I became a fan of the Nashville Predators on April 11th, 2004. It wasn’t the first game I had ever been to, and I watched games on TV from time to time. But I didn’t truly become a nerd for the hockey team I love today until this day: the day I attended the Predators’ first ever home playoff game.
From that day forward, Nashville’s hockey team became one of four teams I would follow year round with a nerd-like obsession. I would no longer just be attending a game here and there when my buddies and I needed a guy’s night. I was going to learn the game, know the players, and criticize them when they weren’t playing up to my expectations (because becoming a fan or nerd about something makes you an expert regardless of your hands-on experience with the obsession).
Fast forward to today and it’s clear I’m not the only one whose experienced this transformation. For the last two months, Nashville has been the mecca of hockey. Media types and hockey personalities all over North America are raving, imploring hockey nerds everywhere to make the pilgrimage to Nashville.
Now some (including some clueless weather man from Pittsburgh) think this is all just because the local team is making a run at a championship. And some of the fever pitch can be attributed to this (because I’m sure Pittsburgh Steeler fans being everywhere has NOTHING to do with all the Super Bowls they’ve won). But the Smashville atmosphere so many are just now discovering has been building over the last decade. And it all started at the franchise’s lowest point ten years ago.
New Ownership, New Direction
The current state of Nashville as a gold-colored hockey paradise makes it east to forget how close this team was to leaving town.
On May 24th, 2007, then Predators owner Craig Leipold announced he was selling the team. The frontrunner to buy the Predators was Jim Basielle, a Canadian billionaire who didn’t keep his intentions of moving the team to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, secret.
The stark reality of a lost franchise and a downtown arena with no tenant spurred both rallies from the public to save the team and, most importantly, a group of local businessmen to pool their resources together and make a bid at ownership.
Leipold sold the team to the local ownership group in August, accepting a bid that was about $30 million less than what Basielle offered. But the new owners knew they could not keep this team moving the same direction it had been. And this necessity forced the Predators to get innovative, a path that created one of the most unique experiences in professional sports.
The Birth of “Smashville”
Selling a nontraditional sport in a nontraditional market means thinking nontraditionally. So instead of focusing on the hockey (which has been wisely left to General Manager David Poile), the new ownership group focused on the atmosphere inside Bridgestone Arena, getting people in the seats to experience that atmosphere, and increasing the team’s role as a part of the greater Nashville community.
Country music stars began making frequent appearances on the band stage (which has been in the arena since the team’s inaugural season). The quality of the in-game entertainment (video production, Gnash’s (the mascot) antics, etc.) improved dramatically. Ticket and concession deals (including many involving free tickets) got people into the building and grew the team’s relationship with the community. Player involvement with the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund also played a major role in making the city embrace the Preds.
But while all these actions taken by the new ownership group played their part in building what the hockey world knows today as “Smashville,” the most important part of the Pred’s gameday experience was already in town.
So 17,000 College Football Fans Walk Into a Hockey Arena…
Our sporting roots in this part of the country are in college football. College football ruled the sporting world in the southeastern United States long before professional teams decided to settle here.
And fans cheering on their favorite college team on a Saturday in the fall don’t treat it like a 3 hour business trip. It is an all day party. People tailgate at least 3 hours (sometimes longer) before the game starts. Fans greet the team on their way into the stadium to show their support. And everyone makes sure to be in their seats to cheer on their team during warm-ups and soak in pregame festivities.
So once Nashville embraced hockey, we weren’t just going to sit on our hands and spend 3 hours debating the proper application of the offsides rule. We’re going to get to downtown Nashville early (like around noon central time, 7 hours before face-off of game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals). Fans greet the team both when they skate onto the ice for pregame warmups and when they skate back into the locker room. And also, just like college football, “Smashville” has the cheers (and I don’t just mean the obligatory “Let’s go insert mascot here” done at every hockey arena), especially if you’re an opposing goalie who just let a puck in the net.
So much of what makes “Smashville” such a great atmosphere was already ingrained in the fans before a hockey team made it to town. All it took was for the owners of the team getting people into the arena and giving them the chance to embrace the sport of hockey to create the unique experience Predator games are today.
So There Used to be Attendance Problems Here?
So as people began to rave about the experience of a Preds game at Bridgestone Arena, the team endeared itself to the community they were in, and the organization embraced the music and party atmosphere of Nashville, the attendance figures began to climb. And for those of you who say the city is only backing a winner, arena capacity has been at 97% or better the last five seasons (only of one of which featured a run at a Stanley Cup). That includes selling out every game this season (in a year when the team didn’t look like a cup contender until the playoffs).
So now, Nashville has become a city of nerds for hockey. But if you’re looking at this from the outside, don’t think it just happened overnight. It has been a long process that I’ve had the privilege of witnessing first hand. I sat in many games 10 years ago with 3,000 to 4,000 empty seats around me. But the people of Nashville were given the opportunity to experience Predators hockey. And each year, more of those previously empty seats were filled by new fans embracing the game. The new fans have mixed in with the old guard, bringing a unique spin on game day that makes Nashville a hockey town, and it will be one for long, long time.