Tom Dundon wanting to bring MLB to Raleigh feels like unchartered territory, but we’ve been in a similar situation before. Let’s go back to 1996, when a ‘New Raleigh arena begins hunting for pro sports franchises.’
What did the Raleigh-Durham landscape look like in 1996? The population was about 1 million strong (for the Triangle Metro). The two smallest US markets in the NHL at the time were San Jose (1,474,000) and Hartford (825,000), but Hartford was failing.
But the Hartford Whalers were poised to move. They had recently been sold and continued to have issues with low attendance and inability to recruit corporate sponsorship.
Raleigh would be absolutely CRAZY to think an NHL team would work in this market. The only smaller NHL market was in the process of failing and Raleigh was a sleepy city with no hockey roots. Plus, there were much better markets that wanted a team.
This is why Raleigh went the ‘realistic’ route at first & started courting minor league hockey to share, what is now PNC Arena with NC State basketball.
However, the Whalers stadium deals broke down and they announced their departure before they had found a new location.
In a unique turn of events, Raleigh found themselves with funded plans for a brand new arena and an NHL team that was currently homeless. Fate had showed it’s hand, and Raleigh made it’s pitch.
But just because they got a team, didn’t mean they’d be able to keep them.
The Canes struggled to attract fans for years, but a Stanley Cup in 2006 gave them new life.
However, even that magic wore off by 2014/15 when attendance dropped back down to near the bottom of the NHL.
Did NHL fail in Raleigh? Was this the end?
It might have been if they weren’t sold in 2018.
That’s when they were purchased by a guy who had new ideas, was willing to put a real product on the ice, & was coming in during the Triangle’s growth boom.
That owner was Tom Dundon.
Over the next few years, the Hurricanes attendance began to tick upwards.
In 2021 they finished 9th in the NHL and just last season the Canes hit #2 in the NHL in average. attendance.
They had made it.
Raleigh was becoming an actual hockey market.
Flash forward to the present.
Raleigh is a potential expansion option for MLB, where you will not be the smallest market.
Where you have a rich state history with the sport.
In a time when we are now the 2nd fastest-growing metro in the country.
But no expansion market is going to be perfect. There will be hurdles and it will take outside-the-box thinking to make it work.
If only you could find a willing billionaire owner who had experience with this type of thing
All this to say…hockey will survive (and currently thrive) in the Raleigh for at least 50 years.
We get the Skyhawks and Bullfrogs and other minor of the minor leagues have folded…but the near apples to apples comparison has WORKED.