Lack of exposure to the game has long been the biggest impediment to hockey catching on in the South, and the Raleigh-based Hurricanes' improbable run to the Stanley Cup playoffs was just what the sport needed in the region.
The timing couldn't have been better for the Checkers, which recently changed ownership. Sports executive Carl Scheer, businessman Felix Sabates and advertising executive Steve Luquire are the principal owners of a group that bought the Checkers from George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge on their way out of town.
While the new owners revel in the profile-boosting assist from the Hurricanes, they'll be taking their own measures to reinvigorate a team whose attendance has declined in recent years.
When Scheer was vice president and general manager of the Charlotte Hornets in the early years, he wouldn't sit down during games. He only took a seat at halftime to watch the entertainment.
"He would always walk from where he stood in the coliseum to a chair near the scorer's table," recalls his son Bob, who, as president of the Checkers, will be running the team on a day-to-day basis. "I asked him why he did that because I knew he wanted to win the game most of all. My dad said, 'I want to win, but there are 23,000 fans here and there better be good entertainment, a good show. They come for the energy and tempo in the building.'"
The Scheers now want to bring energy and temp to Cricket Arena. "Our slogan for the Checkers is, 'Back at Full Strength,'" Bob says. "We will never have a quiet moment in the arena. There will be a lot of fan interaction -- like shooting T-shirts into the crowd, and there will be music, music, music. We'll have a live national anthem singer every game, whether it's Tuesday or Saturday, and the promotions won't be the same every game. Our script for each game will probably be 10 pages long."
That's about how long scripts are for games involving the Greenville Grrrowl, another minor league hockey team the Scheers own and operate in Greenville, SC. The Scheers developed the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, where the Grrrowl play, and have taken on operation of the Carolina Rhinos arena football team and most recently the Greenville Groove of the NBA's National Development Basketball League. The Rhinos and Groove play at the same facility.
Bob Scheer has the daily responsibility for all three Greenville teams, but says he expects to spend most of this time in Charlotte in the near future. "The Checkers will need more attention for a few years," he says.
By boosting the atmosphere at games, the new owners hope to see attendance rise. When Carl Scheer and Sabates owned the franchise once before, they averaged 7,740 per game during their tenure, from 1993 through 1996. Under Shinn and Wooldridge, crowds averaged no more than 4,700 in any of their last three years.
But the situations aren't apples to apples. Since Scheer and Sabates sold the Checkers in 1996, competition for the entertainment dollar has gotten much tougher in Charlotte. Not only did the NFL's Carolina Panthers come to town the same year, the WNBA's Charlotte Sting arrived a year later and the Charlotte Knights have been playing minor-league baseball all along. The Hornets already were stiff competition, consistently selling out the Charlotte Coliseum until the late 1990s.
Now, not having an NBA team should give the team a temporary boost, particularly given the Hurricanes' success. But signs are Charlotte could get another NBA team in the next several years, and once again, the Checkers will be back where they were -- competing against both the Panthers and an NBA team.
In addition to the game atmosphere, Bob Scheer hopes new ticket packages will draw fans. Prices are already a far cry from those of the Panthers and Hornets. The new owners will offer price breaks not only on season tickets but groups of games.
"In Greenville, we've found that it's hard for the non-hardcore hockey fan to attend all the games, so we offer ticket plans of eight, 10 or 12 games," Bob says. "We will be pushing these flexible mini-plans." The team believes it has about 1,900 season-ticket fans from last year, but Bob hadn't had a chance to verify the number at the time of this interview.
The new owners also are updating the team logo, colors and jerseys. Clothing designer Alexander Julian is redesigning the jerseys, while Luquire, a principal in the Charlotte-based ad firm of Luquire George Andrews, will be responsible for giving the logo a fresh look. Fans can expect to see the new design popping up with regularity very soon. "In June, people are going to start seeing us all over the place," Bob says.
At games, fans will notice a new four-sided scoreboard with video and replay capability, as well as upgraded bathrooms on the second floor of Cricket Arena. Bathrooms on the lower level will be renovated by the next season.
Two big things staying the same are the name of the team and the coach. "We are in the process of re-signing Don McAdam," Bob says of the Checkers' head coach, whose contract expires June 30. "He will be back -- he's our man." As for the team name, "There was never any question about changing that. That name has been associated with hockey teams in Charlotte dating back to the 1950s. Fans like it."
After the Charlotte Sting's first two games, Women's Basketball magazine was looking good with its prediction that the Sting will repeat as Eastern Conference champs. On the other hand, ESPN and the Oxygen Channel may be regretting that they aren't televising more Sting games. Oxygen has none scheduled; ESPN, three. Playing the Sting's best game in franchise history, in my opinion, the team soundly defeated a strong Los Angeles Sparks team in the home opener, one of the ESPN games. Two nights later, the Sting knocked off the Houston Comets. How they've done on a four-game Western road trip from June 6 through June 11 could say a lot about the season to come. Is Andrea Stinson over the ankle sprain from the season opener? Has Tammy Sutton-Browm found relief from back spasms, which stopped her starting the first two games? Has Kelly Miller maintained her strong start? The Sting's remaining home games in June are 7pm Thursday, June 13 against Indiana; 7pm Wednesday, June 19 against Washington; and 6pm Saturday, June 22 against Miami. *