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Volume 21 No. 1
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A crisis, and a goal, propelled the Preds

Take a walk behind the scenes at Bridgestone Arena and you’ll see it — posted on the loading dock, in locker rooms, inside cubicles in the business office.

It’s a goal that Nashville Predators Chairman Tom Cigarran set for the organization in 2010: To make the arena the No. 1 sports and entertainment venue in the U.S., with a Stanley Cup-winning hockey team as its centerpiece.

The Predators take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of their first Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, a nationally televised testament to the progress the franchise is making.

Three years before Cigarran set the goal, in 2007, it was unclear whether the Predators would even stay in Nashville. But the ensuing battle to keep the team in Music City marked a defining moment for the franchise, and the Predators’ laser focus on all things local in the 10 years since has helped prepare them for this year’s success and their entrance into the national spotlight.

Even when he was working for the Tampa Bay Lightning, “I knew how special Nashville could be,” said Predators CEO Sean Henry, who joined the team in 2010.

“I knew it would come. It just needed that turning point — and here we are now.”

Nashville fans have shown their passion as the team marched to the Stanley Cup Final.

With no high-level major league sports history and little history of hockey, Nashville was an unknown quantity when the NHL awarded the city and owner Craig Leipold the franchise in 1997. But when the team began play in 1998, it hit the ground running, introducing hockey to residents with help from the city’s core tenant, country music. Ad campaigns featured Garth Brooks with his front teeth blacked out. The team handed out Hockey 101 pamphlets, and fans in-venue could listen on headphones to an alternate announcer explaining what was going on during the game.

But the team hit a wall as it ended its first decade in the city. Whether it was the middling on-ice performance for much of the team’s first five years, the Tennessee Titans’ arrival or a corporate market that proved less robust than expected, the Predators’ financial status led many critics to question the team’s future, and whether hockey could really work in Nashville.

“Things went well for about three years, but the falloff started to happen. As an expansion team, you can’t wait until year six to start winning, especially with competition from the NFL, from college football and everything else in the city that you can do,” said Tom Ward, the Preds’ first executive vice president of business operations. “When you don’t have that generation of people who grew up with team, there wasn’t much we could do besides win or pump more money in.”

Leipold revealed in a letter to fans in May 2007 that he was selling the team to Canadian telecom mogul Jim Balsillie. The Predators had lost $60 million in the five years before 2007, he wrote. Attendance was 13,589, roughly 2,000 less than the NHL average at that time.

Soon afterward Balsillie declined to comment on the team’s future in Nashville, leading to speculation that it would move to Hamilton, Ontario, where Balsillie had run a ticket drive that received more than 14,000 pledges of interest.

Rather than turn its back on a team that may have been better off bolting, the city dug in its heels.

Ralph Schulz, who had recently been named president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, helped arrange a group of city power brokers that called themselves “Our Team Nashville,” raising local support and helping to sell tickets.

“The team had been doing many things right [before 2007], but we had a vision that given the chance, local owners investing back in the team could make a difference in the city,” Schulz said. Out of that groundswell emerged local investors who were all day-one Predators season-ticket holders, led by Cigarran and local lawyer David Freeman. They acquired the franchise in August 2007.

Nat Harden, who joined the team in its first year as an entry-level ticket salesman and is now the Predators’ senior vice president of ticket sales and youth hockey, said the moment was critical.

“We always tried to be very active in the community, and very service-minded with all ticket holders, and I think even though we hadn’t always won, people recognized that,” he said.

“That point in time where people thought the team would leave and it stayed, it created an even greater bond and interest in supporting the team. It’s a bad analogy, but it’s kind of like when you’re dating someone and you don’t realize how much you like them, and then when they go on a date with someone else you realize they’re great,” Harden said with a laugh.

That local ownership group, and the goal pushed by Cigarran that could soon be found posted around the arena, proved to be the turning point for the franchise.

“There was a lot of people who mocked us at the time” for Cigarran’s lofty ambition, said Henry, who became CEO in 2015. “But the point is, you need that big goal. That is what we were going to do, and we were willing to work that much harder to achieve it.”

The keys have been striving to create the best venue experience and the best relationship with fans in all of sports, said Henry, who brought his experience from Palace Sports & Entertainment and the Tampa Bay Lightning. That has meant continuing such things as hosting live music between periods on the stage above the Zamboni entrance, building ice rinks throughout the region and investing in premium seating and hospitality areas inside the arena, while also keeping prices near the bottom across the league and highlighting local food and beer. It’s not uncommon to see Henry, who often wears a suit in Predators gold, shaking hands and thanking people as they leave the arena.

“We pride ourselves in being a service-first organization, but this experience you see in the stadium? Our fans really helped create it,” Henry said. “We just got out of the way and sprinkled in some things to make it even better.”

Susan Cohig, NHL senior vice president of business affairs and integrated marketing, said the league has seen the hard work put in by the organization firsthand, including at the 2016 All-Star Game, for which Nashville played host. “Where our teams are most successful is in figuring out what the connection is to their local communities, what is at the core of those communities and what makes their marketplace different. If you can figure those things out and embody that, it makes a huge difference,” she said.

The organization pushed even further out into the community. “We were working on a transit initiative for the city, and the Predators used their facilities and had their management promote the idea as well,” Schulz said. “They took part in a rally for public works employees the other day. They are willing to be part of anything that promotes Nashville, not just hockey-only things, and I don’t think there are many cities that can say that about their teams.”

Steve Mayer, NHL chief content officer, said the Predators have embraced a key tenet in growing the sport of hockey. “They’ve taken all the things that Nashville is known for, and put it out for all to see at the game,” he said. “The Predators recognized that if you can bring fans in who have never seen a game before, through pop culture, through music, through celebrity — once they watch, they’ll be hooked.”

Not only have the Predators continued their outreach to the country music community, they’ve further embraced it, adding details like piano keys and guitar picks to their jerseys in recent years. In this year’s playoffs, the team has had mystery anthem singers, trotting out stars like Luke Bryan, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood, whose husband is a player on the Predators.

Henry said the team, which started this season with just under 10,000 season-ticket holders, will eclipse 13,000 next year. It is on a 55-game sellout streak.

The Predators have set several team records for TV ratings throughout the playoffs. Henry said that in some of the other cities in their TV territory for local and national broadcasts, such as Louisville and Memphis, “now we’re actually getting ratings where just a few years ago it was hash marks.”

Chris Junghans, Predators chief revenue officer, said that while the team will not know the full effect this postseason run has had on its revenue until the playoffs end, it opens a number of options for the team. “Even a year ago, the idea that we might have to put a cap on season tickets would not have left our mouths,” he said. “By not having to do things like discuss sponsor underwriting for tickets in February, that will provide us with so many more opportunities to focus on other areas of the business.”

The Predators are looking into a large-scale transformation of Bridgestone Arena.Preliminary plans call for new entrances, indoor and outdoor concourses, added office and retail space and potentially a hotel. The arena is owned by the Sports Authority of Nashville and Davidson County, and the team operates it.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that while he understands there was concern in 2007 that the team might move, it was never going to happen. However, he said, the local focus that emerged has only fueled the team’s rise. “When I look at the Predators, I think of grassroots — grassroots ownership, an investment in grassroots hockey and grassroots fans and sponsors,” he said.