Fans rallying behind Predators this season

Fans rallying behind Predators this season

Published Jan. 13, 2012 3:39 p.m. ET

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One streak came to an end for the Nashville Predators on Thursday -- but just barely -- while another one continued.

Both are connected.

The Predators missed their ninth consecutive sellout at Bridgestone Arena by only 208 fans and that came on a night when snow was in the forecast and numerous local schools were canceled the next day because of snow and ice considerations -- the kind of things that deter walk-up sales.

On Saturday when the Philadelphia Flyers -- one of the NHL's top draws -- visit, the Predators expect to pick up where they left off with another sellout. The same is true when Chicago visits the following Saturday in the next home date.

Oh, and the Predators won their third in a row on Thursday and their sixth out of seven. They currently sit sixth in the Western Conference with 52 points in 43 games, as they are on pace for their seventh playoff berth in eight seasons.

"Oh, it's great," said Predators right wing Patric Hornqvist. "It's always more fun. There's lots of people in the building. Yeah, I think this town is starting to pick up hockey hockey-wise. You get recognized more and more in the streets and everybody likes to talk about hockey. Good for us, good for the fans and great for the owners. Yeah, it's fun."

The Predators' average attendance is 16,648, meaning that they are playing to 97 percent of Bridgestone Arena's 17,113 capacity. After totaling 16 sellouts in 41 home dates last season (and all six in the playoffs), the Predators already have sold out 13 of 23 this season. Sean Henry, the team's president/chief operating officer, said many of the sellouts last season came after Jan. 1, so the Predators expect another strong second half. Henry said the team's season ticket renewal rate was between 92 and 93 percent, which was its highest since the franchise entered the league in 1998.

Numerous factors are at work. One is the team's success on the ice, as the Predators finally broke through the first round of the playoffs for the first time last season, eliminating Anaheim in six games before falling to Vancouver in the second round.

Another factor is the executive team -- CEO Jeff Cogen and Henry, both of whom had experience with successful NHL teams in nontraditional markets -- that chairman Tom Cigarran brought in before the 2010-11 season. Cogen worked for the Dallas Stars when they won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and Henry worked for the Tampa Bay Lightning when they won the Cup in 2004.

Henry said the easy reason why the organization has been able to fill the arena is that "our team is pretty exciting." But after they were hired, he said Cogen and he began to tear down the walls that separated building operations, team operations and the business side.

That means if the circus, which attracts a family demographic, came to the arena, then the team set up tables to sell hockey tickets. In turn, when an event like Disney on Ice visits, the organization tries to sell it to fans who purchase family packs for Predators games. The same would be true for a Taylor Swift concert.

Henry said one of the keys has been building a database of potential ticket buyers. About a year ago, the team hired two people to run its data sales department and they are charged with carving up the data to find who they should market and sell to.

"We know who's coming, when they're coming and what they're coming to," Henry said of the database.

Once the organization gets a family hooked on hockey, it tries to up-sell it to packages that increase in size in terms of the number of games attended. Henry said the team has increased the size of its ticket sales force and instructed it to be aggressive.

The Preds also has taken a personalized approach, whether it has been reaching out to those who chose not to renew or providing free tickets to season ticket holders to other local sports events, such as Vanderbilt football, or venues, such as the zoo. The team also has forged partnerships with other local teams, such as the Class AAA baseball Nashville Sounds, and shared its database for cross-selling opportunities.  Henry said it's all about increasing the amount that people spend on sports and entertainment throughout the area.

"We're trying to build friends and allies across the community," he said.

Henry also said any employee -- whether it's someone who works in the accounting department -- has been incentivized to sell tickets and can make money doing so.

"It also makes our games top of mind in any conversation," he said. "… Once you get 150 people thinking about filling this building up 24 hours a day, it happens a little more often."

Henry said it seems like a long time ago -- though it wasn't -- that people were wondering whether the team would average 14,000 fans. If it did not, it could have triggered a process that would have enabled a potential buyer to relocate the franchise.

"Our players will see us in the hallway and the first thing they'll ask us is, ‘Are we sold out tonight?'" Henry said. "It's a lot fun talking about it that way."

Henry said Cigarran had something in mind when he took over as chairman in March 2010.

"The goal was to build enough resources off of generated funds within the building to make sure (general manager David Poile) had more and more tools every year to keep the incredible players they scouted, drafted, trained and promoted," Henry said.

Predators coach Barry Trotz has been with the organization since the beginning and seen the growth.

"I think it takes a while in nontraditional markets to grow roots, if you will, because you're not going to convert a whole bunch of fans right away," he said. "It's going to be one fan at a time. To fill a rink, it takes a lot of those and we've done a really good job and I think the secret to it is beyond that now that we've become a part of the community, we've done a really good job in terms of the marketing and game presentation, but above all that we've been a competitive team.

"We haven't had a lot of playoff success in terms of going deep a lot of times, but hopefully we exorcised that demon last year and it'll be a little more every year type of thing, but we've been competitive when we've gone to the playoffs and those late (season) games have counted all the time and that builds momentum and we have a little bit of a playoff run and it builds more fans. People get involved."