AHL's Arrival in Charlotte a Step in the Right Direction for Carolina Hurricanes
While Wednesday's announcement of the relocation of the American Hockey League's Albany River Rats to Charlotte may play second fiddle to the evening's basketball contest between Duke and UNC, the AHL's presence in Charlotte next season will have a pronounced impact on the future of North Carolina's sports landscape.
The Rats have been the Carolina Hurricanes' top-level minor-league affiliate since 2006; the obvious appeal of moving the team to Charlotte is that prospects will be playing a mere two hours from the NHL club, bringing in more fans for the minor-league team and facilitating travel for players who are recalled or sent down.
However, the effects could go far beyond the superficial if the 'Canes and Rats play their cards right.
The Hurricanes' adoption of "Carolina" as part of their moniker when they arrived on the NHL scene in 1997 was part of a marketing strategy to draw in fans from across North Carolina (a la the NFL's Carolina Panthers).
While the strategy has had some success, the vast majority of the Hurricanes' fan base still resides in the Research Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and surrounding towns), even with statewide television contracts in both Carolinas.
The NHL, for a number of debatable reasons, does not quite have the broad-market appeal (yet) of leagues like the NFL. The Hurricanes have been a prototypical example of this; while they have very strong support (especially for a nontraditional market) in their home city and immediate environs, significant exposure to the team in the rest of North and South Carolina can be very difficult to come by.
One won't find many 'Canes bars outside the Triangle. Bumper stickers seen on roads in the rest of the state support Duke, UNC, and NC State, but not the Hurricanes. Walking into a sporting goods store in Charlotte, Panther blue is easy to find, but Hurricane red is not.
Sports fans living in Charlotte have not latched on to the Hurricanes because they feel little connection to the team, despite the place name being "Carolina" and not "Raleigh."
Other than a few games a week on Fox Sports Net, Charlotteans get very little exposure to the 'Canes. Local news outlets give the team scant coverage, and Charlotte's ECHL team, the Checkers, is affiliated with the New York Rangers and Colorado Avalanche, not the 'Canes.
Other than the obvious woe-bringers of poor play and prohibitively expensive ticket prices, nothing will turn off local fans to a sports team faster than the lack of a potential connection with that club (see: apathy towards the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats in Raleigh ).
The 'Canes have marketed themselves relatively well. The club has become known as one of the most fan-friendly franchises in the NHL. However, if it wants to gain a true stranglehold on potential hockey fans in North Carolina, marketing alone won't get it done.
Even if the 'Canes marketed themselves even more aggressively to the rest of North Carolina, the fans would still be left without a good reason to support a team that plays all the way out in the Triangle.
This is where the Rats come into play.
The new Charlotte Checkers, as the Rats will be called after the move, will give those fans that reason. Not only will they be affiliated with the 'Canes, but they will be the big club's AHL affiliate. Many ECHL players never even make it to the big-time; however, extremely talented players are regularly shipped back and forth between the NHL and AHL.
Not only will the quality of play for Charlotte's hockey team be better, but fans will actually be able to see players that will represent their home state with the Hurricanes instead of being shipped off to New York's or Denver's AHL affiliates.
Sports fans in Charlotte will certainly be more interested in their Checkers now that their team will serve as a direct pipeline for home-grown players to the Hurricanes, who have arguably been the most successful hockey team in the southern United States over the past decade. The above-average popularity of AHL teams like the Philadelphia Phantoms and Toronto Marlies is owed to the fact they play in the same locale as their NHL partners.
The new Checkers can build this same interest in both themselves and the parent Hurricanes if they make the primary focus of their marketing the fact that their players are truly a part of the 'Canes organization, potentially leading Charlotte sports fans to feel that the Checkers and Hurricanes are their teams just as much as the Panthers, Bobcats, or the Tobacco Road schools.
There is surely plenty of work to be done for the Hurricanes and Checkers, but one day, fans from Charlotte and the rest of North Carolina may increasingly find themselves putting their ACC passions on the back-burner for an evening and saying, "It's Hockey Night in Carolina!"
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