Smashville: How the Nashville Predators Created the NHL’s Best Brand

The Nashville Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Final.

It’s an incredible achievement in a nearly 20 year long journey for the franchise who wasn’t supposed to succeed. A franchise who would surely relocate after inevitably losing millions of dollars. A franchise who had no business digging their roots into a small, non-traditional hockey market. A franchise who couldn’t possible co-exist with Music City.

But here they are. Only 4 wins away from capturing Lord Stanley’s Cup. And they’re doing it with a city full of passionate, die-hard Predators fans behind them – not a passive group of bandwagon jumpers along for the ride.

So how did they get here? How did the Nashville Predators turn a sure-fire failed attempt at introducing hockey into Tennessee, the furthest thing from a hockey-crazed state, into Smashville, the mega-brand that has die-hard fans and high powered celebrities alike at their grips?

It wasn’t easy. And it took a long time.

Expansion Days

When the NHL continued their southern expansion in the late 1990’s to Nashville and Atlanta, few people thought either city would work. On one hand, the NHL had already failed in the Atlanta market years earlier. On the other, Nashville? Why Nashville? As a young, hockey enthused-kid at the time, I had never even heard of Nashville. In my defence, my knowledge of North American geography consisted of the cities that were home to major sports franchises, Nashville not yet being one of them.

So I logged onto my dial-up internet and did some research. A quick Alta Vista search revealed to me that Nashville was known as Music City. As in “country music”. As a kid who was equally obsessed with music as he was hockey, this deeply confused me. “People actually like country music?” I remember pondering. At that age, I was deeply influenced by the 90’s grunge and alternative scene, including the likes of Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, so the concept of country music was totally lost on me.

A Non-Hockey Market

“Expanding the game” has been a tenet of Gary Bettman’s tenure as NHL Commissioner since he took over the role in 1993. This expansion has consisted of a slew of expansion franchises, including the introduction of the Florida Panthers, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Atlanta Thrashers, and the aforementioned Nashville Predators, as well as relocation of existing franchises to new markets, such as the Carolina Hurricanes, Phoenix Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars. The success of this “southern expansion” has been highly debated, mostly in Arizona with the never-ending saga of the Coyotes. But one thing is for sure. Hockey hasn’t just survived in Nashville, it has thrived.

As a hockey fan, I’m stunned. As a marketer, I’m flat out impressed. We can learn so much from what the Nashville Predators have achieved, against all odds.

Here’s how the Nashville Predators took an idea destined to fail and built it into Smashville, one of the boldest, most iconic brands in the game today, and perhaps the biggest underdog success story in professional sports.

So, my fellow marketers, take note. Here are the 4 key things that every marketer can learn from the Nashville Predators’ success.

1. Educate your audience

One of the biggest challenges facing the Nashville Predators franchise when they entered the league was that they were coming into a market that knew nothing about hockey. How do you sell something to an audience if they know nothing about you or your industry. Why should they care? Why should they spend their hard earned money on your product?

There’s an old saying in the sports world that says “you can sell fans one of two things; winning or hope“. If your team is winning, the product ultimately sells itself. But if you’re not winning, you need to sell the concept of hope. You need to show your fans that you are building towards something special (exactly what the Toronto Maple Leafs have been selling the last few years).

But when it comes to a small, non-traditional hockey market like Nashville, you need to start by selling the product itself: hockey. Most Tennesseans didn’t know the first thing about hockey. In fact, in the late 1990’s, there were only 600 people who were playing hockey in the city of Nashville. Rather than seeing this as a risk, original owner Craig Leipold saw this as an opportunity. A clean slate. So rather than trying to sell winning or hope, they sold hockey – the right way.

One of the first things the team did was creating Predators University, a program that offered a variety of free Hockey 101 clinics in local schools as well as at the arena before games to educate the locals on the ins and outs of this new sport. Even once the puck dropped at game time, the learning continued for those inside the building as well as those watching from home. Through broadcast television and in-game headsets with messages on the JumboTron, the Predators organization would explain each rule, whistle, and strategy of the game. They explained everything, from what constitutes a hooking call, to what “icing” was, and even as far as why the coach would pull the goalie in the last few finals of a game. Education lead to understanding, and understanding lead to love. Today, they have one of the most knowledgable and passionate fan-bases in the league.

The team has also helped build several hockey rinks across the state of Tennessee and has recently opened the states’ first outdoor rink, right outside of Bridgestone Arena. It’s no surprise that amateur hockey enrolment is at an all-time high. It’s safe to say that the Predators have done an incredible job in grooming the next generation of hockey fans and players alike in Nashville.

2. Know your customers and create an experience

Understanding what makes your customers tick is essential in any business. They true key to success is figuring out that perfect overlap of your product’s benefits with your customers’ wants and needs. This sounds basic, but so many brands fail to achieve this. They get stuck on what they want to communicate to their audience and what they think their audience wants to hear. Rather than forcing the traditional hockey message onto the city of Nashville, the Predators weaved the hockey experience directly into the Nashville culture.

“When I first came to Nashville, my most important objective was to make this Nashville’s team in every way.”
– Craig Leipold

They positioned hockey a physical and fast, drawing parallels to NASCAR. From the get-go, they leveraged the roots of Music City’s country music scene, bringing the fun-loving, upbeat entertainment element to the game. The team often offers concerts pre and post game, as well as between periods and during stoppages in play as fans can enjoy performances from some of country music’s biggest stars from a bandstand right inside the stadium. If hockey isn’t being played, you better bet live music is.

With the potential for few wins in those early years, the Predators understood that they had to provide their fans with some entertainment value while they team eventually improved and their fans ramped up on their hockey IQ.

But the fun isn’t confined within the four walls of the arena. With the Bridgestone Arena located at the intersection of 5th and Broadway, Nashville’s infamous honky tonk tourist district, you’re immersed in Nashville culture and excitement before and after the game.

Justin Bradford, host and lead writer at Penalty Box Radio, explains the Nashville Predators experience.

“The atmosphere and experience of a Nashville Predators game doesn’t begin when you enter the arena. It begins when you’re walking downtown—hearing the music from the honky tonks, seeing the neon lights, smelling food from the restaurants you pass and feeling the excitement as you approach the building. You just don’t get that same feeling when you approach a building that’s in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a parking lot on all sides.”

Sound familiar, Ottawa fans?

3. Leverage your influencers

Oh boy, do they have a lot of them. From the aforementioned country music stars who play before, during and after the game (including national anthem appearance from the likes of Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Kelly Clarkson) to fellow Nashville-based rockers Kings of Leon to the beloved Tennessee Titans football team, the Predators have hands down the most influential celebrity posse of any team in the NHL. It’s not even close.

Carrie Underwood sings National Anthem

Tennessee Titans support the Predators

Kings of Leon pump up crowd before game 4

Not only are these influencers fans of the team, but they show up at games and talk about them constantly on social media. The Predators acquiring now captain Mike Fisher from the Ottawa Senators was maybe one of the best things they ever did, not only from a hockey perspective, but from a PR perspective. Fisher, married to country superstar Carrie Underwood, gave fans an immediate link from the stage to the ice. It gave them a sweetheart couple to follow. It is truly the perfect intersection of pop culture and sports.

4. Continuously build a stronger product

When we talk about the Smashville brand, we often think about everything we mentioned above. The country music stars, the live music, the food, the entertainment. All of the things that surround the product itself. But I’d be remiss to not mention the on-ice product that long-time General Manager David Poile has created. After all, that is the product that everyone is there to see.

It hasn’t always been easy for Poile and the Preds. While most expansion franchises are blessed with highly talented, flashy and marketable #1 overall picks like Ilya Kovalchuk, Rick Nash or Vincent Lecavalier to wow their fans, the Predators weren’t so lucky. In the franchise’s history, they’ve never picked 1st overall. The highest they ever picked was 2nd overall in 1998, when they drafted forward David Legwand after Lecavalier went 1st. While Legwand had a formidable career, he was by no means a superstar. He’s not the type of player that will bring you out of your seat. He doesn’t have the personality of an Ovechkin that you can build a brand around.

Focused on his product plan

Despite this, Poile remained patient and dedicated to his plan throughout the years. His goal was to build a team focused on defence first – a risky move for a new hockey market that would likely not appreciate this aspect of the game. But Poile didn’t care about building an entertaining team, he cared about building a strong, hard to play against team. Over the years, Nashville has always had strong, reliable goaltending, with the likes of Mike Dunham, Tomas Vokoun, and now, Pekka Rinne manning the crease. But it was his strength and depth on defence that truly set his teams apart from the rest in the league.

Knowing that Nashville wouldn’t be an overly appealing destination for free agency, Poile focused on building his team through the draft. By the mid 2000’s, the Predators owned arguable the best top defensive pairing in the league, with the punishing combination of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, who were not only brutal to play against, but were also offensive threats in their own right.

After losing Suter to free agency in 2012, when he signed a massive 13-year, $98 million contract with the Minnesota Wild, something that the budget conscious Predators could never compete with, Poile remained unfazed, and laser focused on his plan. He continued to stockpile elite level defensive talent, and by 2013 he had an embarrassment of riches on the back-end, with the likes of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Matthias Ekholm and Seth Jones to backup his stud superstar Shea Weber on the back end.

The pivot in 2013

In my business, we often talk about pivoting. We know what our strengths are, but we also understand that we need to be flexible, and having the ability to pivot, while keeping momentum, is crucial. That’s exactly what Poile did in 2013, as he entered the next phase of his plan to build the best on-ice product possible. With strength in the net and a surplus of talent on defence, Poile knew that he still lacked the offensive firepower he needed to compete in the high powered Western Conference of the NHL. And with luring free agents to Nashville a near impossibility, Poile, a traditionally cautious general manager, turned to the trade market. He had assets that other teams needed, and what he would do over the next 4 years would be masterful.

April 2013 – Poile traded arguably one of the best offensive players at the time, Martin Erat, to the Washington Capitals, for the then relatively unknown prospect, Filip Forsberg. As we all know now, Forsberg has emerged into one of the most dynamic and dominant forwards in the game.

May 2014 – In an effort to shift more towards an offensive style of play, Poile replaced long time head coach Barry Trotz with Peter Laviolette, who not only has Stanley Cup pedigree, but also is known for his aggressive offensive approach to the game.

June 2014 – Poile then acquired 40 goal scorer and power forward James Neal from Pittsburgh for Patrick Hornqvist, who has also flourished since joining the Penguins

January 2016 – In his most surprising trade to date, Poile finally parted ways with one of his most promising defensive assets, trading the 4th overall pick from the 2013 draft, Seth Jones, to the Columbus Blue Jackets in order to acquire a much needed number 1 centre in Ryan Johansen, who has proved to be invaluable to the team since his arrival.

June 2016 – Less than 6 months after making a splash with the Jones for Johansen trade, Poile shocked the hockey world with one of the biggest, boldest trades of the last decade. He traded away the Predators most popular player, and captain, Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadians for none other than Habs fan-favourite P.K. Subban. The move, while risky, helped the Predators get away from under Weber’s monstrous long term contract. It also allowed them to get younger and more dynamic, as Subban brings both nastiness and flare to the Nashville blue line. Nashville seems like a perfect fit for Subban, who was scapegoated in Montreal. His big personality is welcomed in Nashville and his offensive prowess will surely be used to it’s full capacity under Laviolette.

The lesson here? Have a plan. Stick to it. But be willing to pivot and make changes when opportunities arise. Identify your strengths and your weaknesses, and never stop improving your product.

Nashville Predators: 2017 Stanley Cup Champions?

Those are words that the majority of the hockey world thought they would never hear. But here we are, heading into the Stanley Cup Finals, with the Predators are just 4 wins away from proving everyone wrong. They have a strong on ice product and a passionately dedicated fan-base. But most of all, they’ve created the NHL’s best brand that truly caters to their unique audience. It’s really hard not to cheer for Smashville, and if it weren’t for my hometown team the Ottawa Senators still being in the mix, I’d likely be on the Smashville bandwagon as well.

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2 Comments » for Smashville: How the Nashville Predators Created the NHL’s Best Brand
  1. Jeff W says:

    Niceley done research. Would like to add that when the Preds started there were a lot of us transplants from traditional hockey markets and were very excited. I was a Blues fan until one game in 1998. The auto industry brought in a lot of PredWing fans. They should have kept Detroit and Nashville in the same division as it was turning into a fun rivalry. Nashville is a town of transplants and it isn’t just country music 😉

    Great write up and being from Nashville…am touched by your words!

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Jeff. It’s very interesting to hear about the transplants from St. Louis and Detroit that landed in Nashville. Regarding the country music, I do remember seeing a clip of Alice Cooper playing at a Preds game, which I thought was pretty cool.

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