After an opening-night sellout Saturday, the Carolina Hurricanes drew less than 8,000 fans on Tuesday, a drop-off which somehow caught the attention of at least one gloating Canadian television network.
That the Hurricanes could only draw 7,892 to PNC Arena on a Tuesday night against Columbus will come as no shock to anyone who pays attention to this franchise; a weeknight game against a milquetoast opponent, especially coming after a heavily marketed game that did draw many casual fans, was always going to be a mostly empty house.
There are two dynamics at play here. One, the Hurricanes' fan base has withered and atrophied during these eight years in the playoff wilderness to the point where they can only count on these 7,000 fans to show up on a given night along with a handful of curious onlookers. That may change if the Hurricanes show spirit and competitiveness early in the season, and should change if they ever make the playoffs again. But it would be silly to expect casual fans to get back aboard after one win – although based on pregame estimates, the Hurricanes did appear to have a better-than-expected walk-up contingent Tuesday.
Two, having fewer people in the building is actually a deliberate business strategy, counterproductive as it may sound. The Hurricanes, under team president Don Waddell, have stopped giving away tickets to fill the building and focused on maximizing revenue from the tickets they do sell. And from a financial perspective, that worked: thanks to ticket revenue and NHL broadcasting and revenue-sharing income, the team was in the black last season for the first time in a non-playoff year, although it should be noted the Hurricanes were dead last in payroll, spending more than $7 million less than the 29th team.
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So the huffing and puffing from north of the border is just so much hysterics; the Hurricanes have now proven they're a viable franchise even with a bunch of tiny crowds like Tuesday's, albeit with an unsustainably low payroll that's already increased $3 million this year to $60 million.
Of course, there's an argument to be made that this strategy makes it harder to develop new fans by making it more expensive for them to get into the building and see what the fuss is about (and spend money on concessions, and parking, and T-shirts, and so on), the opposite of the team's old “you'll know when you go” strategy. Not to mention, you can only squeeze so much out of the fans you do have without adding new ones.
And having more people in the building, especially with a team this young, should lead to more of a home-ice advantage. The 8,000 fans on Tuesday were loud and engaged, more than they had a right to be given the quality of play; double that number might have been able to give an emotional boost to a team that was struggling to generate offense against a disciplined opponent. (Although another 8,000 yelling “Shoot!” probably wouldn't have helped the misfiring power play.)
A new owner, whether that’s Chuck Greenberg or someone else, may have something to say about this particular marketing strategy, but with the team for sale, current owner Peter Karmanos is understandably more concerned with the present-day bottom line than the long-term future of the team, and that’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgement of what makes the most sense for someone in his position.
So there are going to be a lot more nights like Tuesday, but after two games, the Hurricanes’ average attendance is 13,286 – up 13 percent from last year’s final total, and better than the New York Islanders, for one, so far. And those aren't the only teams with issues. Ottawa couldn't sell out the conference finals last year. It's tough everywhere.
In the end, when it comes to the Hurricanes, attendance is what it is right now for a reason. If you have to pay full price, you really have to want to be in the building. The Hurricanes' performance hasn't given enough people enough of a reason to show up for years. If and when the Hurricanes do become successful, it will still take time to rebuild the fan base – as it did in Boston and Chicago and every other city where people tuned out when the team was garbage. That's not unique to the Hurricanes. It's true of nearly every NHL market.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock