Some people say that NHL hockey in the south can’t work, that the sport doesn’t belong there. There may be cities in the South that couldn’t support an NHL team, but Nashville is not one of them.
The Nashville Predators were part of the NHL’s expansion in 1997-1998 and now their roots are firmly planted as part of the community. In charge of keeping the Predators connected to the Nashville fan base is Gerry Helper, Senior Vice President of Hockey Communications and Public Relations.
Gerry has worked in the NHL for over 30 years and first broke into the league in 1979 with the Buffalo Sabres. He has also worked in the NHL offices as well as with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and USA Hockey during the 2010 Olympics.
During an interview with Helper, the vast ways that the Predators are connected to Nashville were made clear. I asked several questions during this process, and Mr. Helper was very candid.
Q: What are a few differences you have noticed between the markets you have worked in and how has the teams fan base differed?
A: What I have most enjoyed about the expansion markets I’ve worked (Tampa Bay and Nashville) has been the reaction from fans when they first experience the NHL live. They truly appreciate the spectacle that is an NHL game, from the speed and intensity of the game to the unique skills required. A big change in general has been time. When I started in Buffalo in 1979, game operations or presentation was pretty simple. The game was played and accompanied by an organist and a public address announcer. So fans tended to judge a game simply by the result and whether the home team won or lost. As game presentation has become more sophisticated, from addition of video scoreboards to music to mascots and dancers, a game is more of an event. Fans want the team to win just the same as always but there are other ways to insure a spectator leaves a building having been entertained and feeling like they received value for their commitment.
It seems like not only the game of hockey has changed over the years, but the fans of the game are evolving as well. The answer does concern me on a deeper level. It worries me because fans no longer need to care about the score as much, with the advances in technology people can go to a hockey game just for the entertainment, and not for the sport. Like most things in life you need to take the good with the bad. I believe that expansion markets would not do as well if these advancements were not present, but I can’t help but wonder if the game is watered down by them.
Q: What makes Nashville fans such a good fan base?
A: There has been a bond established over the team’s existence with the market. The people within the market recognize that the team has been good for the community and the team has done everything possible to integrate itself into the community, from community relations to marketing to amateur/youth hockey. The fact that the Predators were born in Nashville (as opposed to a relocated team) creates a unique bond as it will always be Nashville’s team (a source of great pride) and people will have grown with the Predators’ franchise.
The Predators are Nashville’s team, and like Gerry said that allows for a much deeper sense of belonging within a city. That could not be possible if the team neglected its obligation to the community. Seeing that Nashville was a non-traditional hockey city it was and is very important that the Predators injected themselves into the community. In order to grow and keep up the fan base teams need to be seen. Not being a relocated team did allow for a natural progression of the Nashville fan base.
Q: Nashville is not unlike many “small” market teams in that there has been financial trouble in the past. How has that affected your ability to connect with fans and the community?
A: Our biggest challenge was the sale of the franchise in 2007. Certainly the threat of someone buying the team with intentions of relocating the franchise had a galvanizing effect as the market stepped up to support the team, especially when local ownership came forward and ultimately purchased the team. Since the local ownership purchase, there has been an even greater connection between the franchise and the market.
The thought of relocation can be crippling to a fan base and to the community. The pending sale of a team can send a franchise in to a tail spin. Nashville was no different. Their pending sale may have caused some casual fans to back away from the sport. Once the Predators had stable ownership the team could once again connect with the fan base and community.
Q: How has the community and fans support changed from 1997 to now?
A: Here in Nashville, the community has grown dramatically in the 15 years the Predators have been here and that has led to growth and development for the franchise. For adults of a certain age, they remember a Nashville without the Predators. But now there is a generation of people growing who only know Nashville with the Predators. And as that group ages and grows, it will mean even better things for the franchise as they connect passionately with the team and players. Any franchise in any sport has to continue to evolve. No franchise can afford to sit back and rely on what may have been successful 10, 15 and 20 years ago. There is too much competition and the world changes so much that we, as franchises must do the same. An advantage to being in two new hockey markets over the last 20 years has been that the franchises didn’t have a model they were forced to follow. Rather, both franchises had the luxury of trying new ideas—some worked, some didn’t but that freedom allowed new franchises to push the entertainment aspect of sports. If one looks at so many of the new elements of game presentation (in virtually any of the sports), I would venture to guess that many of those new elements were first introduced in newer markets, simply because those franchises had more time for trial and error…and many older franchises then picked up on these ideas once it became apparent they would be accepted/successful.
Starting a franchise comes with the worry of building a fan base, and trying to grow the team. In order for an expansion team to have longevity, there needs to be a fan base. The Predators are reaching that sweet spot. They have a fan base for when they started. Now, as the years pass, and time goes by the Predators will have a built-in fan base. The teenagers that were only babies in 1997 have always had a NHL team in their backyard. Nashville is no longer a new team in the league, they have their fans, and community that supports them. There will come a time when the people in Nashville won’t remember not having a team.
Q: How will NHL’s realignment affect the Predators, will the possibility of new rivals excite your fans?
A: We believe fans here will be excited to see every team play in Nashville at least one time each season. Teams like Toronto and Montreal, as examples and due to scheduling quirks, have only played in Nashville a handful of times in 14 seasons. Now, fans will see every team at least once. And from a fan/television perspective, 70 of our 82 games will now be played in the Eastern or Central time zones, meaning a few less West Coast start times.
Playing more games in the Eastern Time Zone should give the Predators more exposure. There were rumors that Nashville wanted to move to the Eastern Conference, but at least they will have better start times. It should help them continue to grow the fan base.
Q: With the talk of NHL expansion on the horizon, where would you like to see the NHL expand and why?
A: I’ll steer clear of that question and leave it to the NHL and Board of Governors to consider and decide. But having been in both Tampa Bay and Nashville at franchise birth, I do believe just about any market can become a good NHL market, simply because
With expansion it’s a matter of when not if. The NHL will try to grow their league. As long as the new team follows the right outline it will have a chance at success.
Q: What advice would you have for an expansion team in a non-traditional hockey market ie: Las Vegas, Kansas City or Seattle should they get a NHL club?
A: We touched on some of this in earlier questions, but any new team or new market should be willing to take risks in introducing and marketing itself. You’re starting off with the best live in-arena spectator sport in the world. Your challenge is to get people to experience the game. Once you get them in the building, you have to provide them great entertainment both on and off the ice and unparalleled customer service because competition of the entertainment dollar is fierce. Get your players and staff integrated into the community that will form connections and bonds that will allow you to succeed even in the cyclical part of competition.
Like I said earlier in this article, getting people/ fans to enjoy the experience is more than half the battle. In a new market you need to show people a good time, and slowly educate them about the game. Putting your team into the community will be vital to its success.
Q: With teams like the Phoenix Coyotes in financial distress and the Atlanta Thrashers recently relocated to Winnipeg, what has Nashville done differently to be able to succeed?
A: I can talk more about a couple keys here in Nashville. We have had solid ownership committed to the community, from our original owner and now with local ownership. Ownership commitment cannot be understated! That allows for the connection with the market place and integration via community relations, marketing and amateur/youth hockey that extend the franchise’s brand reach. Equally important has been our team performance. We have always explained how we were going to build the team, and what it would take to be successful. And then we have followed our plan and delivered for the most part with consistent on-ice success once we made it through our expansion phase.
From top to bottom, a team needs to be all in. A team cannot just open the door play the game and not be heard from until the next home game. The name on the front of their jersey is the most important name. Nashville has done a great job of being Nashville. They seem to have touched on every level of community interaction. In order to move out of the financial
danger zone a team and community need to work together. For a team to succeed it needs to understand the market they call home.
The Nashville Predators have been to the Playoffs seven times, and their fan base continues to grow. It seems that Nashville has found a way to have a successful hockey team in the South. Nashville’s average attendance continues to grow. This year an average of 16,974 fans were at each game. Not bad for what some still call a “small” market. I just call Nashville a hockey team.