A Tale Of Two Cities: Nashville, Baltimore, And NHL Growth

A Tale Of Two Cities: Nashville, Baltimore, And NHL Growth

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Tonight professional hockey will return to Baltimore for the first time in over a decade. It will do so in the form of a Capitals exhibition game dubbed “The Baltimore Hockey Classic,” against the Predators of Nashville (represented by some sort of paleolithic cat). The Washington Capitals playing in Baltimore represents the way to grow a sports brand as a regional product, which is sustainable and economically smart. The Predators represent, well, the Old Way.

In the heady days of 1997, it seemed novel to stick an NHL team in the Music City, which is almost exactly the size of Baltimore. The city, like Baltimore, had a history of ebbs and flows with hockey popularity, resulting in string of different minor league franchises residing in Nashville. When the NHL got on its expansion tear in the late 90s, Nashville was the first to get an arena together amongst a wave of franchises that would include Minnesota, Atlanta, and Columbus.

Last season, the Predators drew 94.3% of their attendance. This sounds like a good number out of context, but it ranks 19th out of 30th in the league. The Predators do better in gate receipts than two northeastern cities: New Jersey and the New York Islanders. The other franchises drawing fewer fans are all in the warm climates (Tampa, Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta, who moved to Winnipeg this offseason) and in the middle of the country (Columbus and Colorado). Although, it’s not a hard and fast rule that you need cold weather for people to be into hockey – I went to an Islander game last year and you can dump as much snow as you want, there’s not a lot of incentive to go to that arena and watch that team. It certainly helps, though.

The NHL got big eyes during the late 90s and early 00s when it came to expanding markets. Some made sense (Minnesota), and others did not (Phoenix). The economic pressures to grow the league were heavy on Gary Bettman’s mind. Keeping pace with the NBA probably had something to do with it as well. During the late 80s and early 90s, the NBA raced into emerging markets in Canada and the South to get to its current 30 teams. In the battle to stay among North America’s Big Four sporting leagues, the NHL didn’t see a way it could have less teams and succeed. To me, this thinking is flawed. It’s like taking on a mortgage of a house that has overinflated value. Eventually, the free market will correct itself and the NHL will pull out of unsustainable cities, either by choice or by bankruptcy.

The 2004-05 NHL lockout was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to the Nashville Predators. Consequently, the best thing that could’ve happened to the Capitals also happened around that time, in having the #1 pick when Alex Ovechkin was available. The Predators’ fortunes changed once salaries were rolled back and a hard cap was put into place to increase parity. Nashville posted losing records its first five years in existence, and snuck into the playoffs in 03-04. After the lockout, the Preds have made the playoffs five out of six seasons.

The on-ice success hasn’t necessarily translated into economic success. In its first decade of operation the team has been rumored for sale and/or move to Hamilton, Ontario and Kansas City, Missouriand without Phoenix being in the league, it would certainly be at the forefront of these discussions currently. [Note: The Predators sale after the 2007-08 season appears to have stabilized the team’s foothold in the Nashville market for the foreseeable future. We apologize for this error in analysis.]  Nashville’s 19th attendance ranking for the 2010-11 season is actually the highest in its history. People like supporting winners, but the measure of a team’s sustainability is really whether people feel invested when the team is not good. You need to take advantage of successful periods and build lasting connections with as many people as possible.

Which is exactly what the Capitals are doing.

I can safely say that an NHL team with the word “Baltimore” on their sweaters will never exist in my lifetime. What will happen, though, is that the D.C.-based Capitals will continue to grow in the region. As much as I would love to drive 5 minutes instead of 50 minutes to a hockey game, I don’t want Baltimore to take on another hockey team. I want the Capitals to continue to grow within Baltimore and for the fanbase to be stable even in the rough times. It’s easy to forget that just five seasons ago, in Ovechkin’s second year, and before the “red” rebrand, the Caps were 27th in the league in attendance, pulling in just 74.6% of their capacity.

Say what you will about the team’s playoff record the past four seasons, but the last few years have been mega-successful for the Capitals. They are marketable both locally and in the grand scheme of American hockey. The team is reliably watchable, interesting, and competitive. People don’t know it now, but they are being conditioned for a another time like ’06-’07 when the Capitals might not be a shoe-in for the playoffs. If the Caps can create a base here in Baltimore and in other outlying areas from the national’s capital, that goodwill and fan support will be there when the team hits a rebuilding year or a stroke of on-ice misfortune. The “Baltimore Hockey Classic” is wise move in this direction. Kids attending this game are going to grow up being Caps fans in a way that their older siblings have not.

Just because a city likes hockey, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need a hockey team of their own. I mean this as no disrespect to Nashville, because the same is true of Baltimore. People outside the city don’t see it as a hockey town, and perception eventually becomes reality. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the American southeast to have one or two regional clubs that folks across wide swaths of states could be rabid about, versus trying to force top-flight teams in every major southeastern market?

Baltimore understands the economic value of bringing in the Caps once or twice a year. It’s a win for the city economically, as long as they don’t have to build a new arena. Thankfully for us in Baltimore, the Capitals understand the value of having Charm City on their roster.

 

Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. He also used to go to a lot of Baltimore Bandits games and once skated on the ice with that giant raccoon in the hockey jersey. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com