Thomas Dundon’s imminent takeover of the Carolina Hurricanes – the sale from Peter Karmanos could be finalized as early as the end of this week – will usher in a new era for the team, and without a doubt, a very different one.
For the first time since the franchise moved here in 1997, everything is on the table, from changing the logo and colors to the fan experience to how the building is managed.
Based on Dundon’s friendship with Mark Cuban, expect the players (and their families) to be treated in ways this franchise has never before even considered, from how they travel to how they eat to how they train to how they recover.
Based on how he has run his businesses in the past, expect Dundon to personally evaluate every single aspect of the franchise, from hockey operations to ticket sales to marketing to concessions to game presentation to parking to broadcasting to merchandising to accounting. Given that history, expect him to spend money where he thinks it will make an impact and prune excess where he thinks it won’t.
And remember that the NHL likes to do nice things for new owners, so while an outdoor game at Carter-Finley Stadium is probably going to remain a pipe dream until the Hurricanes have a higher national profile (or more ex-Blackhawks players), they might actually get to participate in one at some point. It’s too soon to get another All-Star Game, but maybe the draft could return in the next few years. There are already rumors the Hurricanes could play in Finland next season.
This ownership transfer is going to be disruptive in every sense of the word, and for a franchise that’s been run essentially the same way for 20 years – well in some areas, not so well in many others – that’s been a long time coming. Anything’s possible at this point, including the franchise finally publicly acknowledging its lineage as the Hartford Whalers, which was generally forbidden under Karmanos. (If nothing else, a preseason game in Hartford and a Whalers Night in Raleigh both sound like licenses to print money.)
Given all that, what’s it going to mean? Right away, probably not much.
General manager Ron Francis and head coach Bill Peters, like everyone else, are likely to be given a chance to see if they can do things the way Dundon wants them done. Both have embraced analytics in recent years, which bodes well for their futures. Dundon is likely to be more involved in day-to-day management decisions than in-game coaching decisions, so this transition will have a bigger affect on Francis, but that’s an area to watch in the longer term.
One area to watch will be Dundon’s interactions with the Centennial Authority. One of the first things Cuban did after buying the Mavericks was completely retool the team’s quarters behind the scenes, from the locker room to the treatment areas to the guest facilities. Dundon can’t unilaterally do those things at PNC Arena; they have to be done in concert with the authority, which oversees the building.
If he’s willing to pay for changes, and he certainly appears poised to do that, the authority won’t stand in his way in areas the Hurricanes occupy and control. It gets trickier when it comes to the building’s common areas, whether that’s upgrades to the scoreboard to improving wireless service to adding or removing concession stands, lounges and restaurants. The authority gets a say in that, even if Dundon writes the check.
Just as one example, let’s say Dundon decides he wants to do something as simple as change the color of the seats in the building. That would require a three-way negotiation among the Hurricanes, N.C. State and the Centennial Authority, and students of history will remember what a toxic flashpoint that has been throughout the arena’s history, what should have been called the Pantone Wars but weren’t.
It works both ways: The authority has put a hold on plans to expand the south entrance plaza of the arena and add office space on the north end until a new owner is in place. Dundon will now be able to sign off or modify those plans.
Additionally, the Hurricanes have, since the arena opened, managed and booked the arena themselves. (Technically, it’s Gale Force Holdings, the Hurricanes’ parent company under Karmanos.) While the Hurricanes have found that to be quite profitable, Dundon could outsource some or all of that operation to a national operator like AEG, SMG or Spectra if he prefers to focus on the hockey team.
There are also indications Live Nation, which manages a large number of outdoor amphitheaters – including Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheater – and a few European arenas, is looking to get into the indoor arena business in the states. Earlier this year, Live Nation tried to buy SMG but was outbid, and it is a partner with the Oak View Group that won the right to renovate Seattle’s Key Arena in hopes of landing NHL and NBA teams.
Even if Dundon retains control of the arena operation itself, it’s possible the Hurricanes could enter into an agreement with a booking partner like Live Nation – as Raleigh’s Red Hat Amphitheater does – or try to join the Oak View Group’s Arena Alliance, which includes independently run arenas like Madison Square Garden and Atlanta’s Philips Arena.
One thing is clear about Dundon, especially after talking to the Hurricanes players who have met with him: He’s not going to hesitate to change anything he thinks needs changing. And for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in eight years and ranks 30th out of 31 NHL teams in attendance, that could mean just about everything.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock