Not out of the woods yet

01Aug07

Word’s come down that the local Nashville consortium, using the same model as the Edmonton Oilers’ ownership group of several billion people, is finalizing a letter of intent to buy the Predators and keep the team in Nashville.

Ok, Preds fans, step one’s in the books. Step two is for the sale to actually go through. After that? Well, the future is uncertain.

It seems like ages ago, but there was a time when the Buffalo Sabres were NOT the most popular, most merchandised, and most buzz-worthy team in the league. In fact, the team was on shaky ground after the No-Goal incident, with payroll being trimmed (Michael Peca, Dominik Hasek, Stu Barnes) through trades or free agency, and attendance dipped. At its bleakest, Buffalo went through a dismal 2002-03 season, where the team finished 27-37-10-8 (pre-shootout standings) and attendance dipped all the way down to the 13,000+ level. Rumors of folding and/or moving were rampant, and the team didn’t start to trek back into stability and respectability until Tom Golisano bought it in March 2003.

You know the rest. After the lockout, the Sabres became one of the most exciting teams in the league, and even the infamous Buffa-Slug logo and jersey became sellers. Players such as Ryan Miller and Chris Drury become iconic figures around upstate New York and their jerseys topped the NHL’s merchandise sales. As for tickets, well, you basically had to sell your first-born child to get a playoff ticket. There’s some uncertainty this season, but between the team’s self-imposed cap, surging merchandise sales, and good young core, the team should be competitive for years.

How’s that relate to the Predators? The first lesson to be learned from the Sabres is that every market, sans Toronto and its arena of corporate sponsors, will suffer a dip to some degree when a team is losing. Some will hurt more, some will hurt less, but it’s inevitable, no matter how loyal a fan base is. The second lesson is that when the fanbase is happy (and bandwagon jumpers are rampant) and ownership is strong, a team can be as financially stable as the big-market teams.

However, the problem in Nashville is that the team’s attendance hasn’t broken past the mid-14,000 mark, even when it was one of the best teams in the league. Even with big stars, an up-tempo style, and a lot of wins, the Predators couldn’t sell out their arena on a regular basis. And that’s a big hurdle to overcome. Buffalo’s fall and resurrection may be a good model to emulate, but Nashville’s lacking some keep components to replicate it.

Let’s assume that the local ownership group keeps the team in Nashville. They’ve acknowledged that for the franchise to be successful, they’ve really got to get attendance up to 16,000. Craig Leipold has talked about how the Preds have a great base of fans buying tickets but the corporate sponsorship is lacking, and he’s often blamed that for the attendance woes. From all accounts, the upper bowl at a Nashville game is loud, raucous, and spirited — and you can definitely hear it on TV.

The problem here is that you’ve got to have a balanced formula to be successful: a significant number of die-hards, a good amount of casual/bandwagoners, and a strong level of corporate interest for both sponsorship and suite/season ticket sales. The Predators only have one.

The Nashville consortium may keep the team in the city, but it’s certain that they don’t have the extremely deep pockets of would-be suitor Jim Balsillie. That means that the team will have to play under its own budgetary rules, and as league-wide salary inflation rises, that limits the amount of moves they will be able to make unless more revenue comes in.

You’ve got to spend money to make money. The problem is that Craig Leipold spent money, David Poile made the right moves, and Barry Trotz got the team to win (at least in the regular season) — and the revenue still didn’t come in. And if new ownership works on a more limited budgetary model, it could be hard to grow past the die-hards and attract the casual fan.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Consider it this way — the new ownership could save the team from certain death. However, the die-hard fans and the management team have to put it through the necessary physical therapy to get it healthy and strong again. Existing fans will have to reach out to casual sports fans and make strong, conscious efforts to get them hooked, and that doesn’t mean that the new fans have to buy season tickets. If new fans watch on TV, talk about it in bars, and buy t-shirts, then the seeds will be planted. On a management side, corporate sponsorship and awareness need to become top priority. The media circus surrounding the sale of the team seems to have brought out some civic pride in local businesses, but based on the latest sales figures from the team, it’s not enough.

It’s a two-way street, though. Die-hard fans and management can reach out, but the other parties have to be willing to receive. If they do, Predators fans can hope for a best-case scenario similar to what the Sabres went through. Otherwise, we could be going through this whole thing again in a few years.

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5 Responses to “Not out of the woods yet”

  1. 1 The Forechecker

    I gotta disagree with a few points, Mike:

    Even with big stars, an up-tempo style, and a lot of wins, the Predators couldn’t sell out their arena on a regular basis.

    During the second half of the season, the Preds sold out more than half their games. Definitely the support needs to be bolstered throughout the entire season, but efforts this summer are making progress there.

    The Nashville consortium may keep the team in the city, but it’s certain that they don’t have the extremely deep pockets of would-be suitor Jim Balsillie.

    How do you know how deep the local group’s pockets are? There are people here in Nashville with twice as much money as Balsillie, believe it or not. At this point, we don’t even know who three members of the eight-person group are.

    Like your title says, the Preds aren’t out of the woods yet, but the Big Bad Wolf has been beaten away, and a path exists that the team can follow. I can go on, but I think I’ve stretched your analogy far enough!

  2. 2 OddyOh

    I’m not sure why “Boots” is allowed to be part of “local Nashville” ownership…but I guess one phone call to Gary Bettman would have set that up.

  3. 3 Mike Chen

    Forechecker, perhaps I’m inferring things, but when the consortium was being put together, I kept reading about how they weren’t willing to pony up the same amount as Balsillie. So maybe it’s not a question of net value, but how much they’re willing to each put in.

    I hope I’m wrong and they’re willing to spend if necessary (smartly, of course!). There’s nothing worse than a good team getting torn apart by thrifty owners.

    I think that the rallies and publicity have been helpful and show signs of life. You just gotta hope that the interest sustains past the critical period.

  4. 4 MrFrisby

    Mike, I appreciate your well balanced post on this subject. It’s the best one I have read yet.

    Forechecker, you are my hero. I get defensive about the Preds but end up deleting most of my comments (on other blogs) before even posting because I sound like a raving lunatic.

    Nashville is like the bizzaro-Philly of hockey. If you like following your team on the road, you won’t find kinder fans than in Nashville.

  5. 5 Mike Chen

    Good point from Scott Nichol today:
    “”They are the grassroots of Nashville,” forward Scott Nichol said from New York. “They have built their own businesses and they have ties in the business community. I think they can promote the team so much better and that is what we were lacking is the corporate sales.”

    Hopefully, he’s right!


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