BlackBerry Blues 

Nashville’s real passion is for A-list status, not hockey

For many Nashvillians, the impending sale of the Predators—viewed in these parts as a hostile takeover, or like the invasion of a Super WalMart without the low prices—seemed to revolve not just around financial or even geographical questions but an existential one.
For many Nashvillians, the impending sale of the Predators—viewed in these parts as a hostile takeover, or like the invasion of a Super WalMart without the low prices—seemed to revolve not just around financial or even geographical questions but an existential one.

After the initial shock and “Aw, ****!s” from locals in the wake of the announcement, it appears that our city is safe for now. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman himself says the Preds aren’t going anywhere (as long as Metro is willing to pay to keep the team obligated to its lease).

But even if the Predators aren’t removed to some B-list North American city like Hamilton or Winnipeg, does the sale signify that Nashville itself has lost its claim to the A-list?

Does it mean that those condescending hockey snobs across the border have been right to claim that an NHL franchise couldn’t thrive among football-loving, NASCAR-crazed, booger-eating bumpkins like us?

How do we feel about ourselves? Not so good.

The Snobs already told us smugly that this would happen. The year before the 2004 lockout, a poll found that NHL general managers regarded Nashville as the franchise least likely to succeed.

Few things are more grating to our Southern self-esteem than to be told-you-so’ed by foreigners. It’s worse, of course, when one of those auslanders is the guy who’s buying your team.

The would-be purchaser, Jim Balsillie, didn’t attend the news conference last week when the sale was announced (not exactly an encouraging sign of interest in Music City). He reportedly told Bettman that he has no plans to relocate the franchise. All we can say with certainty is that Balsillie is responsible for BlackBerry devices and, thereby, for crimes against civilization.

Worst of all is the looming recognition that Nashville has no alibis for the told-you-so’ers. We didn’t want hockey because of our passion for the game. We wanted it as a sign of our arrival as a big-league city.

We said we’d nurture it, the way eager little kids vow to care for downy Easter ducklings that wind up dumped beside a lake or, if they’re lucky, in new homes by summer.

Once the Titans fell into our laps and the Predators were no longer the only game in town, Nashvillians—especially corporate ticket-buyers—followed their real passion. According to Bettman, Nashville is the only NHL city where corporations buy fewer season tickets than individual fans.

If the Preds don’t average at least 14,000 in paid attendance for two consecutive seasons—they recorded 13,815 per game last year—the team can buy out its lease and leave. But Metro can keep the lease in effect (and the team in town) by making up for any shortfall.

Blameless, in my book, is the seller, Craig Leipold. He tried. After the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement took effect, he shelled out heavily for talent, in the apparent hope that a big winner on the ice would put many more butts in the seats.

Had the Preds advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs, of course, the attendance clause in their contract with the city would have been moot. Getting to the second round would have meant additional sellout crowds that would have put per-game average over the threshold.

It’s not Leipold’s fault that it didn’t happen. Nor should anyone reasonably expect him to increase his investment on a team that has lost him, as he claims, $27 million over the past two years, and $70 million over the past decade.

And though the accounting of many big-league franchises is notoriously suspect—some clubs could rake in the ransom of Atahuallpa and still manage to show a loss on paper—there’s no special reason to believe that Leipold is torturing his numbers. Most owners, after all, don’t look to sell a franchise that’s turning a profit. Nor do they become teary-eyed, as Leipold did, in admitting, “I cannot make it work here.”

For all the civic angst of the past week, however, all is not lost. Certainly the franchise isn’t.

Though Balsillie—who also tried to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins—has said he wants to bring a club to Canada, it’s hard to see how he could squeeze this team into his beloved Ontario even if Nashville gives him an out by failing to buy enough tickets. Hamilton, his presumed first choice, is way too close to Toronto and Buffalo. Buying into the NHL ain’t exactly like getting a Subway franchise.

The other Ontario suspects are much smaller than Nashville (and already populated with Maple Leafs fans). Winnipeg has already lost one NHL team.

And even if ticket sales fall below the magic number of 14,000 next year, city officials seem ready to fight in court. From the reading of the contract by Metro’s Legal Department, the Preds couldn’t terminate their lease until 2009.

There is, of course, another possibility. If ticket sales push the attendance average above 14,000, the lease is unbreakable. And that means that, in effect, the real owners of the Predators are the residents and corporate leaders of the Nashville area. The next move literally is up to us.

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