By Steven Godfrey
After a summer of speculation, the Southeastern Conference officially announced Tuesday that Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena would become the de facto home for its annual men's and women's basketball tournaments over the next 12 years.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive announced that Bridgestone would host the league’s men's basketball tournament nine times from 2015 to 2025, with breaks in 2018 and ‘22, and the women's tournament three times in 2018, ‘22 and ‘26.
Joined by Nashville Sports Council President and CEO Scott Ramsey, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, Nashville Predators and Bridgestone Arena President and COO Sean Henry and Nashville Sports Council Board of Directors Chair Deb McDermott, Slive praised the city of Nashville for its past efforts in hosting the mens’ tournament four times, most recently this year, and labeled the city as “proven host that provides a wonderful experience.”
“The idea of going long-term is something we’d been discussing for a few years. The last three or four months, we’ve felt like we’ve had it done… Their decision was whether or not to move the event around the footprint of the SEC and once they sat down in May, we’d just hosted the event successfully. It was a matter of securing this event long-term, as many times as possible, to create a little equity in the brand,” Ramsey said.
Slive said that the move towards a primary location would create the same annual tradition for the SEC fan base that its football and baseball championships provide in Atlanta and Hoover, Ala., respectively, as well as allow the league to improve the in-game experience. According to Slive, feedback indicated that a traditional basketball-scaled arena was preferable to an indoor stadium sized for football.
“Fans love to travel, but if you know where you’re going to stay and how to get there, you know where you’re going to eat and you like the music there, it certainly takes away some unnecessary anxiety about it,” he said.
In addition to a track record of successfully hosting the mens tournament, Ramsey cited the addition of the Music City Center convention space and more hotels to the downtown Nashville area as key factors in securing the agreement.
According to numbers released by the Nashville Sports Council, the total economic impact of the four previous men's tournaments dating back to 2001 is estimated at $56 million, and $35 million for the previous five women's tournaments.
The event marked a public display of affection between two unlikely sports entities — the Southeastern Conference and the NHL. Slive repeatedly praised the Nashville Predators throughout the press event, and Ramsey said that the length of the agreement couldn’t have been created without involvement from Henry and the Predators.
As the primary tenant of Bridgestone Arena, the Predators receive a financial cut of every event in the building. However, the Predators will now lose a week’s worth of potential home games each March in the heart of the NHL’s postseason push.
“It’s the right thing to do for everyone here today, but it’s also the right thing to do for this hockey team. It’s bad in the sense we’re out of the building for eight days during the playoff push. The more home games you have, the better it is for your team,” Henry said.
“But at the same time, it’s about building your fan base, and doing that by bringing the building and the team together as one. The stronger the building is, the stronger the team is. The more people who see this building in this community as a place to be, it will benefit our hockey team.”
Nashville is also conveniently located in relation to the University of Kentucky, the SEC’s Tiffany basketball program and one of the most popular and successful brands in the sport. Slive downplayed the relative ease with which Kentucky’s enormous fan base could travel to the city.
“Guess what, they only get one vote at the table. They’re just one school of 14,” Slive said with a laugh.
The Nashville Sports Council and the Southeastern Conference promised Monday that a ‘historic announcement’ would come Tuesday morning.
Given recent business decisions by those who run Bridgestone Arena, the approval by SEC athletic directors in May to seek a ‘primary site’ for the men’s basketball tournament and the Sports Council’s unapologetic desire to be that site, it was not difficult to anticipate the news.
The Tennessean, citing a single source, couldn’t wait. The newspaper reported early Monday afternoon that the announcement would be a run of 12 consecutive years, beginning in 2015, with an SEC tournament (nine men’s and three women’s) at Bridgestone Arena.
The press conference is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday and scheduled to attend are SEC commissioner Mike Slive, Mayor Karl Dean, Nashville Sports Council President and CEO Scott Ramsey and Bridgestone Arena COO Sean Henry.
Nearly three years ago, Predators President Sean Henry said the organization was giving strong consideration to bidding for the Frozen Four, the semifinals and finals of the NCAA's Division I Men's Ice Hockey tournament.
Bids for a handful of future Frozen Fours between 2015 and 2019 — and a handful of other collegiate championship events — were due with the NCAA Monday. Henry said the Bridgestone Arena team ultimately decided against a try for college hockey's biggest event.
Henry said the arena's busy calendar of future planned events would have made hosting the hockey event difficult if not impossible.
The arena is already on the books to host the SEC men's basketball tournament in 2015, 2016 and 2019. Putting on an SEC tournament in early March and then having to host a Frozen Four less than a month later would put serious strain on the building's availability for its prime-tenant Predators.
At last week's Skate of the Union, Henry told fans to expect "a pretty big announcement with the SEC" in the coming weeks.
The conference has yet to announce its sites for 2017 and 2018 — though a lot of speculation has surrounded St. Louis and Tampa for those years. However, the conference's athletic directors also voted at their May meeting to seek a "primary site" for the event. At that meeting, Nashville Sports Council chief Scott Ramsey indicated Nashville's desire to be that site.
Could taking a pass on the Frozen Four be an indication the SEC has settled on Nashville as its "primary" home for basketball?
Same as it ever was, the Predators annual Skate of the Union event Wednesday was virtually indistinguishable from a political rally.
And not an appeal-to-everybody rally, the likes of which you see in the October general election push, but the red-meat-to-the-masses stuff you get in primary season, when the candidates are firing up their base constituency for the long haul of election season.
There's nothing wrong with that, of course — pro sports teams should have high ambitions and pro sports teams should encourage their most passionate fans — the kind of people who'll spare three or four hours on a Wednesday night a month before the season starts to go to an event with little more than two days notice.
Not that the event was without merit. The players and the coaches and the front office guys said interesting things — the possibility of an All-Star Game, a new Thanksgiving tradition, a hint about the SEC tournament — and similarly left interesting things unsaid.
For starters — despite Boclair's exhortation — the team brass did not declare unequivocally that the Preds were going to contend for a Stanley Cup, as they've done in year's past. They echoed their aspirational mission statement (one they've been mocked for):
Bridgestone Arena is the No. 1 sports and entertainment venue in the United States and its centerpiece is the Stanley Cup champion Nashville Predators.
For now, Bridgestone Arena is a top-ten venue in terms of events and attendance and in respect from its peers. And the Predators aren't Stanley Cup champions, but these days, Barry Trotz and David Poile seem happy to return to relevance after finishing near the bottom of the NHL in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, a season which prompted Poile to say he and Trotz were "not happy with where our team was going."
Trotz said the team as newly constructed will have "personality" and that he himself might say things we haven't heard him say before. He pointed to the acquisition of speedy Viktor Stalberg and veteran Matt Cullen to add some scoring pop, with that "personality" coming from pugilist-slash-shootout wiz Matt Hendricks and pesty Eric Nystrom.
During the player question portion, Nystrom showed off some of that personality. Coming over from Dallas — with whom Nashville has developed a bit of a rivalry ahead of the Stars moving into the Preds division in re-alignment — the forward was asked how he'd feel about playing his old team.
"I'm gonna try to kill 'em, honestly," he said to the predictable cheers.
Besides updates on the team's lease — which was signed last summer ahead of the lockout, so the team didn't get to brag on it much, the new ice facility in Hickory Hollow and a bring-you-up-to-speed rundown of the arena improvements, there were, actually, other pieces of actual news:
** CEO Jeff Cogen said the team is looking to "diversify our product" with different sorts of ticket packages — some with fewer games, some with more, all up and down the price-point ladder. The team has hired more sales staff and will be pushing more promotional nights. The team — in part because they weren't very good and in part because the lockout stifled momentum — filled the building a lot last season, but used beaucoups free tickets to do so. Cogen quipped that when the Philadelphia Flyers come here, their allotment of tickets set aside for their players will be $14 million each.
** Cogen's running buddy, COO and president Sean Henry said people may see the organization try a lot of new and different things to create a unique atmosphere in Nashville — "We'll try some things that are just plain stupid," he said. Cogen said one of those new traditions that could start this year is a Thanksgiving night game. The Preds play Edmonton on Turkey Day this year. Cogen indicated the team would like to make Thanksgiving hockey a Nashville tradition.
** Team chairman Tom Cigarran said he's been "led to believe" Bridgestone Arena will host an NHL All-Star Game within three years. That's no real surprise. Pre-lockout, when Bridgestone extended its naming-rights deal, the tire company's CEO said he'd made his desire to have the game in Music City — and in the building with his company's name — known to the league. The 2013 All-Star game was set for Columbus (and cancelled due to the lockout). Because of the Olympics, there will be no All-Star Game this season.
** And in a bit of non-hockey news, Henry said "We're going to make a pretty big announcement with the SEC in next few weeks." The SEC has expressed a desire to give its men's basketball tournament a sort-of permanent home. Bridgestone Arena is already scheduled to host the event in 2015, 2016 and 2019.
The Nashville Predators’ annual Skate of the Union is an event for true believers.
No room for pessimism here. Only those willing to think the very best of an organization that has won just two playoff series in its history need show up at Bridgestone Arena for the latest go-round at this love-fest on ice.
The event runs from 5-8 p.m. with player autographs (5-6 p.m.) and a question-and-answer session with players (6-6:45 p.m.). A town hall portion concludes the event and features lead owner Tom Cigarran, CEO Jeff Cogen, COO Sean Henry, Executive Vice President David Poile and coach Barry Trotz.
It is during this final phase that the sunshine and roses parade typically takes place. These men talk as if their team is the Sistine Chapel of professional sports, a marvel of classic architecture to be admired the world over. Their predictions for what’s to come are relentlessly optimistic to the point that they sound foolish.
Or do they?
For example, two years ago Trotz declared at this event: “One of these days it’s going to explode and be really good for us.”
At the time it sounded utterly ludicrous. The Predators’ power play ranked 23rd or worse in each of the previous four seasons and nine times out of its first 12 seasons in the league.
Then a curious thing happened. In the months that followed Trotz’s claim, Nashville’s power play sort of did explode. It finished the season first in the NHL with a 21.6 percent success rate and was nearly as proficient on the road (20.2 percent) as it was at home (22.9 percent).
Last season, the Predators did not have the event because of the lockout, which delayed the start of the season until January. Then they had one of their worst seasons on recent memory.
So maybe there’s something to this Skate of the Union thing after all. Perhaps there is a self-fulfilling prophecy element to what goes on when franchise executives address the adoring crowd in this manner.
If, indeed, that is the case, here are five suggestions for things folks might want to say during this year’s event.
• “Centers only get better with age.”
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the four opening day starters at that spot will be Mike Fisher (33 years old), Matt Cullen (36), David Legwand (33) and Paul Gaustad (31). None ever has been a prolific scorer and no center has been Nashville’s leading scorer outright since Legwand more than a decade ago (2002-03). What a difference it might make for a traditionally offensively challenged franchise to get some serious production from the middle.
• “Prior to the opener, the NHL will take a cue from the NBA and adopt a 3-point shot.”
This quickly will become known as the ‘Weber Rule’ because no player has more long-range scoring ability than the Nashville defenseman and no team relies on its defensemen more for offense. Weber has averaged 17.5 goals in the last four full seasons. Now his big blasts will be worth even more.
• “The franchise not only will be profitable, its revenue will exceed its expenses to a greater degree than even teams such as Detroit, Toronto and the New York Rangers.”
Nashville can sell all the tickets it wants (and chances are it will sell plenty), but unless a rainbow touches down in the Zamboni tunnel and leaves its pot of gold, this one seems like the most far-fetched of all.
• “Pekka Rinne literally will stand on his head for 70 games or so this season.”
By inverting his normal stance the veteran goalkeeper will reduce the stress on his surgically repaired hip and will be available for the workload coaches want. Assuming the literal manifestation includes the figurative performance level, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner will be the odds-on favorite to win it this time.
• “The Predators will win the Stanley Cup this season.”
Actually, there’s a pretty good chance someone actually says this. What the heck? If only one of these things actually happens … .
The Nashville Predators have decided to get particular about who attends their games during the 2013-14 season. Their games against the Chicago Blackhawks, that is.
Chief Operating Officer Sean Henry revealed during a Saturday event that single-game tickets to one of the three contests against the Blackhawks (Nov. 16, Dec. 17 and April 12) would not be available. In those cases, seats only can be had if someone purchases tickets to a second game (not against Chicago) as well.
According to Section303.com, Henry offered the following explanation:
“The best way to buy a Blackhawk ticket is to have a season ticket, a half season ticket or a 15-game plan. But we also realize that we’re still going to have to sell 3,000-4,000 single tickets for that game. What it’s going to do by forcing another game is we’ll almost direct it toward people that live in the general area, for the most part.”
Four of the 40 sellouts (10 percent) in the last two seasons, have been with Chicago in the building, and Nashville has sold out eight of its last nine games against the Blackhakws, dating back to Dec. 26, 2009. Six of those eight in that stretch have been on a Saturday.
Of course, Henry neglected to mention that a successful sponsorship agreement with Southwest Airlines, which included weekend travel packages from Chicago, has been a major factor in the number of Chicago supporters who have attended those games.
Apparently, the Predators, who have lost five of their last nine home games against Chicago, now consider that deal too good for their own good.