The news media loves drama. And, why not? It sells papers, improves ratings and gets people talking. But quite often a sound bite doesn’t capture the whole story. Lately, Raleigh news outlets have focused on a dim future for the ‘Canes—bringing up a potential sale, flashing figures
of revenue loss and focusing on empty seats. It’s enough to make fans question the future of NHL in Raleigh but what’s the real story? We went straight to the source, Don Waddell, president of Gale Force Sports and Entertainment (the parent company of the Carolina Hurricanes), to find out what’s next, the truth behind selling the team and why he answers every email from fans.
It seems like every year you have to dispel rumors that the team is moving.
I was here about a week, and owner [Peter Karmanos, Jr.] said, I’m thinking about selling the team—which I kind of knew, I wasn’t completely naïve. At that time he was 72 years old. When Pete said he was going to look at a secession plan, people ran with it, that the team was leaving.
The team’s not moving. We’ve had lots of tire kickers but a couple serious buyers, [and] the question never comes up whether we can move this franchise. People see what’s happening to Raleigh. You can pick up any publication, and Raleigh is in the top growing cities, best places to live. Will the team eventually get sold? Yes. This could take one year; it could take five years.
Low attendance has come up in the media as well. Can you talk to about this issue?
Individual ticket sales go hand in hand with team success. We were in last place then we started winning some games. Since Dec. 21st to date, we’re up over 2,600 paid people per game but everyone wants to talk about what it looked like in November. We had Pittsburgh and the Islanders here—we had 33,000 people over two nights.
In one [recent] article, they ran a picture from a November game. It was the second time they ran that picture in the newspaper, and it was the weekend we had 33,000 people [in attendance]. I’ll take all the criticism we deserve, but that was one article I think was unfair to this organization.
So how do you manage misleading news?
I do about eight to 10 speaking [events] a month. The best thing for us is word of mouth. You can see me at every game floating around. Fans tend to find me, and they all have my email address. I’m a huge believer in that if they want to send something to me then I will respond to everyone.
You respond to every email?
I’ve always been that way. Last year our tickets went up in price, and I had some of the worst emails I’ve witnessed in my position over the last 25 years. I call them. You get them on the phone, their tune changes—“I was having a bad day that day, I’m sorry.” Last year, when we put out our season tickets, the price was going up. We sent out a letter, and I put my email address right on there. Sure enough, I probably responded somewhere to 700 to 800 emails. I met them at gates, between periods. I always believe if I can get people for a few minutes, whether it’s on the phone or in person, I have a better chance of explaining what we’re doing and why we do it.
You clearly value every fan.
Absolutely. It doesn’t matter if they spend $10 or $1,000. I walk around out front of the building as fans are coming in and talking, just to get the feeling of what people are thinking. You can head off a lot of issues if you know about them. If you don’t know about them, you can’t fix them.
We were blessed in ’06 but that’s a rarity. How long will it take to start seeing results?
We spoiled everyone too quickly! Prior to last year, we were just trying to band-aid [the team] to make the playoffs. Ron [Francis] said, “We need to build through our younger players.” We’re the youngest team in the NHL right now—we’re playing with six to seven rookies every night.
It’s hard to make predictions. I did it once and I paid for it but the way we’re progressing now, there’s no reason why we won’t be a competitive team today and moving forward. We can actually see it on the ice. We said it would be three years but I think we’re ahead by a year. They won the cup and didn’t make the playoffs for the next two years. We don’t want to be a team that goes once every five years. If we build it right, we’re not talking about making the playoffs, we’re talking about how far we can go in the playoffs.
Can you share your plan for the team?
We made the decision to trade players, pick up draft picks and some young prospects. When we go to the draft in June, we have nine picks in the first three rounds. You have to have other assets if you’re going to make trades. A lot of things happen in the summertime through free agency, but if you don’t have chips in your pocket you can never play the game of poker.
There’s a salary cap in our league. You don’t want to get to a point where you can’t keep one of your young players.
When the Hurricanes are losing it’s easy to forget that a professional sports team in Raleigh contributes more to the city than a Stanley Cup. Pro sports offer Raleigh significant benefits—from stimulating the economy to attracting new companies to serving the community.
“Everyone wants to win but everyone goes through cycles,” says Michael McMyne, vice president of operations at Merz North America. “The corporate world in Raleigh believes in the value of a sports franchise.”
Merz has made a sizeable commitment to support the team, not only taking all 600 employees to a Hurricanes game, but also offering tickets to PNC events as an ongoing employee perk. “There’s going to be empty seats sometimes, and there’s going to be losing records sometimes, but it doesn’t change the tangible and intangible benefits of having them in this city.”
One benefit for companies like Merz and PNC is attracting potential employees. “In today’s business environment it’s a talent game. When you’re recruiting talent, that talent wants a variety of entertainment options for their families,” says Jim Hansen, regional president at PNC. “We’re competing with other cities who have pro sports teams. It’s a piece that has come to be expected.”
The economic impact of the team—dollars spent by the Hurricanes and visiting teams, players paying taxes and living locally—is visible across the greater Triangle area. It’s a big business to the tune of $120 million dollars, and a staff of 235 full-time and close to 1,500 part-time employees. A study conducted by N.C. State University economist Mike Walden calculated that new jobs created by the Hurricanes contribute $46 million a year to the Wake County economy. Moreover, the Hurricanes, as an active tenant of the PNC arena, create an opportunity to draw bigger names to the world-class facility and support more diverse entertainment options, such as the NCAA Tournament and Garth Brooks, to name a few recent events.
PNC Bank has a long-standing relationship with the Hurricanes and the arena, including the naming rights. “It’s not just about a sign on a building; it’s more than that,” adds Hansen. “It’s how we interact with our clients and the team, how the team’s success raises the community spirit, and our affiliation and support of the Canes helps them make a difference in the community.”
Last year, the Hurricanes donated $576,000 in cash grants to 28 local children’s non-profits through its Kids N Community Foundation and an additional $1.2 million in in-kind donations. And in the past five seasons cash donations add up to an astounding $2.6 million. Individual players also contribute on their own to special causes; two team members purchased game tickets for the military. Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward started Cam’s Champs to offer special needs children an opportunity to experience a hockey game in a luxury suite, while the Staal Family Foundation supports children and families fighting cancer.
The Hurricanes just unveiled the 2016-2017 season ticket packages and patrons who renew before May 6th are guaranteed the same price as last year, and in some seating locations a price decrease.
“Seventy-five percent of our ticket sales revenue come from our season ticket holders,” says Waddell, and for this reason the organization is focusing on better service. One big change is the name, no longer being referred to as season ticket holders, season ticket members will be assigned a designated service representative. The representative will check in with members several times during the season to make sure they are satisfied with their experience.
Season ticket members also can expect more benefits, including special member events like skate nights and Paint the Ice parties, food and beverage credits, and flexibility in selecting games. Everyone who renews will be entered in a 30 Prize Giveaway featuring unique experiences, such as lunch with Eddie Lack at Gonza Tacos y Tequila and a $10,000 shopping spree at Diamond Direct in Crabtree Mall.
By the Numbers
$46M – Annually to Wake County economy
$2.6M – Cash donations over 5 years
$1.2M – In-kind donations each year
Ones to Watch: Young blood energizes the Canes’ bench
The Hurricanes currently have the youngest team in the NHL and its adding more young and talented players to the roster. “We could have potentially 10 to 12 first-year players, which to me is exciting as long as you can be competitive, which I feel we can be,” says Don Waddell. “They’re going to grow together and only get better.”
On the Ice Justin Faulk (23), 2-time NHL All-Star Defenseman
Elias Lindholm, (21) 3rd full NHL, season as a forward
Also: Jordan Staal (27), Alternate Captain; Jeff Skinner (23), 5th season with Canes
Up-and-Coming Noah Hanifin (19), Canes top 2015 draft pick, made rare jump directly to NHL
Jacob Slavin (21) Breakout year, called up on December 3rd
Also: Phil Di Giuseppe (22), Called up from minors; Brett Pesce (21), Breakout first year in NHL, Victor Rask (23), Strong 2-way forward
In the System Sebastion Aho (18) Top player on Team Finland’s World Junior Championship gold medal team
Haydn Fleury (19) Big defensemen, played on Team Canada’s World Junior Championships
Also: Trevor Carrick (21), Made NHL debut March 16th; Brock McGinn (22), Scored a goal in his first game with the Canes; Aleksi Saarela (19), Acquired from NY Rangers; Valentin Zykov (20), Acquired from LA Kings