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The ‘it’ team in the ‘it’ city: Part 2

Continued from Part 1…

Smashville

It’s not your ordinary hockey town. But it’s a hockey town.

When you step foot in Bridgestone Arena on a Predators game night, it’s an experience unlike any other in the NHL, let alone any other sporting event in this town.

“It is the place to be and we’re proud of that,” Henry said.

LP Field on Sundays in the fall is no longer the cool place to be. Bridgestone Arena has taken over that reign. Nothing you see at a Titans game is unique to what you see in Smashville. It’s not even close.

There are the TV timeout ovations, which have become a staple to Smashville since 2008. Ninety seconds of non-stop noise during a stoppage in play? Talk about unique.

“I had never seen it through the whole timeout like that, standing up and waving the towels,” said Los Angeles Kings forward Colin Fraser, who played with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 when they played Nashville in the first round. “It’s pretty cool, especially in a city like Nashville with a small-market team. They don’t get enough credit for the fans that they do have.”

There’s the band stage, which has featured a range of performers from the likes of Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill, to garage bands looking to make a name. Around the league, some arenas sit idle during intermissions; others have games for fans. In Nashville, intermissions could be mistaken for a live concert.

“The intermission bands are obviously a huge Nashville thing, so I think it’s cool and unique to us,” said Zach Delph, who is a partial season ticket plan holder with his wife after they got hooked on one preseason game back in 2009.

There’s Cellblock 303, home to one of the NHL’s wildest and rowdiest section of diehard fans. There’s “Run This Town” to excite the population of 17,113 before puckdrop. There’s the traditional “I Like It, I Love It” goal song.

There’s the sea of gold, the catfish and the vuvuzelas come playoff time. There’s the pregame party plaza, the festive fan-friendly atmosphere during the game and the ever-festive Broadway filled with honky-tonks, waiting for the fourth period.

“When people decide to go to a sporting event, we’re going to make sure we give them every reason in the world to come to a Predators game. The best way to do it is to make it fun and make it cool,” Henry said.

The average ticket price to attend a Predators game is below league average, so fans in Nashville arguably get the most bang for their buck out of all 30 NHL teams.

Over the last couple years, many people new to the sport have flocked to 501 Broadway to soak it all in. They leave the game hooked on hockey, seeking tickets to the next home game. That’s what Smashville does to you. To use a slogan the team has previously used, it stays with you.

“I have never been a sports ‘fan’ really. I used to kind of watch baseball, but this new Preds mania with me is still weirding my family out,” said Bertrand. “The Predators organization is all about fun and entertainment and also about rewarding those loyal fans.”

The Hockey News: The Best Of Everything In Hockey, published in 2011, rated Nashville as having the best intermission and arena neighborhood. St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock once said Bridgestone Arena “is like the Colosseum in Rome, coming into this place on a Saturday night.”

“I’ve played in the league for five years now and it’s a great city to come to with great fans,” Fraser said. “It’s a tough barn. They’re loud.”

It’s not your ordinary hockey town. But it’s a hockey town.

Nashville’s “it” team?

When discussing which sport is top billing in Nashville, it’s easy. Football is on a podium by itself and that won’t change. But even though Nashville is a football town by nature, it’s as much of a hockey town as it has ever been.

“That debate would’ve been tough a long time ago because football is typically king in the south,” Mason said.

Choosing Nashville’s “it” team is an easy debate. Only three teams are in the discussion: the Titans, Predators and Vanderbilt football.

“Can you imagine this town when Vandy football has another season like last year, maybe a step ahead, when we pick up from where we left off last year, and the Titans go back to the AFC Championship game? Can you imagine the town? It would be insane. It really would be. I look forward to that happening,” Henry said.

James Franklin has done an unbelievable job turning around Vanderbilt’s football program, which seemed borderline-impossible before he took over the reins. At times last fall they were the talk of the town due to the poor output from the city’s NFL team. However, Vanderbilt will never be the most popular college football team in this city or region and they may never challenge for a national title.

Across the river, the Titans are an utter mess both on and off the field. They don’t spend money wisely when it comes to personnel, and they haven’t won a playoff game since Gary Anderson kicked a game-winning field goal in Baltimore nine years ago. In 2012 the 6-10 Titans were a comedy of errors as some fans shifted from being frustrated to apathetic by season’s end.

Meanwhile, the Predators are coming off back-to-back second-round trips in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The momentum they have built up over the last two seasons continues to snowball. Of these three teams, the Predators are undoubtedly the closest to threatening for a championship.

Television ratings are higher than they’ve ever been, as the Predators are roughly averaging a 1.5 rating per game this season. Also, Tuesday’s game against Detroit marked the 21st consecutive sellout at Bridgestone Arena – a feat that would have previously been considered as a pipe dream.

People in the Titans’ offices will laugh at those numbers. Their sellout streak is at 144 games, even though last season’s aerial shots above LP Field would tell you the interest is dwindling. Their TV ratings are through the roof – usually 20 times more than any Predators game. But again: football will always be king in the south. That’s just the way it is.

Last September, ESPN The Magazine released their Ultimate Team Rankings, a ranking of the 122 professional sports franchises in the NHL, NFL, MLB and NBA. The Titans were ranked 72nd; the Predators were ranked 14th.

The Predators’ popularity in the town is rapidly growing, due in part to the Titans’ reputation hovering at an all-time low.

Crisp said of the Predators, “When we first came here we thought we’d get 8,000 people. Then we got up to 10,000 and 12,000 and suddenly you’re saying sellouts. Now, not that you’re blasé about it, but you almost take a sellout now for, ‘Okay, that’s good.’ Sean and Jeff don’t take it for granted, but a lot of people do. Now we get 15,000 or 16,000, people are like, ‘Hey, what happened? What’s going on here?’”

“Our goal is pretty simple – it’s to sell out every game. If I ever said that before, people would laugh,” Henry said. “But wouldn’t it be something if we did?”

On top of the sellout streak, the Predators didn’t lose any sponsors during the lockout, and this season they had their highest season ticket renewal in team history. Of the many who asked for refunds during the lockout, close to 95% are back on board, according to Henry.

That says a lot for how far this city has come in supporting hockey. It’s further evidence that people in this city feel a special connection to the team.

“There’s a buy-in from these fans,” Daunic said. “Once you’re in it seems like you’re going to be in there for a while. Very few people check out once they get emotionally attached to this team.”

The Predators have also proven that times are changing when it comes to retaining star players. If Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne and Ryan Suter had all been marquee free agents in the same off-season five years ago, the team may have been lucky to keep one. They kept two, and they were right there financially for Suter’s services.

“We’re not the same old Predators,” Henry said. “We’re no longer going to draft a guy, have him come up through Milwaukee, play really well, be an emerging star, make an All-Star team and then go play for Philadelphia. It’s not going to happen. A player may leave, but it’s not going to be because of money. That’s a big deal.”

Nashville was named New York Times’ “it” city due to a number of factors. Broadway is a magnet to tourists, while the new monster convention center will print money for the city once it’s open. It also doesn’t hurt that ABC’s TV show ‘Nashville’ has become a hit, and the town’s southern hospitality is icing on the cake.

The Predators are Nashville’s “it” team for some of the same traits.

Every spring the team inches closer to a Stanley Cup, while Smashville has become “the place to be” in this city 41 nights a year. There also is a substantial “it” factor that has people coming back, just like the city itself. When they experience a Predators game for the first time, they get lost in the atmosphere and the music and the game and the entertainment – and suddenly, there’s no looking back. They’re hooked.

“My wife and I found something to be invested in with the team – not only financially, but emotionally and socially. We’ve made lifelong friends because of our love of the team,” Delph said.

The city caught Preds Fever during the 2011 playoffs – the franchise’s breakthrough moment – and it hasn’t let go.

“It’s good to be at a place where people want to be,” Henry said.

“It’s cool to be cool.”

 
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