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Opinion: New Variations on Nashville Predators "Keep the Red Out" Campaign Still Generally Bad Ideas

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When the Predators management first rolled out the idea of a "Keep the Red Out" campaign a year and a half ago, I raked them over the coals for it. To their credit, they've spent some time trying to come up with more creative solutions, but questions remain — (a) is there even a problem, and (b) if so, do the new proposed solutions solve it?

Blackhawks fans celebrate a Chicago goal in Nashville in November 2010.
Blackhawks fans celebrate a Chicago goal in Nashville in November 2010.
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

In the field of public policy, clients task analysts with giving them a recommendation on what the best choice among available alternatives would be. The criteria for what constitutes "best" varies from client to client, but generally speaking, nearly every policy analyst will measure the value of a policy proposal against its relative efficiency, effectiveness, and equitability. In other words, does a proposal achieve some goal in such a way that, all else equal, you couldn't make anyone better off without making someone else worse off, and does the policy treat everyone the same way? Clients then accept or reject an analyst's recommendation(s) as they see fit. Occasionally, a client will invite an analyst's creativity if no available alternative is worthwhile, and ask for an innovative recommendation.

As if the failure (to date) of the "Keep the Red Out" campaign was simply a question of nomenclature and branding/marketing, the Nashville Predators recently sent an email to current season ticket holders announcing a set of possible changes to ticketing policies they're collectively calling "Grow the Gold." With these policies, Predators Holdings, LLC intends to keep Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues fans out of Bridgestone Arena on nights when those two Central Division rivals square off against our boys at 501 Broadway. In the email, Sean Henry and Jeff Cogen write:

These new programs and initiatives are designed to enhance the experience of Nashville Predators fans at each and every home game and to maintain our player's [sic] competitive advantage that the 7th man & Smashville provide. They are a reflection of our commitment to do what is in the best interest of the team's core fans and players. The Predators' "Grow the Gold" program is on the cutting edge of fan development programs in the National Hockey League.

It could be the case that they're floating all of these alternatives out there at once as a trial balloon, to see which ones receive the most feedback or chatter, what is the character of that feedback (positive or negative?), etc. The Nashville Predators, after all, are big on using data analysis to inform ticket strategies. But the more I keep reading and thinking about them, the more I suspect an ulterior motive. So let's evaluate each of their proposals.

Gear Up in Gold -- "Season Ticket Holders in attendance at pre-determined games will receive premium giveaways throughout the season, exclusively for Season-Ticket Holders."

If your goal is to increase individual season ticket sales, and it always is for every franchise, this is a great path forward. Using a combination of a carrot-on-a-string and the "velvet rope" effect, Predators management is incentivizing the purchase of season ticket packages with this tactic. You will obtain some special benefits if and only if you buy a season ticket package. Does it treat everyone equitably? Yes, everyone who purchases a season ticket plan appears to be eligible for the special goodies. Does this prevent Blackhawks and Blues fans from taking up a large share of just over 17,000 seats? That, unfortunately, is not clear.

Keep that last bit in mind, as we'll come back to it.

Select Marquee Matchups -- "We may not put single-game tickets on sale to designated games on the same schedule as we have in the past. When these single-game tickets do go on sale, they will only be sold in our market and will be paperless (i.e. fans must scan the credit card used to purchase the tickets to enter the building). We will also only sell group ticket packages for designated games to local groups with which our organization has a prior relationship."

This proposal has a much higher likelihood of achieving the stated goal than the previous first proposal. The problem is that is comes with a cost.

First, by restricting single-game ticket sales for home games against St. Louis and Chicago, and moving them to a different schedule (maybe folding the bulk of those games into multi-game rivalry packages instead), the Predators discourage outsiders from lining up to buy Preds tickets to those specific games. That kind of scenario would approximate the scheme involved in the first instantiation of "Keep the Red Out" -- if you want a Preds ticket, and you're an out-of-towner, you have to buy tickets to another game, too. But they're saying people from out of town can't buy these singles when they do go on sale, and the people in town who do buy them effectively won't be able to resell them. This gets the Preds closer to the goal than the original campaign, but it's restrictive and may not be most convenient for fans. Forgot your wallet on your way down to the arena? See you sometime around the start of the third period, pal.

But second there's the potential for destruction of goodwill in the community with the latter restriction: group sales. Here's what I mean: Nashville is America's newest "it city," currently undergoing an economic boom (or at least enough of a boom to warrant unsolicited attention from ForbesTIME, the New York TimesAOL Jobs, and...you get the idea). We're even hosting our own NHL All Star Weekend a year from now -- talk about validation for the Hockey Tonk! A dynamic economy like this is going to invite lots of new enterprises and philanthropies, and that doesn't even take into consideration Nashville's existing Google-backed startup hub. If any of these new corporations in our dynamic community want to buy group tickets to Preds games, but don't have a preexisting relationship with the Preds, can they? Based on the language above, it doesn't appear as though they can.

So yes, this proposal gets us closer to the goal than the initial "Keep the Red Out" campaign, but are the potential costs worth it in the long run?

Smashville Proud -- "For these selected matchups, which will be communicated shortly after the NHL releases the 2015/16 schedule (ETA -- summer), Season Ticket Holders will need to use their passport to enter Bridgestone Arena. To the extent that tickets need to be forwarded or otherwise electronically shared, Season-Ticket Holders will need to contact their representative to facilitate these types of transactions."

I can only assume that "these selected matchups" in this offering refer to the "Select Marquee Matchups" in the offering above. If that's the case, then we're simply adding something to or clarifying something in the offering above, and what we're adding or clarifying is not good for season ticket holders. The provision about paperless tickets reappears here (but, confusingly, as an electronic passport rather than a credit card -- is it one, the other, or both?). What we're adding seems to be that, if you buy a season ticket package, you're getting 41 hockey tickets and paying for the privilege of having to throw yourself at the mercy of a Predators Holdings, LLC employee, who'll likely try to shame you out of selling or sharing tickets for which you've already paid, whenever you want to share or sell a ticket to a select game. At least it doesn't say "we're going to prohibit you from transferring tickets altogether." But that's about the only redeeming virtue I can see in this scenario.

Share Partner -- "If you have a 'share partner,' who has one of the selected match-ups, your Predators representative can move your tickets to a secondary passport to allow for your partner to gain entry into Bridgestone Arena."

Again, I can only assume that "one of the selected match-ups" again refers to one of the "Select Marquee Matchups" in the offering above. If you and another person share a season ticket package -- as in, both of you have already paid for it -- the Predators will still expect you to call them if you want to move a select marquee match-up ticket from one passport to another. This is an anecdotal assumption, but I have a really hard time believing that there exists a single Nashville Predators season ticket holder looking for a more complicated process, or for the team to strip away from them the convenience that online ticket management solutions have provided them in this, the Golden Age of the Internet.

Earning Opportunities -- "Season-Ticket Holders may sell their tickets back to the Predators for 110% of the season-ticket price, to be applied as an account credit toward their season-ticket renewal or Stanley Cup Playoff tickets. If Season-Ticket Holders return their tickets, they will also receive additional tickets to a designated future game. The tickets we buy back will only be sold to local Nashville Predators fans at no more than the Season Ticket value paid for them."

FINALLY, we're back to creating something of actual value for fans. If you want to sell your ticket to a select marquee match-up, the Nashville Predators will buy it back from you for 110% of the face value (but in your ticket account only), give you some bonus games, and re-sell the original ticket to a local on your behalf. This proposal actually helps weed out Blackhawks and Blues fans, in two ways: (a) it guarantees that a ticket you want to dump winds up in the hands of a local, and (b) it makes it less likely (at least prima facie) that a visiting fan will obtain a ticket to a future game because the Predators are going to give you a bonus ticket to that other game simply for taking this path.

Sound too good to be true?

Well, that's probably because it is. Remember a few paragraphs ago when I told you to keep in mind that an increase in season ticket sales won't necessarily keep Blackhawks fans or Blues fans out of Bridgestone Arena on divisional rivalry nights? Here's the thing: season tickets are expensive. The national and local economies have shown signs of improvement, but we still have not recovered from the shock of 2008. Why on Earth would anyone accept 110% of the face value (in your ticket account only) and a bonus ticket to a future game (to which, as a season ticket holder, you presumably already have a ticket) when you could net anywhere from 300% to 1,000% of the face value in cash from a visiting fan?

Do you see where I'm going with this?

This last alternative seems like it's creating value for fans, and it somewhat does -- but it's not competitive with what the market does naturally on its own. What I mean is that a savvy season ticket holder can probably recoup the cost of their entire season by parting with 10% of their package by selling those games to outsiders. So this proposal definitely fails the efficiency test.

What does it all mean?

I wrote an op-ed for The Tennessean recently, critiquing the way the Tennessee Titans franchise manages the secondary market for football tickets. I concluded in that piece that complicating the fan experience with a bunch of unnecessary restrictions on secondary sales adds insult to the injury of having a terrible product on the field. The Nashville Predators have a surprisingly good product on the ice this year, but the same management critique will apply if they adopt these so-called solutions. The Predators run a strong risk of making the fan experience less enjoyable in an attempt to simply exert more control over the secondary market for hockey tickets in Nashville. They're dressing it up with all sorts of tribal cues ("Smashville," "our players," 7th man," etc.), but that's only because they know you won't go along with it if they can't give you a good reason to do so.

And that brings me to the final point: these are so-called solutions in search of a problem. If Sean Henry and Jeff Cogen are thinking about adopting these changes after talking to five anonymous fans and Known Sports Economist™ Ryan Ellis, that could be really bad, and what we call in the business a sampling error. (Even if, charitably, every single season ticket holder to whom Cogen and Henry spoke complained about Blackhawks and Blues fans, I would still be highly skeptical of the model: people who complain tend to be generally self-selecting.) If, on the other hand, making drastic changes like this are the result of a coherent data analysis, then let's see the numbers -- because right now, it looks like the Predators are simply trying to take control of secondary markets, and taking choice away from fans in so doing.

I like trolling visiting fans as much as the next guy, but that's just not a very polite or business savvy way to treat your most valuable resource.

I mean, do you seriously mean to tell me that after a number of years worrying about averaging over 14,000 in paid attendance per game, and whether or not this franchise would break its lease with Metro to move to another city, we're all of a sudden worried about having a packed building 41 nights per year? About people buying concessions, patronizing our hotels, museums, and other tourist attractions, and in some cases, literally drinking downtown dry?

Again, these are so-called solutions in search of a problem. If you're really worried about the ratio of visiting fans to home fans, then you better spend every last resource available to you making the game experience so irresistible that nobody in the Nashville area will want to miss a game. That's probably going to include winning a Stanley Cup championship. Last time I checked, the Predators had about $10 million in remaining cap space and several weeks to go before the NHL trade deadline. Have we done all we can do on that front? If not, let's focus on that for now, and stop blaming fans for imaginary problems.

What do you think of these new proposals? Sound off in the comments below!