena. There is definitely work to be done here, and it makes sense to include these types of things on a priority list.
But I actually think where the team most went astray over the years is wandering too far from its foundation as an active and loved part of the community. The initial core of the fan base was built in the early 2000s when the team made a concerted effort to get out and about in the community and be an active part of it. This might sound strange, but I think winning the Stanley Cup put a stake in the sand and largely steered the team’s marketing too far way from its original core. At least initially, selling winning hockey and young stars was easy, but the problem is that selling winning is a boom or bust proposition that lacks in its ability to keep fans engaged during down times.
So getting back to my original point, I will be watching closely to see if Tom Dundon and his team can strike the right balance between making internal improvements to the team and product with also recharting a course to become a team that the community adopts and loves.
2) An okay and maybe even a nudge for Ron Francis
To some degree, Ron Francis has probably been limited by internal budgets in recent years, but I think think approach and work thus far are also indicative of both his bias toward building from within (which is mostly a good thing) and also his methodical and rational approach to building the roster (also mostly a good thing). If I make a continuum with the far left being extreme patience to the point of not ever being willing to do a deal and take a risk and the far right representing the type of general manager who just does random deals willy nilly like dice rolls hoping to gamble his way to a good team, I think Francis leans far to the conservative an patient left. At a basic level, I would not have it any other way. Francis’ approach is the best path to improvement that is sustainable. But at the same time, winning in the NHL does often require some amount of short-term maneuvering to fill gaps and make meaningful upgrades in areas that are needed. Too much patience can result in a slowly moving target in terms of getting it right. One hole/gap prevents winning this year. If you wait 2-3 years for players in the system to address it always, the roster will inevitably have a new hole by then.
So with the way Tom Dundon threw around the term “impatient” and similar on Friday, my thinking is that he could be perfect to mostly stay out of Francis’ domain but also to provide some budget and also a helpful nudge to push Francis to lean forward just a little bit and make changes to win now versus being a year away for many years. So I will be watching to see if Francis gets and uses a bit more budget and makes a move or two aimed at expediting the climb back into the playoffs. We could get a sign in this regard between now and the trade deadline, but the bigger read might actually come this summer when we see if the team pushes up farther from the salary cap floor than the re-signings dictate already.
3) How Dundon goes about driving change personnel-wise
One thing that surprised me a bit about Dundon’s comments on Friday were how aggressively he touted the need for change and improvement especially in terms of the fan experience at games. Obviously, he was going to talk about making improvements like any new owner would, but the combination of his seemingly hands on involvement and aggressive tone in terms of needing to “fix” things provided a heightened sense of urgency and also aggressiveness with which changes will be made. Based on that tone, I will be curious to see how he handles things personnel-wise. I will be quite surprised is the head on the business side, Don Waddell is still with the team when the 2018-19 season starts. I expect that Dundon will choose to go a different direction once the team starts preparing for the 2018-19 season if not sooner. In addition to if and whom he brings in at the top, I will also be curious to see how aggressively he makes other personnel changes. Taking the current group and trying to chart a new direction happens at one speed whereas shaking things up and injecting new blood could fuel a more rapid change. I will be watching for signs that he is adding resources and to what degree he shakes things up in terms of the team on the business side to get a read on how significantly and rapidly we will see changes.
4) His role in the ongoing day-to-day operations of it all
Early indications are the Tom Dundon will be a very hands on owner at least short-term. I think the engagement and visibility will prove to be powerful in terms of re-marketing the team to the portion of the local sports market that at one time followed the team but wandered away at some point. There is a sizable untapped market for fans who experienced the good of Hurricanes hockey and are more likely to consider a turn if they feel like that whatever turned them away has changed.
While Dundon’s energy and engagement are undoubtedly a positive, he will need to balance ‘figuring it out’ as a smart businessman but a professional sports novice with leveraging some expertise from people who have experience. His benchmarking type of work already talking to and learning from other owners including Mark Cuban is encouraging in this regard, but I still will be watching to see what role he takes and what experience he also draws from.
Interesting potential side effects of the transition
A re-connection with Hartford
Peter Karmanos is not completely out of the picture obviously, but I still think that the transition to Tom Dundon will open the door for the franchise to finally reconnect with the fan base that it left behind in Hartford. There is a contingent for whom that ship sailed years ago, but there is also still a group that could be more officially incorporated into current fan base. A preseason game in Hartford could make sense as could incorporating the Hartford Whalers into merchandise and team history in a bigger way.
A push for an outdoor game
Gary Bettman and the NHL have in the past used showcase events like the NHL Draft and All-Star Game to promote hockey markets. It took some time, but the Hurricanes hosted the draft five years after moving to Raleigh (not counting initial landing in Greensboro) and then hosted the All-Star game six years after that. Recently, there have been bigger rumblings and grumblings from other NHL markets who have been left out of the outdoor series that have focused heavily on a limited number of big TV draw franchises. But with the newness of the events wearing off a bit anyway, I think timing could be right to start spreading the wealth a bit.
There is other competition, and it is not clear that Raleigh itself is even on the radar for places to be considered, but I still think thThe arrival of Tom Dundon is perfectly-timed to garner attention and line up with how Bettman sometimes tries to use NHL events for marketing promotion. With the Hurricanes doing a bit of a restart and building from a league-low in attendance, just maybe Bettman throws the Hurricanes a bone publicity-wise. Another thing is that though it might take some time, Dundon might be able to better line up local business support for hosting an outdoor game. One element of these games is making sure it is a financial success for the league in terms of both selling the tickets but also probably adding additional sponsors beyond the top-level sponsors that the league can pull in by itself.
So with no guarantees or time line, I do think the ownership transition does provide a modest boost to the Hurricanes’ case for being included in an outdoor game.
A new start with local business and the broader local sports market
Somewhat like with the Hartford Whalers thing, Tom Dundon represents a chance to start anew with add new local business relationships that could be beneficial. Ideally, the way it works is that everything already gained is kept and also that as the new guy in town, Dundon and/or his team get a fresh set of introductory meetings with other significant parties who for whatever reason did not connect with Peter Karmanos and his team. My general feeling is that there are gains to be made here. The team seems to have a strange gap between it and the NCFC. There is a bit of a difference in terms of size and level, but there still seems to be a natural fit between the two organizations whose seasons do not overlap much calendar-wise.
What say you Canes fans?
What are your watch points for Tom Dundon, his role with the team and how the organization and its work changes with the ownership transition?