Part 1 of a three-part series
Two years ago, the Charlotte Checkers were about halfway through their final ECHL playoffs, which they would eventually bow out of by losing in seven games to the eventual league champion Cincinnati Cyclones in the second round. It was a surprising exit for a team that won its conference in the regular season, but understandable given that the Checkers as Charlotte had known them since 1993 were on their way out at the end of the year.
On the way in? An affiliation with the Carolina Hurricanes, becoming only one of six teams in the American Hockey League to be located in the same state or province as its parent organization.
Two years into the relationship, both the Hurricanes and Checkers agree that it has met, and in some areas exceeded, the expectations that were set in both organizations two years ago.
For many years, the ECHL Checkers were an affiliate of the New York Rangers, and according to Checkers Chief Operating Officer Tera Black, that was a setup for apathy in the Queen City. "There was a disconnect between Charlotte and when players were called up to New York or [Rangers AHL affiliate] Hartford," she says. "We were really optimistic that we would become relevant" by moving up a level and affiliating with the Hurricanes. "We certainly did that."
Over the past two years the Checkers have seen an influx of people who make a trip to Charlotte specifically to watch a Checkers game, rather than happening to be in town when the team was playing. "They can utilize our team hotel in the EpiCentre, go to our team restaurants, and catch two games," says Black. "We're working with our corporate partners to make packages available to people who want to see Charlotte from a hockey perspective."
That marketing extends beyond the rink. The Papa John's pizza promotion is one example of marketing that has taken flight thanks to double-sided marketing from the Hurricanes and Checkers. The Carolina Ale House, which hosts several Cool Bars events in central and eastern North Carolina every year, recently expanded into Charlotte, and Black says that the Charlotte area could host a Cool Bars event of its own in the near future.
It's a big change for a franchise that never marketed in Raleigh during its time in the ECHL.
"We do a better job with that now," says Black. "We're working hard to grow the game state- and region-wide. [The affiliation] makes it a lot easier for us to not only promote hockey in general, but the two specific teams as well."
One of the largest expenses the Checkers faced in the ECHL was travel, with many flights to small cities that didn't have convenient - or inexpensive - transportation. The affiliation change, to a league with larger cities and more accessible transportation options, has made the travel budget much less expensive, causing less wear and tear on the players and a significant savings in the bank account.
It's an enviable situation among AHL teams, says Black. "A lot of teams wish they had the same geographic location [with regard to] their parent club that we do."
Fans are responding, too. The Checkers averaged 6,768 fans per game in 2011-12, more than 400 more than an average game in 2010-11, and the 257,189 fans that darkened the door of Time Warner Cable Arena this past season was nearly 5,000 more than visited the season before despite the Checkers playing two fewer home games thanks to the AHL's schedule realignment.
The Checkers' future growth is tied directly to the success of the Hurricanes. Black says that from their end, having a partner willing to invest in the minor league system is a necessity, and the Hurricanes have come through.
"When you're trying to build your product, you're doing so based on what the Canes are doing on the ice," she says. "Their ability to put good young players [in Charlotte] reflects the value of hockey in North Carolina."
With Checkers owner Michael Kahn taking a minority ownership stake in the Hurricanes, the Checkers are excited about what lies ahead. After stints with two ECHL teams, including the ECHL Checkers, Black says this one is the best she's been involved with.
"Having been in several different situations, I couldn't have hoped for a better affiliation and relationship. It's exciting to see not only what we've come from, but where we're going, and the things we want to offer fans in both markets."
Coming tomorrow: How have the Hurricanes adapted to having an affiliate in their backyard?