Amazing marriage made in mania

Max Muhleman, president of Private Sports Consulting Inc. in Charlotte, is well known in the world of sports marketing. He consulted for the Charlotte Hornets and Bobcats, as well as the Hendrick NASCAR operation. Edited excerpts from a recent interview with Q editor Jane Ruffin:

Q: Why do you think the Hurricanes have connected with the community? Is it just that they're winning?

A: Winning is one of the few prerequisites that can be identified as to why sports franchises are popular, and winning compounds geometrically. The more you win, the more geometrically rabid the following is. It's just probably a thing that Americans in particular do. I don't think anybody is as easily smitten by the successful home franchise thing as Americans.

In a smaller market like Raleigh or Charlotte, winning also spawns another reaction. The definition of these major league professional sports is often big league, and that is kind of a metaphor for your city being big league, your area being accepted at the most enviable national level.

Q: So when you're cheering for the Canes, you're cheering for your city to be in the big leagues?

A: It's an underlying factor in producing this enthusiasm. Now you travel and say where you're from when you get off the plane, and they say, "Oh, the Hurricanes!" Whereas before you'd say "Raleigh," and they'd say, "Is that in North Carolina or South Carolina?"

There is a certain amount of pride in having a major team, but it becomes immensely more important and prideful when it is a winner. I think of this geometrical compounding, because [getting to the Stanley Cup finals] twice is more than twice as exciting to a community than winning it once. The sports term is usually "dynasty" -- it makes it sound almost like something historic that's going to be enshrined in the Smithsonian.

These things tend to be so contagious that even people who are demographically, ethnically, culturally, completely off the frequency of whatever the sport is are inevitably [drawn in]. This fever is so pervasive that you almost have to be studiously cynical to separate yourself from it.

Q: Why do you think Americans are prone to go crazy about sports?

A: I think it's somewhere between patriotism and the after-effects of two World Wars. The competition in a world war is the ultimate competition. Hopefully, there will never be another one. This is a very personal and perhaps singular opinion, but I'm instantly struck with the feeling that that's where we got our American sense of competition.

I think if we go back and look, [major league sports] had a surge in support about the late '40s and early '50s. Was that coincidental? I think not entirely. If I had to answer the very difficult question about why Americans feel that way, I think that we were wired or bred that way out of our experience of fighting for our lives in an ultimate competition.

Q: Some people say that for once the North and the South have come together on this. The Northerners who settled here and the Southerners are coming together on this, and it's a healthy thing.

A: I think at minimum it's a remarkable thing, the Raleigh story, on a national basis.

It probably couldn't have taken place, the success of an NHL team in Raleigh or Charlotte or Greensboro, wherever you wanted to put it, without a good beachhead of Northern transplanted aficionados.

But it is a good game fundamentally. If you like action and competition and excitement, this is a sport that delivers. Southerners are historically some of the best sports fans in the country. So you've got good fans and a decent sport, and thank goodness for the relocated hockey fans. And all this has come together in a way that has produced a remarkable -- if not a phenomenal -- result, which is hockey-crazy crowds deep in the heart of Dixie.