- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

RALEIGH, N.C. The young clerk in a store called "the Eye" was deep into a book and didn't even notice two customers enter the small establishment buried deep in one of the recesses of Crabtree Valley Hall. It was a late spring Tuesday night, and there wasn't that much traffic anyway.
The store stocks only items associated with the Carolina Hurricanes, currently playing the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the NHL playoffs. There are items for your grandchild, your car, your fireplace, your lawn tractor the usual sporting assortment.
"Yes, business has picked up some since we won the Southwest Division title," the clerk responded. Then he quickly corrected himself, calling the division "Southeast."
Therein lie some of the problems the team is facing in its challenge to convert the natives into hockey fans. There is an identity problem not a crisis but a problem. Four other sports stores in the same upscale mall carried not a piece of Hurricanes merchandise.
Five years ago, Peter Karmanos Jr., of Compuware fame and fortune in Michigan and owner of the long-suffering Hartford Whalers of the NHL, moved the team to Carolina. He announced his intentions in May, signed a lease with Raleigh for a building that wasn't even started in June and began play in Greensboro Coliseum in September.
Karmanos surely must be a man with infinite foresight, patience or both. This is a franchise that survived the World Hockey Association as the New England Whalers, spent most of its existence in one end of an urban mall with a hotel anchoring the other end and a lot of vacant stores between, has won only one playoff series (a three-game sweep of Quebec in 1986) and spent two seasons in a borrowed ice rink 80 miles away from Raleigh, where players were bused back and forth to avoid an excessive number of speeding tickets.
This is a team with an AM radio outlet that isn't strong enough to be heard very far away and one that doesn't have its own TV network (it shares airtime with the soon-to-be-elsewhere Charlotte Hornets of the NBA). It hasn't been able to reach a deal for naming rights for the awkwardly labeled and otherwise nice Entertainment and Sports Arena and has little in the way of corporate sponsorship.
And they're smiling here. This team is not going to win the Stanley Cup, they know it and they're well, overjoyed is a bit excessive, but they know things could be worse. Look at the Hornets mess.
"I'm a born-and-bred North Carolinian, and I hate to see the Hornets leave Charlotte because it casts a negative reflection on the city and state," said Hurricanes president and chief operating officer Jim Cain, "but if anybody benefits because the Hornets are leaving, it's us. It takes away competition for TV time, and we've had some trouble with clearances. Same with radio. And it creates an opportunity for us in the Charlotte market."
Cain is smooth rather than slick and clearly a man on a mission. He is trying to shoot down the image of a good ol' boy with a six-pack and hot rod who can't wait to get to the stock car races Saturday night as long as there isn't a decent ACC basketball game on TV. The Northern view of the South should have changed years ago when it started losing its industry to the area below the Mason-Dixon Line, and now the Triangle part of North Carolina is as high tech as high tech gets.
Throw away the first two years of the 'Canes' existence as a team in exile in Greensboro, and the club has made great progress. It started out with a season ticket base of zero five years ago, was at 6,000 as recently as last season and now stands a hair short of 11,000, according to Cain. Attendance was up 15 percent last year over the previous season, he said, and the league says attendance is up 16.2 percent this year over last.
But getting to the magic 12,000 number the number of season tickets the NHL demands expansion teams sell is tough (as the 28-year-old Washington Capitals will tell you). Carolina was successful this season, won its division and made the playoffs but still lost a ton of money, as did most teams. It had 14 sellouts but its average attendance of 15,506 was not nearly enough to cover payroll.
Fans will pay to see teams that are consistently good (Colorado, Dallas, Detroit) or novelties, which the Atlanta Thrashers were for a year or two. They will not pay to see teams that rarely grow beyond the expansion stage or teams that are never more than mediocre (one Boston columnist nicknamed the Whalers "the Forever .500s"). The Hurricanes recognized that and used it to draw fans in and educate them.
"Our ticket prices are the lowest in the league," Cain said. "We lowered them two years ago to broaden our fan base, and it worked. We are now going to have to adjust some of those prices up next season, especially those in the lower bowl which were not at fair value, but I think the average will still be around $54."
The initial worries about what would hurt the team have not been as bad as many feared. Raleigh is on the fringe of NASCAR mania, headquartered in Charlotte, three hours away, and Cain maintains the hockey team is able to hold its own against the formidable basketball competition of Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina, all within 15 miles.
"The community has a lot more to offer than ACC and NASCAR, and there is plenty of competition for your time and your entertainment dollar," Cain said. "There's minor league baseball, a women's pro soccer team, theater and dramatics at all the colleges, there's the outdoors, there's plenty to do down here.
"And that's why we say, the decision to move down here five years ago was the right decision from both a sporting and economic point of view."

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