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

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

17 Comments

  1. Pingback: Could a pro hockey team thrive in Baltimore today? - Baltimore Sun (blog)

  2. dfash

    September 20, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Sorry, but the perception that Nashville isn’t a hockey city is going away. It doesn’t take snow to create a hockey city. It takes a generation of kids growing up with the sport. Your attitude towards Nashville and other warm weather cities is elitist and old.

    Also, criticizing Nashville for being 19th in the league in attendance is ridiculous. If they sold out every game they’d probably still be no higher than 17th simply due to arena capacity. The fact that they sold out almost half their games last year and just had the best opening weekend ticket sales in team history is testimony to the fact that Nashville’s embracing hockey.

    There are high school hockey teams and a state high school championship now. There are too many rec leagues for the amount of ice sheets that exist in the area, so more are being built.

    The only one representing the ‘old way’ is you and how you view what cities should and should not have a team.

  3. Jeff

    September 20, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Saying Nashville represents the “Old way” could not be further from the truth. Another writer with zero real knowledge of the Preds franchise.

  4. Jay

    September 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    I have to agree with dfash – the Nashville bashing is a little misguided.

    But what I think will be interesting is if Baltimore makes a push to hold the Winter Classic in 2013 or 2014…whichever is awarded to the Capitals.

    The inner harbor area presents a much better infrastructure than Fed Ex Field or Nationals Park at this point. The National Mall aint happening. First, the NHL ins’t going to put on the game for free. Second, the logistic challenge of seating, concessions, restrooms, etc. make it a near impossibility. So that leaves Fed Ex Field and Nat’s Park.

    The NHL likes this to be an even that covers more than just a game. Fed Ex is in the suburbs in a giant parking lot. Not the best environment for a string of activities outside of the game itself. Nat’s park would be an option, but the surrounding neighborhood is underdeveloped at this point. If you want bars and restaruarnts, you’re taking a hike or hopping back on the metro. Parking is also next to non-existent.

    The inner harbor has a lot of advantages over DC at this point with a multitude of bars, restaurants, parking, etc. all within walking distance of the stadiums. Logistically, it’s a better site and it’ll be interesting to see how hard B’more pushes…or if it’s even an option for the Capitals.

  5. amy anderson

    September 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Mr. Gilmore: It would behoove you to do a bit more research on Nashville before making blank statements about the city and its hockey programs. I was going to try to enlighten you but dfash did it better than I could. GO PREDS!!!

  6. Dave Gilmore

    September 20, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Folks, I appreciate the reading and the comments. You are assuming that I didn’t “do my research” because of some emotional element and attachment you have to your team. Of course you feel strongly about it! Please point to one FACT in my piece that is incorrect, and I will happy correct and retract it.

    Nobody argues that you don’t love hockey. Plenty of people in Baltimore love hockey. It doesn’t make Baltimore an economically viable place to have an NHL franchise.

    Relax, I’m not lobbying for them to take away your franchise. The Preds are a fun team to watch on the ice and from the two games I’ve been to seem to have great fans.

    Let me ask you this: Do financially healthy franchises default on loans? Are healthy franchises discussed when Hamilton, Ontario or KC wants a team?

    Believe me, I’d hate to see any NHL fan lose its home team. I don’t think the near future holds the Predators leaving Nashville, and I certainly don’t want it to happen, but there are realities that the NHL might be too big for its britches and when you start to look around, you’re not pulling franchises out of Montreal or Chicago.

    • Neil

      September 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      You want fact?

      How about the fact that Nashville hasn’t defaulted on loans since its previous, not current, ownership? How about the fact that the potential Hamilton ownership was caught interfering in the arena lease negotiations in Nashville while they were selling Hamilton Predators tickets in 2007? How about the fact the former Predators owner sold the team for a profit before buying the Minnesota Wild? How about the fact that the team is now locally owned by a group of businessmen who are determined to stay in Tennessee? How about the fact the team is in the black two years in a row?

      Don’t even get me started on the embezzlement in Phoenix.

      • Dave Gilmore

        September 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm

        Neil,
        As I said, if there is something factually incorrect in the 4 grafs I write about Nashville, please let me know and I’ll make a correction.

  7. Mikey

    September 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    “Please point to one FACT in my piece that is incorrect, and I will happy correct and retract it.”

    Thank you for the offer and your piece on the Caps as well as the Preds.

    Alleged factual Statement: The team has been rumored for sale and/or move to Canada numerous times, and without Phoenix being in the league, it would CERTAINLY (emphasis added) be at the forefront of these discussions currently.

    Fact: Nashville has had entirely local ownership since 2007. The ownership group has repeatedly and publicly stated that it has no intention of moving the team. The ownership has deep pockets and has stated its intent to further add wealthy individuals to the group. Payroll has nearly doubled since pre-lock out days, attendance has soared and a solid arena deal is in place. Veteran leadership has been added from Tampa and Dallas to bolster the management of the team and its arena. There is not a shred of evidence that the team would CERTAINLY (or even possibly or remotely likely) be “at the forefront of these discussions currently” if not for Phoenix. Atlanta held that distinction and moved. There is no indication whatsoever that there has been a risk of moving in the last 4 years.

    Please retract your statement that the team “would CERTAINLY (emphasis added) be at the forefront”.

  8. Jeff

    September 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    While marketing moves by the Caps are respectable, my main issue with the article is that it implies the Preds haven’t done anything to grow their base.

    Did you know this franchise was the first to reach out to Thrasher fans offering weekend ticket/hotel packages in the Music City? (“Thrash to Smash” I believe)
    Did you know the Preds are now on tap to have about half of this season’s games televised in that ginormous Atlanta market?

    I just don’t see “old way”.

  9. Dave Gilmore

    September 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Mikey et al, Please see updated article with correction.

    Jeff, perhaps I should’ve elaborated more about The Old Way. That is from the perspective of the NHL as a whole, more so than the franchise itself. It’s more the fact that the Nashville Predators exist in the first place versus the “Baltimore CrabClaws” existing instead of us just being happy as a Capitals’ secondary market(I assume they would call us something dumb like CrabClaws or BayHawks). I’m sure Nashville is doing all it can to bolster its fanbase and reach out to the now-vacant Atlanta market.

  10. L Mao

    September 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Bwwwwaaahhhaaahahhahahaaaaahaahahahaah. Too funny! An online rag for “Baltimore” sports that lists a Washington hockey team… complaining about a successful NHL city.

    Baltimore lost its MINOR league team and is forced to ride the coat tails of its “sister” city– why not root for the Skins and Sens and give up the pretense of still being a major city?

    Teams are being located in places that are GROWING– Dallas, San Jose, Nashville, Tampa, Columbus, Raleigh– because the sport doesn’t need to be tied to a bunch of dying has-been metropolitan areas. Luckily, it didn’t have to extricate itself from Baltimore.

    The game tonight? Meaningless pre-season game to be played before 3,500 in a shrinking city in a 1962-built arena that Preds coach Barry Trotz said felt old when he coached there…. in the mid 1990′s… to be reported on here tomorrow by a Baltimore Capitals fan who is bitter because he knows the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

    Hardy har har.

  11. Mikey

    September 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you for the correction- carry on! File a detailed report tomorrow on the Preds please– particularly forward Craig Smith and a trio of defensive prospects- Teemu Laakso, Mattais Ekholm and (the 2nd coming of Mike Green) Ryan Ellis.

  12. Pingback: Washington Capitals’ Baltimore Hockey Classic: Fan’s preview - Yahoo! Sports

  13. Viqsi

    September 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    While I applaud your creative new twist on the usual geographic foibles w/r/t folks casually mentioning Columbus in an article about hockey (for some reason half of Canada seems to think we’re in the “Deep South” ;) ), I still feel obliged to point out that we’re closer to the Caps than half the Southeast Division, and are the easternmost team in the Western Conference (beating Detroit by about two miles). We haven’t been “in the middle of the country” since the Louisiana Purchase was made. ;)

    (Then again, if your standards of “middle of the country” include Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis, and Chicago, I suppose I’d have to concede the point on the grounds of either differing cultural perspectives, or taking the NHL’s division names too literally. :) )

    Just a minor nitpick; don’t mind me…

  14. Jose

    September 20, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    Is this a message board or an article? What kind of journalist writes a piece, and then takes to the website to argue his position with readers? Kind of pathetic if you ask me.

    • Dave Gilmore

      September 20, 2011 at 11:09 pm

      Engaging with readers when there’s a legitimate discussion to be had is important in the new era of digital media. This is not print news. I make a rare point to do it at any length(maybe the third or fourth time ever in 10 years), but readers opinions are just as valid and deserve discussion as much as a columnist’s. Usually it’s in an email back to the reader, but when there are many comments of the same sentiments, they deserve to be answered. Thanks for reading Jose.