Analysis: Potential Rewards of "Keep the Red Out" Campaign Paper Over Core Issues

These Chicago fans lost their way from the Main Street Electrical Parade. - USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators argue that their new sales strategy for division games may have Chicago Blackhawks fans seeing red, and the move could pay high dividends as they continue struggling to become an elite franchise, from the face-off circle all the way to the board room. But this new gimmick looks like nothing more than a bigger Band-aid to a more systemic problem in the Music City.

At the inaugural Predators Craft Beer festival, the Nashville Predators invited a slate of bloggers to join President and Chief Operating Officer Sean Henry to talk about upgrades to Bridgestone Arena, and a few other things. First covered by Kris Martel at the Predatorial, our pal Jeremy K. Gover over at the Cellblock had a nice little item about a new ticket sales scheme, which seems aimed at one of two mutually-exclusive outcomes: (a) preventing the obnoxious fans of the #ConferenceIII nemesis and reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks from attending division games in Nashville, or (b) let those loudmouthed, Griswold wannabes through the doors for division games, conditioned on their purchase of a ticket to another game:

"For Blackhawks games, we want to make sure that we preserve this building as much as we can for those who live in Smashville," [Preds president and chief operating officer Sean] Henry said.

That's a great thought and all but how do they intend to do that?

"The best way to buy a Blackhawk ticket is to have a season ticket, a half season ticket or a 15-game plan," Henry said. "But we also realize that we're still going to have to sell 3,000-4,000 single tickets for that game. What it's going to do by forcing another game is we'll almost direct it toward people that live in the general area, for the most part. And (for the pre-sale) only those in the zip codes that we unlock can buy the Blackhawk game and a second game. So we're breaking down every barrier we can to Keep the Red Out."

That helps keep Chicago fans at bay, for sure. But what if Blackhawks fans really want to jump through hoops to see their team play in Music City?

"They're going to have to earn it," Henry said. "And they’re going to help us continue to grow our roster by building our (revenue at the) gate. It’s that simple. In the end, we’re building something pretty special. If we have to do it off the backs of their fans a little bit, I’m not apologizing for it.

"We don’t want to build those ticket grosses off of our core—our lifeblood—the season ticket holders. We want to build it off the single game buyers who only want to buy those games."

--- Section303.com

Be sure to read all of Jeremy's and Kris's pieces, and see Dirk's piece on the matter from earlier today.

Jeremy concludes saying that, whether or not you think this is a good idea, the Nashville Predators deserve praise in the short term for trying something, and that we should reserve final judgments for a longer-term analysis. He's certainly right about the second of these two things, but I wonder if (a) this isn't a solution in search of a problem, or (b) if the Predators have diverted focus away from one of their historically bigger problems: underwhelming season ticket sales, particularly to area companies (in Henry's vernacular, not enough lifeblood).

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of my thoughts on this, and setting aside the fact that pro sports ownership is less about profitability than it is about really wealthy sports enthusiasts playing with life-sized action figures, here are a couple of instant reactions:

  • In tempering our optimism (or pessimism) about this new scheme, Gover reminds that the ticket folks at 501 Broadway know what they're up to, especially since "...coming off of a lockout that should have driven fans away, they sold out 20 of 24" (emphasis mine). Er, not exactly. As Dirk pointed out earlier this summer, comped tickets per game skyrocketed (roughly tripling over previous years) during the months following the most recent lockout. It's one thing to say they packed the building, but another thing altogether to say they "sold" out their home games. As much as we all might really want to say the Nashville Predators have arrived (or are arriving) as a franchise, the team continues, in my view, to skate on thin ice.
  • It is great news that the Predators' point of sale ticketing system will allow them to manipulate sales by zip code. (Maybe that's not news, but I wasn't aware.) That we know of, the Predators organization is really the only game in town that has substantively and substantially polled middle Tennessee's hockey fan base to gauge sentiments on various questions. While I reject the notion that fans' expenditures on season tickets are interest-free loans to ownership to improve the team, the team can (and should) show entertainment value to various constituencies in various ways to various zip codes. Targeting rural, lower-income middle Tennessee/southern Kentucky/northern Georgia billing zip codes with 2-for-1 or 3-for-2 packages could do wonders in terms of both packing the building each and helping to develop more "lifeblood" by showing folks that on 41 nights a year, the Predators deliver, at significant personal cost savings, unparalleled entertainment that the Titans can offer, at best, only a dozen or so times per year, by getting exposure to those potential consumers. The same goes for rich folks, though the incentives might need to be different: targeting high-income billing zip codes with exclusive, intimate soirées, attended by players (think Nashvegas, but smaller, and with more drinks/catering -- they would probably have to host a couple of these to get all the buyers an opportunity to attend) in exchange for corporate purchases of blocks of 6, 8, 10, or however many seats with season or half-season ticket packages, could really help drive season ticket sales in an area that the Predators have always historically lacked.

None of this is to say the Predators haven't sliced their data this way, but rather to say that it's always worth kicking around creative ideas, even publicly. Anyway, back to the "Keep the Red Out" campaign: the story has yet to be written, but I'm not so sure the positives outweigh the negatives here. Put another way, doing something shouldn't deserve praise if it doesn't accomplish the right thing. It's quintessential Predators management, though, no doubt.

There are two major potential upsides to this scheme:

  1. Blackhawks fans will complain, the Windy City bloggers and reporters will mock us (by the way, check out our SB Nation pals at Second City Hockey), and the Predators will be able to market a rivalry with the heirs to the Predators' Most Hated Division Opponent™ title (previously held by the Detroit Red Wings) to new and existing hockey fans in the area.
  2. The Predators will actually sell additional tickets that they wouldn't have otherwise sold, and they'll be able to reduce the average number of comps per game they hand out/boost the bottom line/[insert financial goal of your choice here].

But it seems like this new tactical approach to the overall strategy of continuing to build a profitable enterprise (something with which the team has struggled) misses the mark on a number of fronts.

First, by effectively doubling the price raising the price* of attending Blackhawks games for everyone (not just for Chicago fans), the Nashville Predators have now ensured that there are some people who just won't buy the tickets -- because they can't. That's bad news for Nashville businesses, particularly if Chicago fans spending money on complementary goods like Nashville hotels, downtown restaurants, and tourism in the Music City say "Eh, we'll go to St. Louis this year instead." Saying "no" for people who might be on the fence about coming down to Broadway to take in a game in person is bad business, plain and simple.

Second, it's no secret that the Chicago Blackhawks will be the new standard by which the Predators judge themselves. Jon Garcia gave the Blackhawks five of five potential Weber smashes for rivalry potential post-realignment. The demand will be high for these games without the Predators having to artificially restrict access to the seats. But if you condition the sale of a ticket to a Blackhawks game on the additional purchase of a ticket to a game against, say, the Florida Panthers, which is sure to be a real snoozer of an outing,  does it make sense for anyone to pay double to see one game they really want to see, and then be stuck with a ticket to another game that they (and probably lots of other people) couldn't care less about seeing? And what's wrong with pricing games differently, according to demand for those games? The price point -- in economics, where supply meets demand -- is still the most effective and efficient way to clear markets. I have lived in the Washington, DC area since 2009, and the Washington Capitals tier their single-game tickets in three price ranges. Tickets to games against the Pittsburgh Penguins cost more than tickets to games against the Carolina Hurricanes, for the same seats, even though the Canes have been a Caps division opponent for years. That's because the Capitals are comfortable pricing their tickets according to market demand. Mark up the Blackhawks tickets 50%, and mark down the Panthers tickets 25-30%. You'll fill the building both nights, and capture the increased demand for Blackhawks games.

Third, the possibility exists that the Predators simply won't sell the tickets they otherwise wouldn't have sold, and the seats remain empty unless they keep up with the current pace of comped tickets per game. That's kind of a worst-case scenario, but the Predators leadership would be fools to not consider the possibility, and do what they can to mitigate it. Seth Jones was an exciting draft choice, but (a) the Predators were lucky to be able to draft him at all, and (b) his full marketing potential in Nashville won't be realized until he's able to grow into his full hockey potential. People in Sicamous knew what a bad mamma-jamma Shea Weber was when he was drafted, but did people in Antioch know? Of course not. The Predators had to take a financial hit to fill the building last year, and I'm not sure that overpaying a handful of third- and fourth-liners will really help make the on-ice product that much more entertaining as it has been in recent years (especially if nobody is willing to slay the sacred cow that is Barry Trotz's insane defense-wins-championships "puck luck" system).

Finally, and this gets to the real underlying issue here, is that this gimmick does nothing (or infinitesimally little) to build more corporate support for the Nashville Predators organization. I say "infinitesimally little" because the modern entertainment business model is built upon selling access to you and your eyeballs. Whether it's a high-traffic website charging nice premiums for digital real estate for banner ads (or access to its email lists), or twenty minutes of teasers and previews shown to a packed movie theater on a Friday night, organizations profit by selling advertising opportunities to third parties. Even if the Predators capture an increase in paid ticket sales to non-Blackhawks games this year as a result of this gimmick, that will amount to a paltry three games with increased paid sales, out of a possible 41 home games. Are the Predators kidding with this "we're going to build ticket grosses" off the backs of out of town fans, who may or may not pay for tickets to three stinking games? Look, every penny counts, no doubt, but will increasing paid attendance at less than 10% of your home games really matter to potential corporate partners or sponsors? Do the potential corporate partners and/or sponsors even care about whether or not the eyeballs at the game to whom they get an opportunity to market their widgets even paid to be there? Or do they just care that they're there, and that they (the sponsors) will get advertising opportunities?

I don't want to knock the Predators for trying to get creative in either their ticket sales or marketing strategies. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, for now, and see how this pans out. My point is that the doubt here is pretty substantial, and while in-game promotion nights are developed over the course of a season, and the marketing department had to move pretty quickly following the announcement that the lockout had ended, a look back at last year's promotions calendar reveals a mere two corporate partners -- McDonald's and Taco Bell -- neither of which are headquartered in Nashville. Where is our Cracker Barrel Biscuit in the Basket night? Jack Daniel's No. 7th Man night? The Philadelphia Flyers were able to sign Shea Weber to a blockbuster offer sheet because that organization has the Comcast-Spectacor's fortunes as its tailwinds -- Comcast-Spectacor actually owns the team! The Predators' "lifeblood" might be made up of individual season ticket holders right now, and to some extent, because civic pride is part of the median Nashvillian's character, individuals will always buy tickets to Predators games in whatever packages the team serves up. To become a profitable venture, however, will require a much more concerted effort to bring corporate money in the door. This "Keep the Red Out" redux is likely to fail to contribute to that goal, so I'm not ready to pat them on the back for just trying something, any more than I'm ready to pat them on the back for overpaying for mediocre on-ice talent.

* UPDATE: J.R. Lind observes correctly that it isn't fair of me to say that conditioning the purchase of a Blackhawks game ticket on the addtional purchase of a non-Blackhawks game constitutes "doubling the price." That phrase has been stricken, and the sentence updated to reflect this fact.

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