The “Nashville Is A Hockey Town” story has become its own sub-genre at this point.
The articles start with a hockey writer at some local greasy spoon, because it’s very important to establish a non-traditional market through its cuisine. For Kevin Allen of USA Today, it was “Jack’s Bar-B-Que on Broadway, where grub is served cafeteria-style.” Mark Spector of Sportsnet opted for a sandwich shop on Union Street, “about as far from Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal or Sarge’s Deli in New York City as hockey people could possibly find themselves.”
Then, to underscore that we’re not exactly in Kamloops here, they add a little local color with a pivot to the hockey stuff. Like when Spector writes, “Well, guess what, y’all? The Preds are fixin’ to win it all, two-stepping all the way to their first Stanley Cup in 20 years.”
Then we get to the buzz in for the Nashville Predators in the city, the gold-covered mania that’s actually been several years in the making but has only earned continental appreciation lately.
Then we get to the “wow, this is great, huh?” part and then the “hey, wow, who would have thunk it, Nashville a hockey town?” part, which is essential to any “Nashville Is A Hockey Town” narrative: One has to establish that it wasn’t before one can celebrate that it is.
Except this is revisionist history. The criticism of Nashville during its darkest hockey days – the empty seats, the ownership debacles – was less about the city not being a “hockey town” by traditional standards, but that the city would never, ever be one ever.
Because it was in the South, the oversized buckle on the Sun Belt strategy. Because it hadn’t cultivated a large, enthusiastic following after only a decade in the most non-traditional of non-traditional markets – despite five straight seasons outside the playoffs and a full 12 seasons before winning a playoff round. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Smashville.
Because Canadian markets that didn’t have to run ‘Hockey 101’ vignettes on their scoreboard deserved an NHL team more than Nashville did.
No matter how many cloying features on the Predators are produced, no matter how many celebrations of fan culture are held, no matter how many columnists make doe eyes at a diner waitress because they can use “ya’ll” in their lede, one thought bangs around my head in watching this incredible moment for Nashville hockey, just four wins away from putting a city in Tennessee on the Stanley Cup:
How completely, utterly wrong many in the Canadian media look for doubting this could ever happen.
Here’s a collection of pieces from about 10 years ago. Was coverage of the Predators’ ownership struggles and potential relocation valid? Of course. But using potential relocation as a condemnation of the market was a total misread.
The Predators were portable, thanks to their lease conditions. They had an owner willing to sell, and there was a Canadian seeking to buy at any cost. Yes, a decade into playing professional hockey in Tennessee, the franchise had yet to find solid footing. But turning coverage of Jim Balsillie’s desire to move the Predators or their lease struggles as a eulogy for a hockey town was as shortsighted then as it’s completely inaccurate now.
Ken Campbell of The Hockey News in 2008, in a post titled “Why Not Just Move The Preds Now?” regarding the team’s new lease:
I mean, geez, isn’t this getting a little tiresome? We all know that this lease simply bought Nashville a little more time to play hockey with the big boys before it goes back to being the minor league hockey city it should have always been. We all know the Predators will leave after the 2009-10 season when they lose $20 million or don’t average a paid attendance of 14,000, or both.
This is not a shot at the good people of Nashville. The ones who support the Predators are as rabid as any other, there just aren’t near enough of them to make it work. And there never will be. Live with it. As a resident of South Carolina once told me, “We get hockey. We just don’t like it.”
[Ed. Note: Stick tap for using a South Carolinian to speak for all Tennesseans. A Vols fan just vomited on his Manning jersey recalling this.]
If the paying public in Nashville were doing anything remotely significant to rally around this team, it might be a different story.
From February 2007, Stephen Brunt in the Globe & Mail wrote under the headline “Nashville’s precarious future rests on Forsberg.” As in Peter. The whole franchise rested on Peter Forsberg. From Brunt:
When peddling franchises was the league’s real core business, the ruling conceit – which, to be fair, predates the Gary Bettman era – was that you could sell the game anywhere, just so long as you had the right demographics, the right arena deal. The pre-existence of a hockey culture was beside the point. Just find an owner ready to pay whatever price the market would bear, by whatever financial means necessary. Let him in turn find compliant local politicians with an empty arena desperate for a tenant.
Then drop this alien game in front of folks who had never played it, who had no shared history with it, but by virtue of their economic profile ought to make the right kind of consumers. Just watch hockey take root. It worked, sort of, in a few places – San Jose and Tampa come to mind. But mostly, the NHL has struggled in the face of one insurmountable truth – that it’s hard to sell hockey tickets to people who don’t much like the sport.
Nashville is a prime example. When the expansion team was awarded and scheduled to begin play in the 1998-99 season, much talk ensued about the great synergies between hockey and the country music business, about how the Preds would automatically become the No. 1 game in town (or at least they would until the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans announced they were also moving to Nashville). What the NHL really liked was the arena, bought and paid for by the public, and the fact that the city fathers were even willing to kick in part of the franchise fee. Suckers like that don’t come along every day.
Never once in its history has the club made a buck. But with everything else going on in the NHL, most notably the great labour war, and because the Predators on ice were unremarkable, no one much noticed. It wasn’t until this season, with the Preds at or near the top of the Western Conference standings and the fans clearly not much interested in that fact, that it began dawning on the larger hockey community that the franchise was a basket case.
Then there was the time Gord Stellick and Bill Watters, in 2007, called Nashville a “false hockey market.” From On The Forecheck:
As to the judgement of whether Nashville is a “false hockey market”, I think I’d trust the assessment of a group of successful businessmen from various backgrounds that has vetted the numbers, obtained bank financing, and is willing to put their own money on the line over a guy who was a GM for all of 16 months. Bill Watters then chimed in saying that in three years “you put the flowers, all that’s necessary to say goodbye to them, treat them with dignity [gee, Bill, why start then?], they’ve given it all they can, but the market will not support it.”
Also, Stephen Brunt in the Globe & Mail from May 2007, writing under the headline “The song is over in Music City USA,” using the Jim Balsillie sale as a catalyst:
This was always going to be a make-or-break season for NHL hockey in Nashville – one of those expansion sites from the time when the NHL was aggressively trying to expand its footprint and to peddle as many franchises as possible. After a very good regular season, and the high-risk trade for Peter Forsberg, the Predators entered the playoffs knowing a long postseason run might finally inspire the support of fans and local business community. Failure would probably end the great hockey experiment in Music City USA.
Here’s James Mirtle in 2007 on the Predators:
But Nashville, quite simply, has proven it cannot sustain an NHL hockey team. Even with the lowest ticket prices in the entire league (I know: I’ve looked into flying there for a game or two) and a ridiculously forgiving arena lease, the team has had attendance issues despite having one of the best records in the league. It’s not a matter of Canadians not wanting teams in the southern U.S.; I’ve argued time and again in favour of teams like Dallas and Tampa Bay that have supported their teams and really brought something to the table in terms of bringing news fans and new energy to the game. That’s a good thing. The Predators, however, are not that, not in the beginning and certainly not now, and they never will be. Even with an owner as forgiving and deep-pocketed as Craig Leipold, the experiment has failed miserably, and the team will be leaving as soon as it can extricate itself from its lease agreement.
Blogs like On The Forecheck did what they could with analysis like this, but it was like trying to bale water out of a rowboat with tidal waves crashing down every few days.
Look, much of this skepticism was born from Balsillie attempting to move the Predators to Hamilton – to the point where he was selling season tickets there even before he had the team – and from professional fraud William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, whose stint as a minority owner lives in infamy. The team was losing money. There were empty seats. Ownership was messy.
But there’s a mania that develops around teams in non-traditional markets that struggle versus, say, a team like the New York Islanders that struggles: This thirsty, craven sense of inevitability when passionate Canada wants a team from a seemingly apathetic southern market. The Coyotes have experienced it. The Hurricanes are experiencing it. The Predators lived it for about three years.
“Not to discourage anybody in Nashville, but I think their team is gone,” Campbell said in 2007, via NJ.com. “You’ve got a Canadian owner who’s passionate about hockey and who has all but publicly said he wants to bring a team to Canada.
All of this noise drowned out the voices in Nashville proclaiming that reports of their city’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
Bloggers like Dirk Hoag were writing things a decade ago like “there’s no question in my mind that Canada should get an expansion team well ahead of Kansas City, but Nashville shouldn’t be tossed off as a failure just yet” and “don’t confuse the desire for another Canadian team with a judgment that Nashville is a lost cause.”
A decade ago…
It wasn’t a lost cause. They weren’t moved to Canada. The ownership situation got better, as it does for so many other markets. (Ask Tampa Bay. Hell, ask Toronto.) Peter Forsberg played 17 games with the franchise, and is probably better know as “that other Forsberg” to Predators fans today. There were no funeral flowers. And not only did the Predators bring a new energy to the NHL, it’s an energy that Canadian writers are now using to shame their own markets for having a lack of it.
“How is it a city like Nashville is showing Calgary the right way to support hockey? How insulting to have an arena in a southern, non-traditional hockey market provide a better hockey experience for its fans and the city than a self-proclaimed hockey mecca,” wrote Eric Francis of the National Post this week.
The lesson learned here is one of patience.
These things take time. You need fans to find familiarity, both with the franchise and the sport it plays. You need the economic conditions to be right for fans to attend games and buy gear – they weren’t right in 2007, but they are now in Nashville.
But you also need an identity. The Capitals were a moribund franchise until Alex Ovechkin and the young guns started winning, and then “Rock The Red” turned that market into a scorching one. The Predators were a moribund franchise until they also tapped into that collegiate-like fan passion: Energy in the building, beer before and after the game, everyone in the same colors to support the team. A real sense of belonging.
Except the Predators went one step deeper than the Capitals or other American market did: They became Nashville’s team, rather than a team playing in Nashville.
Some of it was subtle, like putting piano keys and a guitar pick on their hockey sweaters in 2011. Some of it was overt, like embracing the country music scene to the point where they’re practically synonymous. It’s in the food around the arena. It’s in the marketing of “Smashville.” It’s the understanding there are some ‘rasslin fans in Tennessee who might get a kick out of hearing Bobby Roode’s “Glorious Domination” as the unofficial theme song of the 2017 playoffs.
And it’s the acknowledgment that Nashville likes to party. So let’s party.
It’s not rocket science to make hockey work anywhere in the U.S. It takes an understanding of the market; it takes palpable energy in the building; it takes a sense of community and ownership among the fans, and for them to know that it’s cool to like the sport; and it takes sustained success, with the chance for generations of fans to live and die with their team in the postseason.
(Let’s see … the Predators finally make it out of the first round in 2011, and suddenly we start to see Nashville fan enthusiasm trend stories in the Canadian media around the same time. Quite a coincidence.)
But above all else, it takes time. More time than the Canadian media that was planning Nashville’s funeral after just 10 seasons was willing to give them.
The same media that will be first in line at Tootsies honkytonk on Broadway, grabbing a beer after a Stanley Cup Final game, in a hockey town they believed would never exist.
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