Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
For the Nashville Predators, the word lockout, much like the term offer sheet, is one with negative connotations. But the two terms also share a bit of positive karma as well. Shea Weber’s offer sheet this Summer resulted in the Predators signing their captain through 2025-26. Likewise, you could make a pretty compelling argument that the Nashville Predators benefited more from the 2004-05 lockout than any other team in the NHL.
In the seven seasons since the lockout, the Predators have earned 698 points, good enough for the fifth highest point total in the league during that period. They have qualified for the playoffs in all but one season and won their first two playoff series ever. By eliminating the Red Wings last season, the Predators exorcised a plethora of their demons and looked poised to be on the verge of making a serious run for the Stanley Cup. My colleague Meesh Shanmugam wrote a nice piece a couple of weeks ago that stated that the Predators fared 4th best in the Western conference since the lockout.
And now, again, the evil word lockout looms large on the horizon.
Lockout: A Win/Lose Proposition?
Despite all of the progress that the Predators have made since the lockout, they had built up a good deal of momentum before the lost season of 2004-05. In 2003-04, the Predators finished 8th in the Western conference and qualified for the playoffs for the first time. Their opponents were none other than the Red Wings and despite losing in six games, the Predators had taken an important first step and the future looked bright indeed.
As anyone who lives in the middle Tennessee area can tell you, this is first and foremost football country. You only have to look back upon this week to see evidence of that. On Thursday, Vanderbilt hosted South Carolina while cross-town the NFL’s Tennessee Titans hosted the New Orleans Saints in a preseason game. If that wasn’t enough football, Middle Tennessee State University also played a home game just on the outskirts of Nashville.
I bring up football because it seems that as football goes, so goes the Predators – just in reverse. When the Titans are going well, the Predators’ attendance suffers. Likewise, when the Titans are down, the Predators pick up a lot of casual fans. The Predators debuted in the NHL in 1998 and the Titans stole the thunder of their first season by having their best season in middle Tennessee in 1999, concluding with a Super Bowl XXXIV appearance.
The Titans dominated the local sports landscape during the early 2000s with one playoff appearance after another. Meanwhile, the Predators struggled through the expected growing pains of an expansion franchise. When they finally made the playoffs, it seemed that a changing of the guard was happening in Nashville. The Titans were aging and they were staring down a few lean years ahead. It cannot be understated that the lost season of 2004-05 hurt the Predators from the standpoint of building their fan base.
The Titans did struggle in 2004, compiling just a 5-11 record. Had the lockout not happened, it’s quite conceivable that the Predators would have built upon their success of the previous season and the Titans struggles to convert more of the “casual fans” into “new fans” of hockey and the Predators. When the NHL did come back to play, the Titans continued to struggle and the Predators were able to convert many fans into “new fans” of the game, culminating in last season’s outstanding attendance performance.
Of course, had the lockout been avoided in 2004, it’s quite possible that the Predators might not have been competitive without the cost certainty and revenue sharing components of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Everyone likes a winner, especially the casual sports fan. The continued level of success of the Predators since the lockout has made serious inroads in converting these casual sports fans into what I call new fans of the Predators. These new fans are starting to buy more tickets to regular season games and become personally invested in this team.
Much like 2004, this year is another perfect storm for the Predators. They eliminated the Red Wings in the playoffs last season and the owners have stepped up to make a considerable financial investment in the team’s captain. Also like 2004, the Titans are poised to have a down year.
As time goes by, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the NHL is headed towards its fourth work stoppage, all since 1992. We can only speculate at this point how long the stoppage will last, but the prevailing wisdom indicates that the sides will reach an agreement in time to save the Winter Classic. Again, for the Predators, if a lockout does happen, it will be a double-edged sword.
Despite a tumultuous off-season, the Predators return mostly the same team that finished 8th in the league in scoring last season. They have locked up core players such as Shea Weber, Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson to new deals that will ensure a continued high level of success on the ice. And yet, a lockout could help the Predators maintain their recent success for the foreseeable future.
All of the hot-button issues such as limiting long-term contracts and increasing revenue sharing will only help to keep the Predators competitive. While one could argue that the current CBA has been good to the Predators, it’s quite possible that the new agreement will be even better for the team.
But can the team survive another lost season?
If the 2012-13 season is lost entirely, there will be repercussions for all teams. On the financial side of things, the Predators will have to pay captain Shea Weber a total of $26 million without him lacing up his skates a single time. Sure, Shea will have to forfeit his $1 million salary for the season, but I think he’ll get by. The Predators, on the other hand, will have to pay out that King’s ransom without playing a single game and having that revenue coming in.
Of course, I don’t believe the league and the players are foolish enough to lose an entire season. If convention wisdom holds and the season starts in mid-December, it could actually benefit the Predators on the attendance front. We all know that early season home games for the Predators have lighter attendance than games later in the year. The biggest reason for this trend is the competition from football.
The Predators have 26 games scheduled through mid-December, but it’s unlikely that the NHL would simply truncate those games and play a 56 game schedule. It’s likewise unlikely that they would try to cram an entire 82 game schedule into four months. If we assume a 62 game season, the resulting 31 home games, all during the Predators high water attendance period, could all be sold-out.
Last season, the Predators set a new franchise record with 25 sell-outs and finished the season with an average capacity of 97.5%. Sure, losing the revenue from 10 home games, even at less than optimal attendance levels is not desirable, but selling out every single home game would be huge on many levels. It would continue the forward momentum of the last few seasons and would go a long way in repairing the damage from the lost two months.
Let’s be honest, losing even one game will have an effect on the Predators, but they have to weigh that effect against the gains of a new CBA. Personally, I think the break-even point will be mid-December. After that point, the NHL gets into lost season territory and losing an entire season will have dire consequences for the Predators both financially and in the court of public opinion.
In Nashville, I feel there are three main groups of Predators fans: die-hard, new and casual fans. The die-hard and casual fans won’t be affected much by a lockout. Sure, a few die-hard season ticket holders might become frustrated and make a statement by canceling their tickets, but history shows that they will come back to the game. The casual fan is the fan that attends one or two games a year or only shows up for the playoffs. They will return to the team when it becomes a hot ticket again. The casual fan may not even realize there was a lockout.
That leaves the most important fan for the Predators, the new fan. I categorize the new fan as those that have become hockey or Predators fans since the last lockout. They are new season ticket holders and the fans that will most likely be affected by a lockout. Not having been through a lockout before, they will be more forgiving than a die-hard fan, but they will also lose their patience sooner.
If an entire season is lost, this group will be hit the hardest and they will also be the key component when the NHL comes back. The Predators are doing everything right thus far in preparation for a potential lockout. They’ve opened up Bridgestone arena for any event that is even remotely related to the Predators. So far, they had a plaza party to chat about matching Shea Weber’s offer sheet with free food, a Skate of the Union event with several players and have had several other events that have kept the Predators at the forefront of all the fans’ minds.
The Predators and the players have done a great job this off season in terms of public relations. For the most part, they have presented a unified front to the fans. There is a bit of a crack in the facade in that the team’s top two stars, Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber have not put in a public appearance in Nashville yet this Summer. Pekka Rinne does spend a lot of time in his native Finland during the off-season, so his absence is not entirely surprising.
Shea Weber, on the hand, has been active in the CBA negotiations and it’s not entirely unreasonable to make the argument that his absence is more intentional. Compounding matters is the fact that Weber has not been seen in Nashville since the Predators matched Philadelphia’s offer sheet. The team has said that previous commitments have prevented Shea from attending team events so far this Summer, but Shea is a smart person.
I’m not going to attempt to get in Shea’s head, but after signing an offer sheet with another team, I would think that one of his top priorities would be to mend the fences with the fans. Of course, his involvement with the CBA negotiations complicates matters a bit. He has 14 years to soothe things over in Nashville, but the CBA is certainly a more pressing issue.
Of course, given his long-term contract with a small-market team, you have to imagine that Shea has to be thinking about both the players’ interest and making sure that the new CBA helps the Preds stay competitive for the next decade. Much like a lockout, a new CBA is a double-edged sword for Shea.