In February, I took a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, to see some of the Music City's sights, watch a few games and, most importantly, get a handle on how the NHL is faring in what has been, recently anyway, one of its more troubled markets. For the first five parts of the series, see here.
"Until we can find 17,000 people, 41 nights a year that care enough to support us with their pocketbook and their presence, then I don’t think we have been successful with what we set out to do. We didn’t set out to just keep the team here. We set out to make this a franchise that the entire city loves, wants to be a part of and that we have success."
I think even Mr. Freeman would agree there's a long way to go on that front.
It didn't take long this season for "the attendance watch" to rear its ugly head in Nashville, as long-time Avalanche beat writer Adrian Dater ripped the fan base and the market eight days after the regular-season opened earlier this month. As you can imagine, it was a screed not all that well-received in Predsville.
"It’s a tough thing to say, but it needs to be said," Dater wrote. "Theshould get the heck out of the NHL. They’ve been a charity case team the last few years, needing revenue-sharing money from the rest of the league just to stay operable."
Dirk Hoag, an excellent blogger who I've come to know well the past few years, offered a lengthy response, defending his hometown team about as well as can be expected. But after visiting Nashville, buying tickets and sitting in the seats, meeting the hardcore fans and then picking through the (available) financials, I've come to accept what for many is an uncomfortable truth when it comes to debates like this.
The Predators are a "charity case" reliant on revenue sharing to survive?
Well, of course they are. And for this league to have expected any different when the team landed there 11 years ago among the hockey neophytes was just plain wrong.
The harsh economic reality of the NHL is and always has been that there are simply not 30 wonderful markets to plunk franchises into, and that, even in the best of circumstances, it'll be a tight squeeze in a place like Nashville. The Predators will always have one of the league's lower payrolls, they'll always be in danger of losing young stars after their second contract (think Shea Weber) and they'll also always have to somehow get more from less in order to be competitive — let alone win a championship.
Even with the handout, in other words, the deck is already stacked against this franchise.
This season, Nashville's payroll is within $7-million of only four other teams — Columbus, Dallas, Phoenix and the Islanders — none of whom are in particularly sunny financial condition. The Preds have 12 players making less than $800,000 and no one making more than $4.5-million — a unique use of cap space in a league where 60 players make $5-million or more.
We're still in the early days of a salary capped NHL, but what's become clear is that the $56.8-million ceiling figure acts as a magnet, drawing top teams' (and those that want to join them) dollars more and more every season. This year, even in recessionary climes, about 17 teams will be cap max clubs — including all of the top teams from last season.
Looking at what Preds GM David Poile has had to do with his roster, especially on the blueline, I have doubts teams like Nashville can keep up. Especially when yet-to-be stars are drawing big money at 21 and leaving altogether four years later.
But that's an aside to all of this, meant only to illustrate how tough a road this team has ahead even with the dreaded handout in its back pocket. The fact is, the NHL took the plunge, took the city's money and put hockey in a relative dead zone for the sport way back when. Against all odds, a fan base has grown there — a better one, I'd argue, than we could have reasonably expected in a smallish Southern market, and a better one than it gets credit for just about everywhere else.
The reality of this 30-team NHL is that there's nowhere in the U.S. better to go than Nashville, no new doors to open that will offer more than what's slowly built up there. Lower bowl tickets are not dirt cheap (I paid $70) and the fan base, small it may be, is rabid enough that it has weathered some pretty difficult circumstances already.
Even so, barring a dream playoff run on a shoestring budget, turning a profit will be a tall task. The city's in deep in terms of propping the Preds up, and other NHL teams are, too, but Freeman just might be right that this franchise could be something a generation from now.
But what to do in the interim?
If the question is, "should the NHL have gone to Nashville in the first place?", I'd likely have to answer, no, that this would be a healthier league at 24 or 26 teams.
But if you're asking "should they now pull up and leave?", it's a far more difficult proposition. The goodwill in the market has been built, and ownership's saying it's willing to fight the good fight over the long haul. Even if backing up a moving truck and hauling teams to Canada was an option, places like Winnipeg and Quebec City would face the same issues and questions, with fans wondering why payroll was so low and their stars leaving so young. Those cities would need to subsidize the arena operations, ownership would need to be deep-pocketed and patient and, even then, who knows?
The NHL's become a league of 10 to 12 haves and so many have nots, the worst of which cannot possibly survive without revenue sharing (and even then are in a difficult situation). If, in that environment, the Predators can put 14,000 plugged-in fans into a 17,000-seat rink and keep breaking even, that, at this point, in this circus of a league, is a win.
Maybe not a huge one, but a win nonetheless.
I don't know if hockey will survive in Nashville, long term, but they deserve their shot and, in some ways, they're good for a league that's become far too much about big business the past 10 years. I like what I saw there, even if it's different and even if the fans up in the rafters pay less than the league average to cheer on a game few knew existed a decade ago.
It's a tough thing to say, especially after all that's been written on the subject, but the Predators should stay the heck in the NHL. They're not the Coyotes and they're not the answer to Southern Ontario's need for another team, as much as many would like them to be.
Freeman is in for an interesting fight, but in my mind, it's still a war worth waging. And all you can do is wish them luck, on the ice and otherwise.