Any new American hockey market eventually finds itself in a frustrating position: awaiting the generational turn, the time when the fans who were children at the time of expansion become old enough to begin parting with hard-earned greenbacks in exchange for hockey tickets. Youth hockey existed in Nashville long before the Predators arrived on the scene in the late 1990s — as did professional hockey in the late 1960s and 70s — but neither of those factors could guarantee one of the NHL’s newest expansion teams a steady attendance stream in its infancy.
Average paid attendance has been something of a liability for the Predators, who continue to rely on the NHL’s revenue sharing program, and whose lease provides an optional exit clause if the team fails to meet a benchmark of 14,000 in two consecutive years (among other things).
But a fresh approach in the Music City could pay serious dividends for the team in both the short and long runs. In addition to a growing new media presence at 501 Broadway, the team has focused on some interesting incentive programs that leverage real-world social networks to help achieve sales goals. As many of Nashville’s youngsters continue to make the generational turn — not least center Blake Geoffrion, a 4th generation NHLer who is Middle Tennessee’s first, true home-grown pro hockey talent, taken in the 2nd round (56th overall) in the 2006 entry draft — the Predators now view this demographic as a target ripe for their marketing efforts.
“What we’ve found is that virtually all of our communication comes with them electronically — email, Facebook, Twitter — that’s how we communicate with them,” said Chris Parker, Executive Vice President and Chief Sales and Marketing Officer at the Predators. And while each of these platforms can deliver hefty analytic sets, the Internet isn’t the only tool in Parker’s kit; the Predators have cultivated a campus ambassador program, consisting of roughly 45-50 individuals spread across the Nashville area’s 14 major colleges and universities. Parker and crew maintain regular contact with ambassadors, and empower them to spread their love of the game to friends with handfuls of incentives and discounts. Campus ambassadors organize car pools, host away game watch parties, and even show up to Bridgestone Arena in blocks of seats wearing their school colors. This Army of Davids approach to sales complements a highly successful College Night promotion that has run for over five seasons in Nashville, a selection of games that offer ticket and libation discounts to attendees with college IDs.
Beyond students, the Predators have also engaged faculty and staff — take, for example, the promotional rates available to Vanderbilt University’s stewardship. Ticket prices range from $34 to $131 for this group, but they aren’t the only ones to benefit. All 300 or more of the Predators corporate partners enjoy similar incentive programs to help drive sales. Small businesses are no doubt encouraged to partner with the team, since there is no minimum partnership requirement for participation. Some of the team’s larger partners, like Vanderbilt University Medical Center, enjoy slightly larger discount rates for participation, but the incentive program is open to all, said Parker.
Allaying concerns about how best to balance profitability goals with incentive programs, Parker is confident in the organization’s approach.
“They’re mutually exclusive, in many respects. We contemplate the costs of all these programs as a function of budgeting. We look at what they generate in terms of attendance…[regardless of the scale or purpose of the initiative]. We look at all of those functions and do a cost-benefit analysis on all of them. We are equally as focused on driving [attendance] as we are the bottom line. If you drive enough bodies, you drive demand and revenue, which increases investment in the team, in the product on the ice, and greater financial stability. We’re in a great position — from the talent on the ice and our building, to our booking of off-night entertainment. We’ve got permanent relationships like the CMT Awards and the SEC [Women's Basketball Tournament]. We’re in a very advantageous position in terms of our business,” he said.
The Predators sold out 22 games in the 2010-2011 season — 16 regular season games, and all six home playoff games. This excites a somewhat beleaguered front office staff still trying to carve out a believably permanent home in the heart of downtown Nashville. But they aren’t greedy either. “Our goal this year is to sell out 25 games, and we think that’s reasonable,” said Parker. The Predators schedule this year boasts 16 weekend games, many of which come during the latter part of the season, well after the NCAA and NFL football seasons end — two of the Predators’ largest competitors for fan dollars in the burgeoning southern city.
Perhaps the most interesting approach, leaving many fans curious, manifested for the first time in franchise history this year, as the team opened the sales year offering single game tickets for the first half of the season only. According to Parker, the logic behind the move is three-fold:
- Knowing what the team already knows about rising attendance after the conclusion of football season, keeping second-half tickets off the market now allows the sales team to focus on flex packages and other partial season plans that include late-season games.
- The move gives the team half a season to evaluate the effectiveness of a new value-based ticket pricing model (in which ticket prices fluctuate relative to demand), and helps them to predict second-half revenue performance, in addition to providing guidance for tinkering with marketing strategies on an ongoing basis.
- By essentially restricting the supply of single-game tickets on the open market, Parker predicts that casual fans — perhaps welcoming family to town for a weekend — will act more quickly and more decisively when making a purchasing decision.
Parker is confident that die-hard fans will be the first to the box office to buy seats at the games they want to see, and that none of these will be negatively affected by the new strategy. Predators CEO Jeff Cogen has tried this approach before, said Parker, and saw success. “I remember the Detroit Red Wings doing this in the 80s and 90s,” said On the Forecheck Managing Editor Dirk Hoag in an email. “They’d open single game sales one month at a time.” Predators fans awaiting their perennial abuse from the Canadian media should take solace that the man who once helped remake Hockeytown at the end of the last century is now at the helm on Broadway.
The Predators open the 2011-2012 season on Friday, October 7 on the road against the Columbus Blue Jackets — puck drops at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. The Preds will play their home opener against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday, October 13 — puck drops at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.