Hockey in South?
“No way, not happening. That’s football country.”
Canadian hockey analysts never liked the idea of Nashville having an NHL team. When the Predators struggled with their on-ice play and attendance, the naysayers raised their volume.
But the Predators are living proof that hockey can work in a nontraditional market. Nashville is set to host the 2016 NHL All-Star Game this weekend at Bridgestone Arena. Just 10 years ago, it appeared evident that the team was on their way out of town. Today they are quite possibly Nashville’s favorite source of entertainment, particularly in the winter months.
Had the Predators not come to town, I likely would have never played the sport
This momentum is not unique to the Predators organization, the entire city of Nashville is on fire right now. Dozens of people are moving into town every day (An estimated 80 per day).The population is booming and so are the buildings. Talk a stroll around the city and you are likely to see several cranes, if not one on every few blocks.
Major employers such as Vanderbilt Medical Center, Nissan North America, and HCA Holdings Inc. are just a few of the job opportunities that drive people to Nashville. Small business and startups are also common. Still others arrive in the Music City to make dreams of being in the entertainment industry a reality. Another draw to the area is the low cost of living, including no state income tax and relativity low property taxes.
The success of Nashville and the Predators go hand in hand. The city has seen an influx of new residents and businesses. The Predators have formed a loyal clientele that may not fit the bill of a traditional hockey, but are just as passionate and willing to purchase tickets.
In the summer of 2007, the picture looked much different. Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie attempted to buy the team for $220 million dollars. Balsillie was in talks with Copps Coliseum to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. The Predators’ time in Nashville appeared to be in serious jeopardy.
Meanwhile, 2007 was a disastrous year for the U.S. economy. The housing bubble burst and the value of the dollar went down. Millions would be laid off in the months that followed.
Bridgestone Arena (then called Sommet Center) had difficulties filling their calendar. Many nights the arena sat empty. The recession hit the entertainment industry hard and many artists opted for smaller and less expensive venues.
But Nashville was a city equipped to battle such problems. Unlike Detroit and Cleveland, Nashville was already trending upwards before the recession hit. While the recession did affect Nashville in numerous ways, the city did not receive the knock out blow suffered by Northern cities. On top of that, some those that lived in Northern cities flocked to the South for better job opportunities.
In June 2007, Predators owner Craig Leipold dropped the sale to Balsillie out of concern that he intended to move the team to Hamilton. Long-time sportscaster George Plaster, who worked for 104.5 The Zone at the time, was instrumental in justifying Leipold’s decision. On July 19, 2007, Our Team Nashville (a group formed to save the Predators) and 104.5 The Zone hosted a ticket rally to drum up support. The event was marketed by Plaster and The Zone, and ended up being a massive success. 7,500 people packed the Sommet Center on a warm summer evening and 726 season tickets were purchased during the rally.
It has been mostly uphill for the Predators and the city of Nashville since. The Predators have seen success on and off the ice, while Nashville has secured its place as the “It-city.” The Predators have built a fan base that is unique to the NHL. The older generation are hockey converts while their children are growing up to love the game, proving that football and hockey can coexist in Tennessee. The country flavor cannot be avoided, as the tunes from Broadway make their way straight into the arena. Tim McGraw’s “I Like it, I Love it” blares after each Predator goal and the fans “want some more of it.” Hockey purists may scoff, but the sport has been a success in the Music City.
The old adage that winning sells tickets rings true with the Predators. The team has built a winning tradition that leaves fans expecting to make the playoffs every year. In 2011 and 2012, the Predators advanced to the Conference Semifinals. The team took a step backwards in 2013 and 2014, leading to the firing of long-time coach Barry Trotz. The Predators brought in Peter Laviolette to bring some spark to the offense and his first season was fairly successful in 2014-15. Heading into the all-star break, this year’s team finds itself clinging to the last Wild Card spot. The team is averaging 16,910 fans per game this season, which is second only to the 2011-12 season, in which they averaged 16,974 per game.
A glance at Bridgestone Arena’s calendar shows numerous headliner acts in between Predators games. Nashville’s love of music goes well beyond the country genre, as Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Selena Gomez are all scheduled to play Bridgestone in the coming months. The SEC named Bridgestone its primary home for its men’s basketball conference tournament through 2026. The venue earned “2014 Arena of the Year” by Pollstar Magazine, a far cry from its days of sitting empty.
As the National Hockey League rolls into town this weekend for the 2016 NHL All-Star game, it will be yet another chance for Nashville to prove its worth. The Nashville Sports Council has done a tremendous job in bringing first-class events to the city in order to continue to stimulate fan support and economic growth. The NHL All-Star game is arguably the biggest event the city has had in years, especially sports-wise.
If you have not been to Nashville yet, you should. It will not disappoint. The food is tasty, the music is everywhere, and the Predators have quite the hockey team. When the New York Times crowned Nashville as the “It-City,” the nation found out something the locals already knew: Nashville is awesome.