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VOL. 41 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 07, 2017

Playoff payoff: Deep Predators run would be worth millions

By John Glennon

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In his first year as president of the Nashville Predators, Sean Henry recalls walking into an organizational meeting that included general manager David Poile.

One of the chief topics for discussion late in the 2010-11 season was whether or not the Predators would execute a big trade as the playoffs approached.

“I said to David, ‘If we don’t make this trade, do we make the playoffs?’’’ Henry said. “David looked at me – and it was the best look ever – with sheer disgust. He said, ‘We make the playoffs here.’ I loved it. That’s the mantra and it shows.”

It does indeed.

When the NHL playoffs get underway next week, the Predators will be postseason participants for the 10th time in the past 13 years, an achievement matched by just six other teams in the 30-team league: Anaheim, Detroit, Montreal, the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh and San Jose.

The Predators’ ability to consistently qualify for the playoffs has been a huge economic and mass-appeal boon to a franchise that – despite being in Nashville for nearly two decades – is still a relative youngster in comparison to many more storied teams in the league.

Postseason games for any NHL team mean increased ticket prices, an ability to pad revenue – first-round games here generate an estimated $1.2-1.5 million per home contest – and an opportunity to tap into potential future fans attracted by the buzzword of playoffs.

“I think making the playoffs consistently has been absolutely crucial (for the Predators), especially for a franchise that hasn’t been around as long a time as others,” says Kevin Allen, USA Today’s longtime hockey writer.

“From the economics side of the game, it’s just pretty much understood that the difference between having a good season financially and a great season is your playoff run.

“So, considering they’re now sort of established, they can get into the playoffs pretty regularly, it’s probably had a pretty profound impact in terms of making an impact in the community, in terms of creating excitement about the team and also on the bottom line.”

That said, the Predators can only wonder what an extended playoff run might mean in terms of increased exposure and revenue. In their nine previous trips to the postseason, Nashville has only advanced past the first round three times – and the Preds have never moved beyond the second round.

What benefits might await the franchise should it reach a conference or Stanley Cup final?

“Financially, I think (a long playoff run) would obviously be the biggest bonanza the franchise has ever had,” Allen points out. “The financial reward is really significant, not to mention that everything changes if you win the Cup – particularly for the area. You’re the Stanley Cup champions, and you get a lot of marketing opportunities and so forth out of that.”

Poile’s power

The first of four NHL franchises that began play between 1998 and 2000, Nashville needed six years to make its first trip to the playoffs. That was faster than Atlanta (seven years) and Columbus (eight years), slower than Minnesota (three years).

But the Predators lead their expansion brethren in playoff appearances over the years.

Nashville will be embarking on its 10th postseason run next week, while Minnesota will be making its seventh trip to the playoffs. Columbus is preparing for just its third playoff appearance and Atlanta (now Winnipeg) has qualified just twice for the postseason.

Much of the Predators’ consistency in reaching the playoffs must be credited to Poile, the team’s first and only general manager. He somehow kept the team competitive even during a lengthy ownership transition a decade ago, one that included the possibility of the Predators leaving town.

In addition, Poile made a quality first selection as coach, Barry Trotz, who now ranks sixth on the NHL’s all-time wins list.

“I think it’s important to recognize what David Poile has done because it’s not a team that’s just resting on its laurels,” says Scott Burnside, ESPN hockey writer. “You think about the trades David has pulled off in the calendar year, and there might not be two bigger ones in the league … I don’t think there’s ever been a sense where they’re just sitting there waiting for fans to show up.

“This is a team that continues to move forward.”

Poile in turn credits the local ownership group headed by Chairman Tom Cigarran for stabilizing the franchise and producing economic security.

“We now have the local ownership that has the best interests of Nashville in mind,” Poile adds.

“So, we’ve probably been more consistent in our decisions both business-wise and hockey-wise, and we’re making long-term decisions instead of short-term decisions. Specifically hockey-wise, we’ve been able to keep the players we want.”

‘Payoff of the playoffs’

The Predators have become especially popular over the past couple of seasons, as the team sold out its 49th consecutive home contest last week.

But playoff revenue is a different animal altogether.

Since the postseason is considered to be hockey at a different level than the regular season, teams raise ticket prices – not only for the first round, but usually in succession for each of the rounds that follow.

In addition, players only get their salaries during the regular season, so playoff revenue – for the most part – stays with the team.

“It’s absolutely huge to make the playoffs,” Burnside explains. “It’s literally worth millions of dollars. Then if you can win a round, wow, then it can change what you’re able to do in free agency or being able to re-sign your young players and free agents.”

When Henry worked in Tampa Bay, he estimated the Lightning made more money in 13 home playoff games during the team’s Stanley Cup run of 2003-04 than it did in all 41 home games of the regular season.

The postseason financial haul isn’t quite as lucrative now as then, because teams – according to the terms of the NHL’s most recent collective bargaining agreement – do have to contribute 35 percent of home-game playoff revenue to a league-wide player pool.

Still, making well over $1 million in revenue per home playoff game has obvious economic benefits.

In addition, the Predators’ ability to make the playoffs on a regular basis simply stirs excitement – helping the franchise bring back current ticket-holders and sponsors, as well as drawing new ones.

“We’re in the middle of the best renewal year we’ve had in franchise history,” Henry says. “We’ll sell new season tickets in April like we haven’t before, and if you’re fortunate enough to play May hockey, that’s another step. So the real payoff of the playoffs financially is in the legacy and the passion it creates in your fans for the next years – for sponsors and suites and everything.”

Talk of the town

So, just what might a deep playoff run mean to the Predators – both economically and in terms of mass appeal?

The Predators almost found out last season when they reached Game 7 of the second round, their lengthiest postseason journey. But they’ve still never reached the Western Conference final or the Stanley Cup final in nine attempts.

For a franchise that will likely never get local TV contract money along the lines of long-established teams like Montreal and the New York Rangers, the revenue created by a run to the Stanley Cup finals would be a huge asset.

“I just think the marketing opportunities on top of the game revenue are incredible,” Allen says. “If your team goes (to the Cup finals), you’re probably going to have at least 12 home playoff dates.

“So you’re going to guarantee yourself an incredible profit when you make that run, not to mention the increased opportunities for the team moving forward.

“If your season ticket base wasn’t where you wanted it, it will be the next season because there will be an excitement about all that.”

Henry recalls the interest and the enthusiasm the Lightning’s run to the Cup finals generated in 2004, noting that a significant number of Philadelphia Flyers fans in the area chose to “flip” to the home team after the Lightning downed Philadelphia on the way to winning it all.

He’d love to see the same fever-pitch environment take hold in Nashville if the Preds can produce a lengthy postseason stay.

“It becomes the news – everyone is talking about it,” Henry says. “You have banners hanging off buildings. You have jerseys hanging on statues. You have yard signs all over the place. It’s really, really exciting.”

John Glennon can be reached at glennonsports@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.