Back in February, I took what was my first trip to Nashville to see a little hockey and meet a few of the locals, mainly to get a sense of (a) what was happening with the NHL there in the wake of a near-relocation and (b) the market's viability in the future. To this point, I've written four parts of a six-part series on the trip, which are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 (an interview with Steve Sullivan).
Consider what follows the long-awaited Part 5.
In a lot of ways, there's something very, very different about how Nashville operates as an NHL market. The hockey community is a small one, loud but proud as they say, and that situation can often bring those way up the food chain right down to the everyday fan's level.
Case in point, owner David Freeman, a self-made millionaire who now leads the Predators local ownership group as they attempt to rebuild what was one of the league's most at-risk franchises only a short time ago.
The photo above is a bit out of focus, but what it is is a shot of Freeman himself shaking hands with fans in Section 303 (where the Predators hardcores reside) and handing out free drink tickets before a game — something that sort of redefines the term "hands on approach" when it comes to professional sports ownership. (My thanks to Paul Nicholson for the picture.)
I ran into something similar soon after I got back from Nashville, as after publishing Part 1: The Rise of Hockey in Tennessee, Freeman sent me a brief email with some kind words on the post. More recently, I connected with him for a Q&A on life as a new NHL owner in one of the league's fledgling markets.
A few things to keep in mind: (1) Some of the seemingly obvious connections between the Predators and what's happening in Phoenix were off-limits given owners are not supposed to speak out on the Coyotes situation, (2) No Boots questions and (3) Freeman is a local, someone who is relatively new to hockey but a big sports fan in general.
He has a reputation as a pretty quiet, guarded individual, and I didn't expect going in to get all of the answers I asked for. Nonetheless, we do manage to cover some interesting territory.
Q. It was fairly well publicized in Nashville that when you bought the team, you had only attended a few games and weren't a hardcore fan — what has it been like coming to the game as an adult and a fan of other sports (basketball, football, etc.)? Is there something in particular you've come to enjoy about hockey?
Freeman: I've got a tremendous amount of respect for the skill and physical sacrifice of the players — I really enjoy the game. In comparison to other sports, the most compelling aspect is the speed of the game itself.
Q. It seems to me after visiting the city that one of the real challenges for the ownership group will be to get fans out to games who are, like you were, more comfortable with other sports and relatively unfamiliar with hockey. Have you focused on wooing these fans to the team the past two years? Can you compete with the Titans more during the NFL season?
Freeman: Honestly, I don't think we can woo too many adult fans away from their childhood favourites. I'm an exception — but that doesn't count. Our focus is on the kids. We must grow our own fan base from a young age. Hockey is an easy game for kids in Nashville to love because our arena is an "entertainment overload." It will take another decade, but the Habs have been around for 10 decades and we just finished our first. For example, we might convert one out of [every] 20 additional middle-aged football fans, and at great cost, but we think we can get one out of two kids if we can get in front of them directly at an impressionable age.
Q. Since something like that may take, as you say, a decade or more to pay off, should we conclude that you and the ownership group plan on being around to benefit from that plan?
Freeman: Yes, we plan to be around long term.
Q. Going back to purchasing the team and coming on board as an owner — a lot of sports fans have an idea in their head what it's like to own a professional sports franchise, but what has that journey been like for you? What have you enjoyed most about being in that role?
Freeman: The best part of the journey, by far, is that there are fans that still walk up and say "Thank you for saving my team." Otherwise, the journey has been challenging. We bought a business that was struggling badly in its market, we bought it for non-financial reasons, and it's critical for everyone in Nashville that we succeed.
Q. I believe it was announced the team turned a small profit — or essentially broke even — this season. How was it that you were able to turn things around so quickly, despite the fact the team missed the postseason this year?
Freeman: We made a slight profit in 2007-08 [and] had a slight loss in 2008-09. We have focused on maximizing our revenue streams out of the building on non-hockey events. As long as we continue to sell more tickets than the year before and meet the revenue-sharing criteria, we should be okay.
Our goal is "17,113 [a sellout every night] and the Cup."
Q. Do you feel you can get to the Cup with a payroll that's well under the salary cap [the Preds are set to enter the season with the league's lowest payroll at around $42-million] or is the eventual goal to spend up to it?
Freeman: The key is having a great organization. Our model is based on an ability to scout, identify, draft, coach and develop players. We believe we have the organizational structure, discipline and management talent to get into the playoffs on an annual basis. I honestly believe that any of the 16 teams reaching the playoffs have a legitimate shot at the Cup. We have been in the playoffs four of the past five seasons so the odds say our time for greater success is approaching.
Gary [Bettman] was brilliant in setting up a tight range between the cap and floor so that all 30 teams have a fair shot at succeeding. As Gary has preached, and as we proved two years ago, even a "floor" team can make the playoffs. Our payroll has increased significantly over the past two years, but the increase is consistent with our philosophy of developing and retaining our talent rather than a desire to spend to a certain level.
Q. Does the NHL's revenue-sharing system make it difficult given you have to increase revenues every year?
Freeman: The CBA is what it is and I would prefer not to comment on the revenue-sharing formulas or requirements.
There were a couple other questions that went unanswered, but nothing of real significance. (He directed me to talk to the team's business manager on a question about new media access, for example.) Despite his brevity, I appreciate Freeman opening a door for a blogger who, let's face it, has said some negative things about his market in the past.
Prior to chatting with him, I took some time to ask a handful of Preds fans for their thoughts on the team's new owner, and their praise was pretty much universal.
"He is very pragmatic and realistic about Nashville as a hockey market and sets reasonable short-term goals and works within his budget for success, something previous ownership (or other teams' owners) could not always have been said to do," said Nicholson, who added that Freeman had personally touched base with him about a blog entry he wrote earlier this year.
"He refers to [the team] as 'the product' and constantly talks about how important it is, win or lose, for the fans to enjoy the experience and for the fanbase to grow," Nicholson said. "Because of that, he's almost not concerned enough about the actual success of the team on the ice, but I think his attention is where it needs to be. It works because Freeman is focused almost entirely on the off-ice portion of the product. The hockey product belongs entirely to [general manager] David Poile. Freeman doesn't begin to [pretend he knows] how to run a hockey team, so he lets Poile do that. Freeman runs the business."
Other bloggers I'd talked to had said they wished they heard more from Freeman and that he was a more vocal leader, but Nicholson felt that what he brings to the table is more valuable than weekly sound bites.
"I think that's one of the things I appreciate about Freeman," Nicholson said. "He's careful about what he says, which is why I almost feel like I can trust what he does say more than guys that talk and talk — especially the ones that tell you what you want to hear.
"He's also grown a lot as a speaker and as a face of the franchise. At first he just flat out said 'I don't know hockey and have barely been to games — but this team needs to stay here.' Now he could talk hockey with fans and sounds great on local radio interviews, etc."
All in all, what Freeman really strikes me as is a unique individual in a very unique market. And, unlike some of the league's other troubled franchises these days, the Predators are treading water financially and that's with some significant room to grow in the ticket sales department.
Yes, it's going to be an uphill climb, and yes, I think winning with such a low payroll will be a far bigger challenge than he lets on, but if this team does succeed in the long run, you better believe a huge amount of the credit is due to his efforts. And the incredible thing is that, if he can pull it off, the man that saved hockey in Nashville started out not hardly knowing the game at all.