It's been a banner year in Nashville.
As the Western Conference Semifinals come to Bridgestone Arena for Games 3 & 4 this week, the spotlight on Smashville grows ever brighter. It couldn't happen at a better time, actually, given the number of positive stories surrounding the team these days. We have unlikely heroes leading the team to overtime victories, leading figures nominated for major individual awards, and perhaps best of all, the kind of success on the financial side which is putting to rest years of rumor and speculation regarding the future of the NHL here.
Even David Shoalts, writing in the Globe & Mail, begrudgingly acknowledged the opportunity which the team has created by finally making it past the first round:
No Predators official will say this is a make-or-break year, since the team survived much worse in previous years and has only missed the playoffs once since 2003. Head coach Barry Trotz, who is once again one of the three finalists for coach-of-the-year because of his skill in squeezing every drop out of the bargain-basement lineup general manager David Poile adroitly assembles, says missing the playoffs would not have been a killer. But he admits finally winning a playoff series could be big.
Bargain-basement lineup? This season, the Preds actually ranked 21st out of 30 NHL teams, with spending of $50.9 million, which puts them squarely in the middle of the salary cap range, not the bottom (figures per Capgeek.com). The basic idea, however, is quite correct - that this spring represents a chance for the Predators to break into new territory.
Nashville Predators Paid Attendance Booming
Tremendous progress has already been made on the team's business front this season. Besides new, high-profile corporate partnerships with AT&T, 5th/3rd Bank, and their new flagship radio station this season, 102.9 "The Buzz", the clearest barometer of the team's financial fortunes has taken a leap upwards this season:
|Season||Avg. Paid||Avg. Comps|
The table above shows regular season data reported by the Predators to Nashville's Metro Sports Authority, as required by their arena lease. For the first time since 2007, we didn't have to hear about the infamous 14,000 average paid attendance milestone all year, as it was never really in doubt. Paying customers through the door rose by a hair under 10% compared to recent seasons, while the number of tickets given away ("comps") declined by over 20%. This growth wasn't the result of an increase in discounting, either, as the revenue per ticket sold was basically the same as last season (rising by less than 1%).
The credit here goes to a broad-based effort to promote the team - Preds fans will certainly recognize that this season we've seen more outreach through various media outlets (TV, radio, print, social media, etc.) than previously. Initiatives like the Ambassadors Club get season ticket holders engaged in the process as well, providing incentives to sell tickets to friends and family and help grow the fan base one person at a time.
The Best Is Yet To Come
What I've said for a long time is that the single greatest opportunity to develop the team's long-term business prospects is to go on a deep playoff run, and we've already gotten a taste (just a taste, mind you) of what playoff success can be like. Restaurants and bars around town filled with fans watching the road games, spine-tingling moments at Bridgestone Arena as the team closes out a narrow victory, with fans cheering like mad every time the puck is cleared out of the defensive zone.
Each of those moments draws a few more people onto the bandwagon, and tips the marginal fan into jumping on board with a partial- or full-season ticket plan. Corporate sponsors start thinking about how to gain association with the growing buzz around the team. In short, the real benefit of this spring's playoffs won't be the impact on the bottom line this year, but rather the stronger foundation with which the team will begin the 2011-12 campaign.
The work is not done, however, either on the ice or at the ticket window. I'm guessing that the goal for next season will be to get average paid attendance over the 16,000 mark, which will be a challenge. After all, there is still the competition with football during the early months of the season, and it can be hard to attract large crowds on a Tuesday night against some of the teams which don't bring a major star to town. As they continue filling up the building, we can naturally expect a decline in discounts and giveaways, and the team will have to walk a fine line there to avoid alienating folks.
These are good problems to have, however. I think it's safe to say that the 2010-11 season has been the team's biggest success story so far, and the best part about it is... it ain't over yet.