How Nashville Became Smashville

Javier SolanoBlog

MP&F Loves Our Preds – Watch the hype video HERE during the 2016-17 Stanley Cup run (P.S. – That’s Javier in the skates).


Stick taps for the Preds’ marketing and communications department

As the puck drops tonight for the Predators home opener, their 109th consecutive sellout at Bridgestone Arena, it’s probably past time to reflect on what an amazing success story this is for the team’s marketing and communications department, and for all of us.

First, a little context. When the team arrived here 20 years ago, there were no bachelorettes downtown, no evidence of a pro hockey fan base, not much ice available to the public and only about 400 registered youth hockey players in Tennessee. In the time since then, there have been no 40-goal scorers, no flashy stars (love you, Paul Kariya, but …) besides defensemen and goaltenders, no Stanley Cup contenders until recently, and no quit in the SEC schedule that dominates our conversations in the fall. The Predators have been beyond the second round of the playoffs only once. They have won their division only once.

And yet here they are, with a 98 percent season ticket renewal rate, with their entire allotment of season tickets sold for the first time, with an in-game experience that is the envy of almost every other franchise in the NHL.

How did they do that? Like most things magical, with a mix of faith, trust and (gold) pixie dust. Let’s take a closer look at the pixie dust, specifically three things the Predators communications team got right in building the raucous, playfully obnoxious hockey-tonk we call Smashville.

  1. Behold the gold. My wife and I were at the plaza party in July 2011 when the Preds did their uniform reveal on the façade of the Batman building. I think her first word was “eww.” Second was probably “yuck.” I was right there with her for the first few days, until I gradually warmed up to the brilliance of it.

Look, it had been 21 years since any NHL team tried yellow as a primary (and if you remember Vancouver’s 1989 home jerseys, the hiatus is no surprise). This is a different yellow, something between canary and the unfortunate mustard third jerseys the Preds used to wear, but it’s still a color that doesn’t exist in nature or anywhere really except a few consignment shops.

So, yes, putting my fandom and gold-colored glasses aside, it’s nasty. But it’s our nasty. And that’s the point. No one else in the NHL has it. There’s no mistaking it when you see it, including, increasingly, on TV in the lower bowls of other people’s buildings. Instead of being one of 14 teams wearing some form of blue at the time, instead of being the Buffalo Sabres except twangier and more feline, we became something else, something different, something true to Smashville.

Take a bow, Tom Cigarran. This was your call, and it was the right call. And for those of you (hi, honey) who still hate it, could be worse. Could be teal.

  1. Not all revenue is good revenue. On Dec. 6, 2014, the Preds dropped a 3–1 home game to the Chicago Blackhawks that didn’t feel much like a home game. Preds CEO Sean Henry estimated there were 5,500 Chicago fans in the building. They cheered over the anthem, as is the custom in their building; but here they were doing it in our building, and even when the Preds did a bit of misdirection by switching to “God Bless America.” Henry heard from fans and players alike after the game. They weren’t happy.

So the Preds did a counterintuitive thing in a tourism town. They made it harder for out-of-towners, especially certain Central Division opponents, to buy single-game tickets. They made it a lot easier for local fans to buy those tickets. They made a calculation that the in-game experience was worth protecting, even at the cost of turning deep-pocketed visitors away.

They were right. Hawks fans may not like it, but the Preds were absolutely right about this from a communications and business operations standpoint. Know who your audience is. Hint: It’s not the folks in red.

  1. Listen to your audience. The in-game experience is part choreography, part organic activity. There’s the stuff you plan, and the stuff you don’t. The Preds are masters at leveraging and lifting the quirkiness of their fan base.

To be clear, the Predators can’t claim responsibility for Cell Block 303, the catfish, the chants, the TV timeout ovations or the cellphone flashlights that dot the arena for “Let It Be.” But what you can say is that they have enabled all of those things and allowed them to flourish. The result is a presentation that feels less like the NHL selling to Nashville and more like Nashville introducing itself to the world, one catfish at a time.

To be sure, there are some who don’t like elements of the experience. Take the goal chants, for instance. A few weeks ago, at a preseason game, I remember one spectator yelling at everyone to knock it off, that it makes you sound like hillbillies. I don’t know. I think it makes you sound like a hockey fan. It’s been about 30 years since he actually played a game there, but they still chant “Potvin Sucks” at Madison Square Garden.

Here’s hoping that, 30 years from now, we’ll still be doing the same silly things at Bridgestone, along with a few new silly things.

NOTE: There are so many things that didn’t make the list but are critically important, albeit intuitive. That’s why I left them out. So if you’re wondering why I didn’t talk about goal-setting, leveraging music, brilliant use of comp tickets in the lean years, or focusing your outreach on kids and students – all things the Preds do very well – it’s because you would have thought of those things too. Also not above but a key piece of the Smashville success story – the benefits of breaking down walls, when the team and the arena, the business side and the hockey side, are essentially the same thing.

The challenge ahead is how to grow a fan base when there are very few tickets available for newcomers. Look for lots more bar parties, free events like Predsfest, and special meet-and-greets for folks who can’t get in the building. It’s a nice problem to have.

Javier Solano is a former pro hockey writer and citizen of Smashville since 2006.