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The Other Cold Weather Sport

Checkers confident fans will return

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The New Year's resolution for the Charlotte Checkers has to be: Get more fannies in seats. But to hear team officials talk, rump roundup won't be hard. Under new ownership this season, the Checkers are on the upswing with season tickets and sponsorships. But through their first 11 home games (as of December 24), the Checkers averaged only 2,986 fans per game, according to turnstile counts kept by Cricket Arena officials.Team President Bob Scheer says actual tickets sold, counting those included in sponsorships, is about 4,700. "We've had a terrible "show-up' ratio because of the (ice) storm and the holidays," he says.

Worried? No, Scheer is optimistic attendance will increase in January. "Historically, we always do better once the holidays and football season are over," he says. "Our schedule is back-loaded with home games, which is really good." Plus, attendance per game is actually a bit better (82 more fans) than it was last year at this time. The arena seats 9,500.

The Checkers play more than 60 percent of their homes games the last three months of the regular season, including eight games in January. The first one is Friday, January 3, against the Richmond Renegades. So, to start 2003, the Checkers should find out quickly whether they're doing the right things, which they believe they are. "It's a different atmosphere this season," Scheer says.

Building Manager George Hite agrees. "There's certainly a good perception by the fans that things are better, that the franchise is only looking forward," says Hite, who works for the Charlotte Auditorium-Coliseum-Convention Center Authority, which runs the building for the city. He also says people are more inclined to see a hockey game in the winter. "After the holidays, in the coldest time of the year, people think more about hockey," Hite says.

One thing the Checkers would like to improve, though, is the team's record -- important in a fickle sports town like Charlotte. Through December 20, the team had dropped eight of 10 games and was 9-15-1. Converting more shots on goal and improving goaltending are the team's greatest challenges.

Off the ice, season ticket holders have increased by nearly a third (1,013 to 1,329) over last season. Changing ownership, away from George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge, has been the biggest boost to season ticket sales. "The community has been a lot more receptive," Scheer says.

As for sponsorships, the increase is evident by the colorful dasherboards that ring the ice in Cricket Arena. The plethora of signs reflects more corporate support than last season.

Improvements to Cricket Arena have helped lure fans to the 47-year-old facility, which was the original Charlotte Coliseum and one of the first domed arenas in the country. The city, through the Auditorium-Coliseum-Convention Center Authority, shelled out $450,000 for a new scoreboard, which has sharper graphics as well as video and replay capabilities.

The authority also renovated the arena's second-floor bathrooms, cleaned and repaired sidewalks and joined with the team to paint many walls. Within the next year, the Checkers plan to build a 40-person party suite that can be rented by the game and will have a view of the ice.

"Cricket Arena is a like an elegant old lady who has remained vibrant through the decades," says Checkers CEO Carl Scheer, whose son Bob runs the daily operation. "There's something beautiful about that. I love new arenas, but this one has a lasting quality."

The arena was only 14 years old when Carl Scheer got to know it well. He was president and general manager of the Carolina Cougars, who played in the American Basketball Association, which, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, rivaled the NBA. The Cougars played in Charlotte and four other NC cities, and featured such stars as Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore, Billy Cunningham and Joe Caldwell.

Scheer came back to the arena in the early 1990s when he, Felix Sabates and other owners revived the Charlotte Checkers, which had been dormant since 1977. The team resumed play in 1993. The arena had been closed since 1988 when the new Charlotte Coliseum opened on Tyvola Road. When the Checkers returned, the facility was renovated and re-opened as Independence Arena. Scheer and Sabates sold their interests in the Checkers in 1996-97, but bought majority interest again last May, supported by minority partners that include Steve Luquire, a Charlotte advertising exec, and Mark Richardson, president of the Carolina Panthers.

"We try to keep breathing life into this thing," says Scheer. "It's hard because of all the new facilities out there. People perceive this building as the working man's, or people's, building, where you can see hockey at a popular price, where events are family- driven and not $70 or $80 a ticket." True. Fans can enter Cricket Arena for as little as $7 a game or $239 for a season ticket. If they just will.

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