I told myself not to get excited when I started reading about how the owners and players were close to a deal to end the NHL lockout. “Self,” I told myself, “they’ve spent two and a half months folding their arms across their chests and turning their backs on each other. There’s no way that they can turn just a few days of meetings into gold.” Good advice, but by mid-week I discovered that I was defying it without even thinking about it due to the tone coming out of the meetings in New York.
A deal was close! Owners and players talking! Dogs and cats, living together…mass hysteria!
Against all reason, against my own advice, I had hope. Well, we all know where we stand now. The lockout is still on, the players union and owners are still unable to agree on basics, and prospects and NHL lockout refugees are still the only hockey to talk about. Hope got kicked in the junk.
The thing is, the return of NHL hockey wasn’t what I was hopeful about in and of itself. (Though I would definitely welcome it, if anyone’s listening. Gary? Don? Anyone?) I’ve been through one lockout already, beating my fists and shedding my tears and screaming at the sky in anger. I don’t have any of that in me anymore. Have hockey, don’t have hockey, whatever. I’m not in control of the situation and at this point, from the best I can tell, nobody else is either; there’s no point in me worrying about it.
What I was hopeful about was the prospect of the Nashville Predators franchise not having to walk back on the progress they’ve made with the local fan base. The Preds front office has made strides with the wider community that just a few years ago were both unprecedented and unexpected, something that’s been reflected in the team’s attendance numbers.
There was an initial surge of interest in the franchise’s early years. (Hey, hockey in the South, cool!) But when the reality of having a crappy expansion team began to settle in, the Predators saw their attendance numbers slip to perilously low numbers. Sellouts were unheard of, and the total number of people coming to watch the team play was low enough that Nashville was mentioned in articles about league contraction or team relocation on a seemingly weekly basis. In 2003-04, the final season before the lockout and the first in which the Predators ever made the playoffs, average attendance for the year was only 13,157.
Attendance actually improved in 2004-05, the first season back from the last NHL lockout, as the Preds put an improved product on the ice and began to fulfill the promise of their first playoff appearance. But after that a number of factors came together and attendance flatlined: the season-killing work stoppage fresh in everybody’s minds; an owner who had been the lockout’s biggest cheerleader throwing the franchise’s very existence into doubt and selling its best players; another owner who turned out to be a scam artist. These factors all hung over Nashville and in the five years following the lockout of 2004-05, attendance for home games never averaged more than 15,259.
Those trends could’ve continued, but prior to the 2010-11 season the team brought CEO Jeff Cogen and President and COO Sean Henry into the front office. Things quickly turned around. They brought in new corporate sponsors and kept Bridgestone Arena filled at 94.3 percent capacity for the season, a number partially built on 16 sellouts. There had only been 4 sellouts throughout 2009-10. In Cogen and Henry’s second year with the team, those numbers improved to 97.5 percent and 25 sellouts. But now we’ll never know what could have been built on that success in there had a been a complete 2012-13 NHL season.
Sure, there’s still a chance of a partial season. But one has to imagine that, with just 50 games or so to work with, the team would have its work cut out for it trying to regain the kind of success it had before the league raised its middle finger to the fanbase. That’s to say nothing of the difficulty the team will face luring back fans if there’s not even so much as a shortened season.
Nashville has gone from being a hockey market nobody took seriously to a case study for management types in all sorts of other sports markets, all because of hard work on and off the ice. The thought of a deal to end the NHL lockout that would keep all that hard work fresh on the city’s mind is what allowed me to get my hopes up when the players and owners talked about their meetings in such glowing terms. I’ve learned my lesson; I just hope that the franchise doesn’t suffer too much if the league doesn’t learn its.