The Halifax Hurricanes at Mid-Season
It is just past the midway point in the 2015 – 16 NBL Canada season, and the Halifax Hurricanes sit at the top of the standings in the Atlantic Division with 16 wins and 7 losses, two games clear of the Saint John Mill Rats after Thursday night’s convincing 112 – 101 win at the Scotiabank Centre, and they stand one game clear of the Central Division leading London Lightning in terms of overall record. By any measure, that is a great start for the new franchise, which is attempting to rebuild professional basketball in Halifax after last season’s debacle with the now-defunct Halifax Rainmen.
I’ve been to almost all of the home games, and caught many of the team’s away games on the NBL live feed, which has also given me the chance to keep track of the action elsewhere, particularly in the Central Division, whose teams only visit the east coast once in the season (the Niagra River Lions and the Orangeville A’s have already made their swing through our region; the Lightning and Windsor Express are still to come). The Hurricanes are doing a lot of things right, but attendance has still been disappointing, which is a real shame because the franchise is putting forth a compelling entertainment experience. But as my brother said to me at the game last night against the Mill Rats, rebuilding the NBL brand in Halifax is going to be a process that takes time, and it will require commitment from the owners and consistency from the franchise. So far both seem to be well in place, and I hope that as the season progresses into its second half and then the playoffs more Haligonians take notice of the team and give them a real chance.
In the meantime, here are the three things that have really stood out for me in terms of what the Hurricanes have done well so far this season, both on and off the court… and one area where I think changes should be made.
1. Roster consistency – One of the problems with leagues like the NBL is that there can be a lot of turnover in terms of players, not only from season to season but also within any given season itself. To some degree this is unavoidable as players get injured, or traded, or released for any number of reasons, but for a team to develop an identity and a connection to the fan base there has to be a solid core group of players that are on the roster for the entire season. The Hurricanes have managed that so far with a group of dynamic, passionate and hard-working players who give a solid effort every night. Mike Glover, Kyle Hunt, Billy White, Justin Johnson, Joel Friesen, Anthony Criswell, and Cliff Clinkscales have played in all 23 of the team’s games, and shooting guard Shane Gibson has played in 21. That’s the kind of day-in, day-out line-up that leads to success on the floor, and also with the fans.
For example, when I attended the recent game against the visiting Niagra River Lions I sat next to a young woman named Denise and her young son Jerod, who was about eight years old. We struck up a conversation before the game began, and it quickly became apparent that Jerod and Denise knew every player on the Hurricanes, and each of them had their favourites (Glover and White for Jerod; Glover, White and Clinkscales for Denise). It was a lot of fun to sit next to them at the game because they were emotionally invested in the team and particularly their favourite players. There was a real connection between them and the team, and that had to do with the fact that the line-up has been consistent. It plays out on the court as well. After 23 games, it’s easy to see the team chemistry that has developed between the players, and that has translated into an exciting on-court product and a league-leading record.
For the record, my favourite player is Shane Gibson, and I’m taking into account some of the things you don’t see in a box-score as well as the stats. Gibson is the kind of player who can single-handedly change a game with his spot-up shooting – he’s firing at a .475 clip overall, and .456 from beyond the three-point line, which is second best in the NBL (he ranks first in total three-pointers made). He’s also reliable from the free throw line, shooting at a .909 clip. Further showing his dedication to the fundamentals, he ranks second in the league in steals, which highlights his solid defense. With 16.1 points-per-game he ranks 13th in the league in scoring. Gibson plays a controlled game and never gets rattled, which explains why he is tied with Johnson for the team lead in minutes player per game – the coaching staff trust him to carry a heavy load, and with good reason. He’s a true team player, and a joy to watch.
2. Hugo Lopez – You need look no further than the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA to see how the whole of a collection of talented players does not always equal the sum of the parts, and the reason for that almost always has to do with bad or inconsistent coaching. The Hurricanes clearly have plenty of talented players, but it would be to no avail without a head coach who can mold them into a cohesive unit that takes full advantage of each player’s strengths in relation to the team as a whole. Lopez is an experienced international coach who has provided that leadership.
As a film director I know what it’s like to lead a team in trying to achieve a vision / goal, so I’ve spent a fair bit of time observing how Lopez runs a game, and I’ve been very impressed. He commands the attention of his players in time-outs, but he also lets them participate. He is always focused during play, and makes good in-game adjustments, both in terms of strategy and play-calling and in terms of personnel. As a result, the team clearly respects him. Not once in a huddle have I seen a player not paying attention, something I have observed from a couple of the other teams in the Atlantic Division so far.
As an added bonus for fans, Lopez himself is extremely entertaining. He paces the floor almost non-stop, he gesticulates wildly on a regular basis, he barks at both his players and the officials, and he employs a range of facial expressions that are almost worth the price of admission in and of themselves. Rather than serve as a distraction, however, or a sign that his ego is more important to him than the good of the team, one gets the feeling that all of this is the result of how much he cares about the game, and the players under his command. The passion that he exudes rubs off on both the players and the crowd. He believes in them, and as a result they believe in him… and themselves. It’s a winning combination.
3. Overall game experience and connection with the community – As any filmmaker is well aware, the competition for the general public’s entertainment dollar has never been greater than it is today. For a local sports franchise like the Hurricanes that means competing with other local teams (especially the popular Halifax Mooseheads) as well as things like movies and major league professional sports that can be watched in the comfort of one’s own home. That means that you have to offer the fans the best possible total experience for their hard-earned dollars.
Having a good team that plays exciting basketball is the cornerstone, of course, but it’s not the whole story. You have to keep fans engaged throughout the entire game, especially during stops in action and at half-time. That requires that you tailor the experience to your particular market. The Hurricanes got off to a bit of a slow start in this area, but have improved greatly over the course of the season.
One thing that really bothered me early on was the music during the game, which was both too loud and played too often (almost non-stop). This made it hard to converse with your fellow fans and even harder to concentrate on the action on the floor. A little music, played at the right times and the right volume, can enhance the spectator experience; too much played too loudly is a turn-off. Fortunately, the Hurricanes seem to have found the right balance as the season has progressed – there are now significant periods of the game when there is no music playing, which allows fans to really focus on the action on the court. Being able to hear players and coaches call out plays or talk to each other is great stuff for the dedicated basketball fan, as is hearing the squeal of sneakers on a quick stop and start by a player, or the slap of a hand on the ball during a steal attempt, for example. When music is used now, it’s done with a purpose – to gear the fans up when spirits are lagging, for example. Much better!
Other positive aspects of the overall experience include: the Halifax Weather Girls cheer squad, which has gotten more polished and more involved with the fans; the team mascot Swish, who spends a lot of time interacting with kids in the crowd (they love him), and; the interstitial entertainment, which now includes local youth league basketball teams playing a short scrimmage at halftime as well as more effective and engaging interaction between the Q-104 team (led by BJ Wilson) and the crowd. Best of all is the fact that the Hurricanes players always head to the merchandise area after the game, win or lose, to meet the fans, sign autographs, and so on. This all adds to the overall value of the game experience, and helps builds a greater connection between the franchise and the fans.
Finally, I want to mention the commitment that the Hurricanes have shown in terms of engagement with the community in the broader sense. They have made several visits to schools, hospitals and youth basketball teams to connect with young fans and deliver a positive message. One of the visits, for example, was to St. Joseph’s Alexander MacKay Elementary School in the North End of Halifax on February 17th, where three players talked to the students about their lives, how they wound up in Halifax, and encouraged the kids to believe that they could do anything they wanted to if they worked hard enough. This is the kind of thing that endears a team to a city, and with good reason. The Hurricanes are hitting all the right notes in this respect, and it is a much-appreciated extension of their game-time efforts to engage in a positive way with the community.
Overall Impressions – The Hurricanes are doing pretty much everything right in their first season. But there is one area where I think they are still missing the mark, and that is the base price of their tickets. Yes, they run various loss-leader style promotions that can make things a bit less expensive (the March 10th game against the Mill Rats, for example, had a “buy one regular price ticket and get all other tickets for $5” promotion), but the regular sticker price of $19 for adults, $12.50 for students and $8 for children is just a bit too steep, especially for a team that is trying to build a following and overcome the distrust of the NBL in Halifax caused by the Rainmen debacle.
Remember what I wrote above about the competitive nature of the entertainment marketplace? I think it’s a mistake for the Hurricanes to set their regular prices significantly above what people have to pay to go see a movie. At the moment, the Hurricanes are struggling to hit the 1,000 person mark in attendance. Lower the prices by just a few dollars, and you create a more accessible product, encouraging more people to take a shot on the team. I would have set the adult prices at $15, the student prices at $9, and the price for children at $6, all numbers that are more in line with their division rivals. Make it affordable for an entire family to regularly attend games, and give university students an even more attractive pricing option.
When I was a musician in the 1990s, I always preferred a crowd of 150 people paying $5 at the door than a crowd of 80 people paying $10. The larger crowd meant more energy, which meant a better experience… and it also meant a greater number of people at a gig who might be inclined to buy our merchandise. The Hurricanes would benefit from a more competitive pricing scheme, at least in the first year or two (another thought – offer a regular discount on any ticket sold to military personnel or their families. Halifax is a military city. Get them to buy in).
Overall, however, the franchise is on the right track, both on the court and off. They are connecting with the community and delivering an exciting product on the court. I’m looking forward to the second half of their inaugural season, and encourage readers to give the team a look. You won’t be disappointed.
Paul Andrew Kimball
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