Originally created 11/29/97

In auto racing country, Carolina Hurricanes hit the wall



GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The arrival of the NHL in North Carolina has been met with cold stares and an even chillier reception at the box office.

The Carolina Hurricanes are dead last in the league in attendance a quarter into the season and haven't even gone head-to-head yet with their main competition along Tobacco Road -- Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.

More than 18,000 turned out for an opening night "happening" in early October and 19,358 showed up last week to watch all-time scoring leader Wayne Gretzky and the New York Rangers. But more true to form, a league-low 5,516 showed up in the 20,800-seat Greensboro Coliseum to watch the former Hartford Whalers two days after The Great One departed.

Ticket prices seem to be the main problem, but the team's bad play and competition for auto racing and football fans may have something to do with it. The average cost of a ticket is $37, close to the NHL average.

"It is the single most important reason they're not turning out," said Peter Reichard, president of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. "Those who go love it -- they just can't afford to go very often.

"What (the team) has not done is gone to the meat and potatoes, the heart of who you want in there, which are those people who come out on any Tuesday night. That is the most important fan base you have to cultivate. And frankly, I think it's a sticker-price issue with them."

The Hurricanes, who average 8,886 fans a game, disagree. They point out that there are 5,000 $20 seats and 6,000 $30 seats.

"The ordinary person starting a business goes through growing pains," said Bill Gardner, the team's TV color analyst and a veteran of seven NHL seasons. "There is no doubt in my mind that this team is going to be enjoyed by many people."

The team and the city, where the Hurricanes will play for two seasons before moving to a permanent home in a new Raleigh arena, have been the focus of a negative Sports Illustrated article and have taken repeated hits on ESPN.

"I don't think it's unfair that people are talking about our attendance," said Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford. "It's not up to major league standards, so we deserve some of those hits. Maybe not quite as harsh as we've been getting or as regular as we've been getting."

Attendance isn't the only problem.

The Hurricanes got off to a franchise-worst 1-7-2 record but has been playing better lately. And the team's four-time MVP, goaltender Sean Burke, has been charged with assaulting his wife.

The players are making a 160-mile round-trip for home games, arriving in Greensboro for morning skates, then hanging out at a hotel waiting for the game to begin. Rutherford said he hasn't heard much griping from the players. Maybe he's not listening.

During a recent home game against the Canadiens, captain Kevin Dineen and Jeff O'Neill drove from Raleigh to Greensboro the night before the game to get some rest at the team's hotel. But the road team apparently had taken all of the Hurricanes' rooms. They ended up staying at a friend's house.

"It's just crazy," Dineen said. "We deal with that kind of stuff on a daily basis. So, instead of getting up and going down for a little skate, going down to the rink, we have to deal with a lot of little things. I guess more than accepting it we're getting used to it now."

Apathy about the team seems widespread in Greensboro. The organization said players would get out and meet the community and teach people the game, but there's no time, considering an Olympic year has crammed more games into the first few months of the season.

"You know, we haven't picked the ideal year to make this move," Rutherford said. "Basically we play every other day and they don't get out anywhere. They don't get out in the market in Raleigh, either."

If attendance doesn't improve, the team could lose $20 million -- $5 million more than it lost in Hartford last season, Rutherford said.

Still, he claims the team is much better off in North Carolina. Team merchandise is selling better than in Hartford, while the team's five-year TV package will bring in 75 percent more. That's not counting concession and parking revenues and $1 million from luxury box sales -- things the team didn't have in Hartford.

"The only missing link is putting people in the building," Rutherford said.

In addition, he said 40 luxury boxes have already been sold in the new Raleigh arena at an average cost of $100,000 each.

The Hurricanes are using special promotions to try to attract more fans. They're giving away either a car or truck during each of the next 20 home games, and fans can test-drive a Ford and receive coupons for free tickets. The team could lose close to $4 million if a lot of fans take the team up on its test-drive offer.

Season ticket holders -- all 3,000 strong -- are also being given a free ticket for every one purchased.

The team is willing to take the losses now with the future in mind.

"In the early '80s, Detroit drew crowds similar to this in Joe Louis Arena. That's where we got the car idea," Rutherford said. "Some people took the position that we're desperate.

"It rewards the people who come. It gained momentum (in Detroit), their crowds got better, their teams got better and the rest is history. And this was in a city where they were playing in their building, in their market with a team that had been in the league for 50 years."

If the Hurricanes hope to be around in 50 years, they'll need help from the fans -- and the players.