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Luke DeCock: It’s just a few fans to start, but we’re taking first steps back to sports as we knew it
AP

Luke DeCock: It’s just a few fans to start, but we’re taking first steps back to sports as we knew it

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A general view of the game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period of their game at PNC Arena on February 22, 2021, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

A general view of the game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period of their game at PNC Arena on February 22, 2021, in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images/TNS)

Three thousand or so fans won’t push the Carolina Hurricanes any closer to profitability. Entertaining that many fans at PNC Arena might push the Hurricanes closer to the playoffs.

With a $78 million payroll, not to mention the fixed costs of opening PNC Arena no matter how many fans are in the building, that much ticket revenue isn’t going to make a huge difference to the bottom line. But even that many people could create the kind of atmosphere that gives the Hurricanes an actual home-ice advantage, the kind of thing that could push a contending team over the top against last year’s Stanley Cup finalists.

In a division where all but two other teams have had fans in the building from the start, Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement Wednesday that indoor arenas can open to 15 percent of capacity -- based on PNC’s listed capacity for hockey, that would be 2,802 fans -- allows the Hurricanes to keep up with everyone but the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings in terms of atmosphere.

It’s just a few fans to start, at PNC and elsewhere in North Carolina, but it’s the first step back toward sports as we knew it.

Financially, Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said Wednesday it’s a break-even proposition for the Hurricanes, at best, but there are other benefits for the team.

“You stay connected with the fans,” Dundon said. “I think any player you talk to says it’s a lot easier to get into the game when there’s fans, even if there’s just a few. It feels more like what it’s supposed to feel like. It’s that intangible. It’s more that -- the atmosphere, the aura.”

Never mind the cruel irony that the Hurricanes have their most watchable team in 15 years, off to the best start since the 2006 Stanley Cup champions, and a grand total of 25 people (plus families and media and staff) have actually been able to watch in person. For a market that suffered through so many terrible, lost years -- and by and large people still went to the games, until the very end of the dismal decade -- this timing was terrible, for team and fans alike.

Starting March 4, that will change.

It won’t be the same as 18,000-plus packed in, but it’ll be a better environment than the eight home games so far, when the players’ wives and kids have done most of the cheering.

Some of those who will have the opportunity to go still won’t feel comfortable, and that’s fine. We’re all going to have to feel our way through the reopening process, just as we’ve all felt our way through everything for the past year. The fortunate vaccinated have another reason to count themselves lucky. The rest of us will continue to do the constant calculus of risk and reward in our heads.

“We still have these capacity requirements,” Cooper said, “because we know that the virus is still here.”

All of this is, and has been, and will continue to be, a process fraught with uncertainty and peril, like feeling for a power outlet in the dark. But the state’s coronavirus numbers are starting to move in the right direction, and getting to watch a sporting event in person again is one of the rewards as they do. Eleven months after the ACC booted fans from its tournament overnight as COVID-19 announced its presence with authority, the doors are finally reopening.

That’s true across the Triangle, where there might actually be UNC students at the Smith Center for the second Duke-Carolina game on March 6, or N.C. State fans at PNC for the Wolfpack’s final home game that same day against Virginia Tech. (Duke which has allowed neither students nor player families nor media into Cameron this season, will hold that line.)

If being indoors with a bunch of people doesn’t sound right quite yet, the Durham Bulls open April 6 and the Carolina Mudcats in May. The NWSL is scheduled to resume play in mid-May. At 30 percent there will be plenty of space to spread out.

At the rate North Carolina is progressing in the fight against COVID, with masks and vaccines doing what they’re supposed to do, restrictions inside and outside might even be loosened further by then. Maybe even by the time the NHL playoffs start in May -- when fans in the building will really matter.

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