RALEIGH — Any trepidation the Carolina Hurricanes felt about the effects of the prolonged NHL lockout on their attendance has been quickly eased.
The turnouts at PNC Arena have been large, the fans loud and enthusiastic. There have been six sellouts in the first 11 home games and there could be a seventh Saturday as the Canes host the New Jersey Devils.
The crowds have been fantastic, Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said this week. Full building, people standing. Its exciting and its relieving.
The Hurricanes are averaging 17,971 fans a game, 15th-best in the 30-team NHL. Thats 96.2 percent of the arenas capacity of 18,680 for hockey.
The Canes, who lead the NHLs Southeast Division with a 13-9-1 record, had an average attendance of 16,042 last season, with nine sellouts in 41 games. The 12-percent increase in attendance per game this year is among the best in the Eastern Conference and helps fuel the NHLs two percent overall increase.
Were really pleased with our attendance, Jim Rutherford, the Hurricanes president and general manager, said Friday. Were pleased weve been able to attract good crowds on weeknights where in the past weve had some trouble putting people in the building. Our group ticket sales are at an all-time high. All are positive signs. I think people like our team and think its exciting.
The Hurricanes had a turnout of 15,277 Tuesday for the Buffalo Sabres, their smallest at home this season. Attendance was 16,774 for the Canadiens game Thursday.
When the NHL labor dispute was settled in early January, Rutherford said the team had lost about 7 percent of its season-ticket base during the lockout. Rutherford said Friday he misspoke and that the actual loss was about 5 percent. He said the team had more than recouped the loss from the lockout and that season ticket sales were up about 2 percent.The Hurricanes do not release season-ticket numbers but their base is believed to be about 10,000 to 11,000.
Thomas Greene, 24, and Sandy Browde, 26, are season-ticket holders who said they never considered canceling their tickets during the lockout. Once the regular season began, the couple, who are engaged, said they were ready for hockey.
We came to the conclusion that, yes, we were upset (about the lockout) but if you were a true Caniac fan youre going to be here, Greene said Thursday before the game against Montreal.
A compressed regular season, reducing the number of home games to 24, is a factor in increased attendance that is, fewer opportunities to see the Canes play. Another factor, the Hurricanes say, are the promotions used to lure back fans.
Doug Warf, the Hurricanes vice president of marketing, also credited the teams offseason acquisitions: the trade for star center Jordan Staal and the signings of two big name free-agents winger Alexander Semin and defenseman Joe Corvo.
Our season-ticket renewal campaign was really good last year, Warf said. With the moves made with the trade and signings, there was a lot of excitement around our team in the offseason. Our full season-ticket base was the highest its ever been including coming out of the (Stanley) Cup year in 2006.
The Hurricanes promotions include offering 50 percent off merchandise in The Eye, their arena store, for two weeks an official NHL jersey usually sells for $124.99. They offered a 50-percent discount on single-ticket sales for the Jan. 22 home opener against Tampa Bay in a 36-hour window. They had $1 sodas and hot dogs the first two games
The opener was a sellout that Warf said created a buzz. That was followed by Family Night and College Night promotions, Warf said.
The dates we were dealt by the NHL was a concern seven Tuesdays, nine Thursdays and only six Saturdays, Warf said. But we got off strong and that led people to buy in advance. We are better sold right now than we have ever been.
Warf said the last five games in April are trending toward sellouts. And thats six weeks out.
Each home game has an estimated economic impact of about $1 million for Wake County. The added attendance has had a ripple effect financially, in parking, concessions, merchandise sales, and for the 1,300 paid workers and volunteer fundraisers at the arena.
Jeff Merritt, executive director of the Centennial Authority that oversees the arena, said the Hurricanes would pay $2.5 million in annual rent, whether there was a season or not. Gale Force Holdings, the Hurricanes parent company, receives a major chunk of the game-related revenue but also is responsible for any annual operating debt from the building, he said.
Where it has been really good is for all the people who work in the arena those who work part-time jobs, those whose charities were affected, Merritt said. They were getting zero paychecks when there were no games.
The Marlins of Raleigh Swim Team in past years has raised about $18,000 a year from hockey concessions at the arena. Team coach Paul Silver isnt sure about the financial figures thus far but said the increase in attendance has translated into a similar or larger increase per game in concessions.
Obviously well have some cuts because of the loss of games, but the added attendance has made a difference and the Hurricanes winning definitely helps, Silver said Friday. Its important to us, but also for those who are working their second or third jobs at the arena.
Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller has brought a more aggressive, uptempo style of hockey to the team. Muller, in turn, said the large turnouts have not gone unnoticed.
Theyre showing us if we put the product on the ice and we play hard and compete, thats all theyre asking for, Muller said.
Browde, from Apex, said she likes the Canes competitiveness and resiliency. It reminds her of the 2006 Cup champions and while she said her favorite player is goalie Cam Ward out for six to eight weeks with a sprained knee she said shell keep coming to games with Greene.
Hey, the last time there was a lockout, we won the Cup, she said. Were hoping for the same thing again.