NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has an answer for those who believe the Carolina Hurricanes might be relocated once owner Peter Karmanos Jr. sells his majority share in the team.
“I don’t think anyone needs to worry about the future of the franchise in Carolina,” Bettman said in an interview. “Peter is exploring his options, but there is no rush, no pressure, no timetable. I am certain if he sells the franchise, he will continue the legacy of having the franchise in what has been a strong market and keep it where it is.
“People should not be concerned about something fueled by media in other locations. Everything Peter is doing is being done to ensure the long-term future of hockey in the Triangle. That’s where the league believes it should be and where it will be.”
Bettman quickly added, “Is that a strong enough statement?”
Still, the speculation persists. The Canes, 2-4 in home games, are last in the NHL in home attendance at 11,411 after finishing one spot higher at 29th last season.
The Canes’ season opener against the Detroit Red Wings had a standing-room-only crowd of 18,949, setting a single-game gross revenue record for the franchise. The largest crowd in the past five home games has been 10,901 on Oct. 13 against the Florida Panthers. The Nov. 1 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning had an announced crowd of 9,081.
Ownership groups in Las Vegas and Quebec City are hopeful of being approved for an NHL expansion franchise. The fear among some Canes fans is that if either is shut out in their expansion bid, the ownership group could look elsewhere for a team that’s for sale and try to convince the league to be allowed to relocate it.
The Hurricanes were once the Hartford Whalers before Karmanos moved the team to North Carolina in 1997. The Atlanta Thrashers were sold and relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
‘A great market’
Karmanos, 72, continues to say he is looking into a “succession plan” to sell the team but said it could be over a period of years. He noted the Hurricanes’ lease with PNC Arena runs through 2024 and said the Triangle continues to grow.
“I’m befuddled by the rumors the team will move,” Karmanos said in an interview. “It’s a great market. The fans are still supportive. When you give them a Grade A product, they will respond.”
The Hurricanes have reached the Stanley Cup playoffs just once, in 2009, since winning the 2006 Stanley Cup. The past six years have been frustrating for Karmanos, who has since made several front-office changes, and tested the staying power of Canes’ fans.
Don Waddell, hired last year as team president, said the smaller turnouts this season again are a result of focusing on season-ticket sales while reducing complimentary and discounted tickets. The Hurricanes used that strategy last season, when their average attendance dipped to 12,594.
The decline is reflected in the annual financial reports the Hurricanes – through their parent company, Gale Force Holdings – submit to the Centennial Authority that oversees the operation of the arena.
The Hurricanes’ admission revenue for 2014-15 declined about $1.3 million from the 2013-2014 season. Food and beverage sales were down about $500,000, parking revenue down $600,000 and suite income fell by $400,000. In addition, advertising revenue also dropped $1.7 million.
That was offset by an increase in NHL revenue – $43.25 million last season, compared with about $40 million in 2013-2014. The Canes’ total hockey revenue was roughly $96 million, a dip from $97.5 million in 2013-14.
Asked to assess the financial health of the franchise, Waddell said, “I think it’s much better. As I said when I got here, this isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. We’re making progress. Is the progress as quick as everybody would like to see? Certainly not, but I’m not surprised by it. … With this franchise, it’s always going to be a battle.”
Lowest ticket prices in NHL
Waddell said corporate sponsorships should increase about 10 percent this season. But his top priority, he said, is increasing attendance.
“We’ve got to put people in the seats,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 revenue source that we’re not maximizing or getting close to it.”
Waddell said the team, in trying to place more of a premium on season tickets, reduced complimentary tickets by 50 percent last season. An additional 60 percent cut in “comps” is being made this season, he said.
“So the numbers in the building don’t surprise me at all,” Waddell said. “We know there’s going to be nights where it’s tough.”
Waddell has added 36 sales people this year. The Canes’ median ticket price – $62 – remains among the lowest in the NHL.
Waddell has said the Canes’ season-ticket base, including equivalents, is about 8,000. N.C. State, which shares PNC Arena with the Hurricanes, has sold 11,251 season tickets for the 2015-16 season, an NCSU official said.
Canes captain Eric Staal and his teammates have noticed the smaller crowds.
“There’s no question it’s better when it’s a full building and good atmosphere,” Staal said. “Obviously with what’s gone on here the last few years and missing the playoffs and not winning as many games, it’s tough sledding as far as getting the fans in the building as often as in the past.
“We’ve got to build that back up and continue to get better as a team and win games. If we do that, the hockey fans are here. The hope is to win games and build that excitement back up, and before long we’ll be back filling the house again.”
Carolina Hurricanes’ average home attendance and NHL ranking since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.
2006-07: 17,386 (15th)
2007-08: 16,633 (20th)
2008-09: 16,572 (20th)
2009-10: 15,240 (23rd)
2010-11: 16,415 (20th)
2011-12: 16,042 (22nd)
2012-13: 17,553 (17th)*
2013-14: 15,483 (23rd)
2014-15: 12,594 (29th)
* Lockout season, 24 home games