Vultures start picking while the body's still warm

I'll get to a full eulogy for the Predators 2007-8 season shortly, but in the meantime, a few shots from Ken Campbell of the Hockey News caught my eye over the last few days:

First, Campbell slipped this beauty into his Hockey News column:
there’s little reason to believe this year’s [Predators] playoff run will have any more of a long-term impact on this franchise than any other. Come next October, you’ll probably see the same sparse crowds, the same general ambivalence toward the on-ice product and the same stunning lack of enthusiasm from the corporate community.
What outsiders like Mr. Campbell can't see is that there is a difference heading into this off-season; a locally-dominated ownership group that is actually putting the work in to sell the game and build partnerships around Nashville. In the four months since the Freeman group took charge, I've seen more advertising and outreach from the Predators than in the last 2 years combined.

The early part of the NHL season here in Nashville will always see smaller crowds compared to the spring, simply due to the competition with football; I know it boggles Mr. Campbell's mind to think that hockey should actually compete for market share with anything else, but outside of a very few NHL cities, that's a simple fact of life that many teams have to deal with.

But wait, there's more:
They got the CBA they so desperately needed and the City of Nashville is taking potential tax dollars out of things such as schools and social programs in an effort to keep the Predators from leaving town.
This is the tripe you get when sportswriters try and wade out of their depth into the subject of business or government affairs. The funding relative to the Sommet Center lease comes from tourism tax dollars and funds generated within the Sommet Center, which is a separate piggy-bank from what is used to support "schools and social programs." (refer to page 8 of this PDF of the agreement) The above statement is completely false, but since it helps Campbell paint a picture of desperation, he can write it without fear of reprisal. We can't let the facts get in the way of a good story, can we?

There was also a piece in Sunday's Tennessean, wherein Campbell chipped in a few quotes about the franchise's long-term business prospects:
"The measure of franchise's viability is when it can get beyond just relying on its performance," said Ken Campbell, senior writer for The Hockey News. "When it can have the same corporate support, the same fan support and the same revenue stream regardless of how good [the] team is."
While any owner would love such a situation, the fact is that only a handful of NHL franchises meet Campbell's lofty standard for franchise viability. Certainly in Toronto people fall over themselves to pay hundreds of dollars to watch mediocre play, but in the vast majority of markets, you won't get anywhere near "the same revenue stream" regardless of on-ice performance. Look at St. Louis and Chicago, for example, where years of irrelevance caused attendance to dip frighteningly low before recovering this year as both those teams offered hope to their fans. In 2004, just prior to the NHL lockout, the Pittsburgh Penguins averaged a mere 11,877 fans for their home games; a figure that has risen by over 40% since the dawn of the Crosby era.

In short, Campbell's idea of NHL viability is not just absurd, but patently offensive to the everyday fan. A team that enjoys financial success regardless of on-ice performance lacks the external incentive to make smart decisions and ice a winning team; witness Toronto's very own Maple Leafs, who have basically become hockey's version of the Chicago Cubs. On the opposite end of that scale we have situations like Nashville, where GM David Poile knows that the stakes are high for each and every roster adjustment.

A more realistic view would hold that franchise viability hinges on maintaining profitability over the course of time, through the inevitable ups-and-downs of sports. A good example is in St. Louis, where ownership has ridden out tough seasons in 2005-6 and 2006-7 to enjoy a huge boost in attendance this year, as the Blues competed for playoff position most of the way before bowing out in March. John Davidson now knows that if he fails to build upon that success and return the Blues to the playoffs, the fans could well desert them again and he'd be back on television second-guessing other GM's who remain gainfully employed. For the hockey fans of St. Louis, and for the NHL at large, that's a good thing.

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