RALEIGH — For Don Waddell, president of the Carolina Hurricanes’ parent company Gale Force Sports & Entertainment, it’s “business as usual.”
That said, it’s been a busy summer for the team. The Hurricanes reshaped their roster with several additions via trade and added one of the biggest names on the July 1 free agent market, bringing back Justin Williams on a two-year contract.
Carolina also tied up two of its young defensemen, signing partners Jaccob Slavin (seven years, $37.1 million) and Brett Pesce (six years, $24.15 million) to contract extensions that will take affect in 2018-19 and keep the duo in Raleigh until at least 2025 and 2024, respectively.
The biggest news, however, is there has been movement on the ownership front. Chuck Greenberg, former managing partner of MLB’s Texas Rangers and current owner three minor league baseball teams, has been revealed as the head of one group that has signed a nonbinding term sheet to explore purchasing the team. Greenberg’s group is the only group to be publicly revealed.
“I would prefer for as long as you can to keep these things quiet until you get to a point where you’re ready to take that next step,” Waddell, in an interview Friday, said of the process of selling the team. “I think it’s better for everybody, but I don’t think there’s been any damage done here.”
The status of the team, which has been owned by Peter Karmanos Jr. since 1994 and was relocated to Raleigh from Hartford, Conn., in 1997, has been a hot-button topic locally and across the NHL for a couple seasons. Karmanos, 74, and NHL have repeatedly refuted claims the team could be relocated.
“Just because it’s a sale, I don’t know why people would say that because it’s for sale it’s leaving,” Waddell said. “It’s never been talked about, it’s never been the intent. [NHL] commissioner [Gary Bettman] has said this franchise isn’t going any place.
“Businesses sell all the time. But I think maybe that happening was maybe a good thing for our fans,” he added about word of Greenberg’s interest — and plans to keep the team in N.C. — leaking.
Despite ranking last out of 30 teams in attendance last season (11,776 per game), Waddell said the Hurricanes made approximately $2 million.
While each of the NHL’s 30 teams received a $16 million cut of the incoming Vegas Golden Knights’ $500 million expansion fee, Waddell said the Hurricanes made money even without the one-time influx of expansion cash.
“The Las Vegas money would be up and above that,” Waddell said of the team making a profit. “We made $18 million — it’s a true statement — but really you’d be selling something that’s not going to continue, let’s say.”
Several factors, including a low player payroll, contributed to the Hurricanes turning a profit — the only time the team has done so without reaching the postseason.
“One is, from a revenue standpoint, our revenues have continued to escalate with new TV deals,” Waddell said. “We have to make sure we give [the NHL] a lot of credit. They’ve done a tremendous job.
“From a local standpoint, our ticket revenue was up a little bit from the year prior; not much,” he added. “Our sponsorship was up — it comes out someplace around 15 percent.”
Waddell also said, in a surprise, that merchandise sales doubled last season.
“We did take a different approach in the merchandise store,” Waddell said. “We had a lot more higher-end quality, and we found out people didn’t mind spending a little bit more money to get a better quality [product], whether it be a golf shirt or a hat or something like that.”
The team is also already seeing a bump in jersey sales this offseason thanks to the NHL’s move from Reebok to Adidas and the team’s revamped uniforms.
Waddell pointed out the team has added 53 new positions, including 41 in sales, since he joined Gale Force three years ago, and meshing the operations of the team and PNC Arena has helped streamline things.
“We try to cross these synergies as much as we can,” he said.
Karmanos is still the one signing off on all decisions, including the offseason contracts, and remains in discussions with potential buyers, including Greenberg.
“Chuck can walk away at any time or Pete could walk away at any time,” Waddell said. “Chuck’s trying to get all of his investors in order, and if he does that we’ll continue to move the process forward.”
Those potential investors include people in the Triangle, Waddell confirmed.
The fact the Hurricanes made money even without the one-time influx of cash from expansion and while missing the playoffs for an eighth-straight season bodes well for the franchise’s room for growth, even with the team’s payroll expected to climb as its young players get new deals.
“We’re going to have challenges, but we also think the team’s better,” Waddell said. “It all goes hand-in-hand. We’re investing more in the players, we’re hoping that turns into more wins, which will turn into more fans coming. We’d sell more tickets, sell more concessions, all that stuff.”