Carolina struggles at the gate, and not just this year

Carefully framed shots like these make it seem like there aren't 3,000 empty seats at the RBC Center. via cdn.picapp.com

This may seem like a repeat of an article that I wrote about the Colorado Avalanche, but the Carolina Hurricanes are struggling to bring fans in this year.  But digging a bit deeper, we see that resting turnstiles in Raleigh is not a new thing.  Carolina has struggled to attract fans since the lockout, and this in a market that Gary Bettman fawns over.

"Breakfast, shmreakfast. Look at the score, for Christ's sake. It's only the second period and I'm up 12 to 2. Breakfasts come and go, Rene, but Hartford, "the Whale," they only beat Vancouver once, maybe twice in a lifetime"
--Brodie, "Mallrats"

 

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via www.sportslogos.net

SB Nation's Hurricanes vs Oilers coverage

Canes Country

 

Canes Country had a look at attendance numbers this year, and mentioned that besides the home opener, the Canes haven't had a sellout this season.  While some would point to their performance this year as the reason for the problems, a look at the last four years' worth of attendance data shows that this has never been a strong market in terms of attendance.

 



Avg. Attendance
% Capacity
NHL Rank
Finished
Playoffs
2005-2006 15,596
83.3%
~23th 2nd in Conf. Yes*
2006-2007 17,386
92.8%
18th 11th in Conf. No
2007-2008 16,633
88.8%
18th 2nd in Div.
No
2008-2009 16,572
88.5%
21th
2nd in Div.
Yes**
2009-2010 14,468
77.3%
25th
Last in Conf.
No
5-year avg.
16,131
86.1%


*won Stanley Cup
**made conference finals

The 2005-2006 season could be excused because the league was coming out of the work stoppage.  But that year, the Canes won the Stanley Cup and though there was a slight bounce in attendance the following year, the RBC Center was still only filled to 92.8% capacity.  In 2007-2008, Carolina was in a dogfight for the division up until the very end and only managed to draw 88.8% capacity.  Last year, the team made the conference finals, and as mentioned above, they've only sold out one game this season, so the fans weren't buying tickets to begin the season.

When the news broke that the Hurricanes are attempting to move their AHL affiliate to Charlotte, Canes Country posited:

...having an AHL affiliate in Charlotte would bridge the gap between the state's two biggest cities. Despite being the "Carolina" Hurricanes, the organization has been Raleigh's team, not the Carolinas' or even the state's. If interest in the AHL team blossomed — and a city as big as Charlotte should have no problem supporting a Triple A-level minor league hockey team — there would be an immediate connection between Charlotte and the Hurricanes, helping to further grow the fan base.

It's a nice thought, but if Raleigh can't fill the building for one of the more successful franchises in the league, what kind of attendance numbers will Charlotte be able to generate for an AHL team?  The impact of a successful AHL team in Charlotte would be negligible in Raleigh.  The cities are a nearly-three hour drive away from each other so additional ticket sales are a non-starter.  A successful AHL team with 6,000 fans per night might add a few hundred extra households to the television market, but not much more.  Counting on Charlotte's AHL team to rescue attendance and fan support in Raleigh strikes me as a little bit of a castle-in-the-sky.

"This is not a traditional hockey market" and "It takes time to build a market" are the typical excuses used to defend numbers like these, especially when a generalization about "Southern teams" is made.  But this is a market that has had a team for twelve years now and the attendance numbers aren't improving.  In those twelve years, Canes fans have seen a conference final, a Stanley Cup final and a Stanley Cup -- far more on-ice success than most of the teams ranked above them in capacity numbers -- yet none of that success is translating to ticket sales.  It may be translating to television success, but Carolina is one of two teams in the NHL that does not release Nielsen ratings from it's local affiliate, so we can't be certain.  However, given the attendance figures at RBC and the television ratings of other similar teams in NHL markets, I doubt that Carolina is able to draw more than a 1.2 rating.

Bettman is aiming extremely low when he gushes over the strength of the Carolina market.  If 92% is the high end of what the Raleigh market can muster on a year-to-year basis, and all evidence says it is, then Carolina must be considered a bottom-tier market, even a struggling market.   If Stanley Cups, conference finals, regular visits from Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and their own superstars Eric Staal and Cam Ward aren't enough to sell the building out, what is?

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