The Nashville Predators have become one of the early season success stories in the NHL as they have started with a 5-0-3 record and remain the only team in the league that has yet to lose a regulation contest. Their 13 points in eight games leads all 30 teams.
While not getting the same attention as the success on the ice, an even larger turnaround has occurred in the stands at the Bridgestone Arena.
Just twelve months ago, the Predators' opening night crowd of 14,797 drew criticism from pundits from around the league that the team was unable to sell out their home opener.
Historically, the team has struggled at the box office in the early months of the season when the locals have been more focused on college and professional football, so starting slowly out of the gate was no surprise.
During the past offseason, the Predators ownership group made a major investment in top front office talent, hiring Jeff Cogen as the new CEO, and Sean Henry as President and Chief Operating Officer. Both have extensive experience and may prove to be the two best free agents that the team has ever signed.
Benefits of the new blood in the front office have already been seen. Through five home games, the Preds have played to 94.8% capacity with two sellouts and only 4408 tickets unsold. In comparison, in recent years since the lockout, early crowds averaged in the 13,000 range and the team played to less than 80% capacity.
The increase in attendance has been the result of hard work in the front office.
Jeff Cogen gives some factors driving the improvement this year. "The sales group has had success in renewing last year's season ticket holders. It starts with that. If you can't keep your customers, it's hard to create new ones."
"We've also put together some innovations and added value relative to attracting new people. Its a data centric initiative that seems to be working," Cogen continued. "We think that if we can get you to a game and know who you are, we can get you back. You are seeing some of that activity taking hold."
Cogen also pointed to a combination of other factors including an increase in group sales, promotions in the marketplace, and a favorable early schedule with teams like Washington and Pittsburgh visiting Music City. Additionally, individual ticket sales are almost double, year over year.
One of the things that has characterized the Nashville market over the years is a large percentage of individual fans buying tickets as opposed to corporate season ticket accounts.
Cogen sees that as a positive, "There are more individual tickets than I'm used to but I don't consider it a problem. I consider it an opportunity because if you have a season ticket, the same person comes over and over again so you are not growing the base."
"For every individual ticket that comes here and we know who they are, we can try to convert them to a season ticket so, the more volume the better."
In Cogen's tenure with the Dallas Stars organization, he faced many of the same obstacles that the Nashville market has seen. He has a two pronged approach to growing the fan base over the longer term.
The A-Game initiative that was announced yesterday is primary. The Predators donated $150,000 to A-Game Sportsplex to grow and develop youth and amateur hockey in the Nashville area that should act as a springboard for developing fans in the midstate area.
"The second initiative is to attract more volume," Cogen explained. "It's one thing to sell more tickets it's another thing to get more people."
"I'd like to build TV ratings and attract more eyeballs to our broadcasts. That's an easy point of entry for somebody to be attracted to our game."
The Predators will be watching those folks who are watching the games at home. "If we can create data capture initiatives on our broadcasts, then we know who's watching and can invite them to a game." Cogen exclaimed, "The first one is on me!"
"Then we have some data and have gotten them to a game so they might convert to a three game plan, then six, then twelve, and possibly even more games."
Around the league, over the years, folks have said that Nashville has some of the best fans in the league, but there just are not enough of them. The Predators are attacking that notion head on and plan on bringing more new and different bodies into the arena on a go forward basis.
Jeff Cogen has worked his plan before and it will work again, "If I had to capture it in one sentence it would be 'data capture, sample, sell.' I need to know who you are, get you to the building, and then from there I think I can grow you into a customer."
After seeing the enthusiasm of the early season crowds and listening to the excitement in Jeff Cogen's voice, there is little doubt that this will be a banner year for the Predator's organization in bringing new fans into the fold.
If the Predators continue their early on ice success, tickets to a game could be a hot commodity and possibly, even hard to come by before the season is over.
As more tickets are sold, money for player salaries will grow and insure contract extensions for Shea Weber and others keeping the core group of Predators together for years to come.
Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass