The next generation of Nashville Predators fans have become a foundational part of the team’s success in 2010-11 and will exert even more influence in the future. (Photo: John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
Kids these days…
My parents were among the group upon whom, several years ago former NBC News anchorman, Tom Brokaw bestowed the popular (and accurate, in my opinion) sobriquet of, ‘The Greatest Generation.’
In addition to Brokaw’s popularization of the ‘Greatest’ theme, the men and women born in the early-to-early-mid twentieth century, who endured the Great Depression, fought in the first two World Wars, and basically did the dirty work required to make this country great, have been characterized by a number of colorful labels; from The GI Generation, to The Traditionalists, to The Silent Generation.
My own age/peer group, popped out by the bunches in the wake of national optimism following the Allied victory in World War II, were first called the Baby Boomers in 1980 by author Landon Jones in his book, Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. This is also a descriptively accurate moniker, if for no other reason than we Boomers are now the largest generational group in the United States, born during the period of 1946-1964.
However that seems to be about as far as descriptive generational nicknames went for a few years.
The next societal generation of youngsters, born from 1965 through ’81 were famously labeled ‘Generation X,’ followed by the so-called ‘Gen-Y’— my own kids’ generational group – who first appeared in 1982 and continued throughout the decade of the 1990s, and according to some, as far into the new century as 2004.
And while these latter generational groups are hardly kids anymore, it’s often difficult at times for old duffers like me to think of them as actual adults – well, my kids, anyway.
But indeed they are adults; and in terms of the the many hundreds of young twenty-and-thirtysomethings who’ve now begun exerting their influence as a large and vocal portion of the Nashville Predators fan and season ticketholder base, they are indeed worthy of respect and admiration.
They are the foundation for the future of hockey in Nashville.
They are the fans for which hockey isn’t simply an alternative form of entertainment whenever the Titans, Vols, or ‘Dores aren’t playing football.
These aren’t the fickle sports fasionistas who supported the Preds in the team’s initial season or two, then fell away in droves when hockey was no longer the ‘in’ thing to do.
Nope. These are in many cases, the children of early fans and STHs, who’ve gone a step further in the intensity of their fandom than their folks did. Some may have had a bit of a head start on their hockey familiarity, growing up in areas outside of Nashville, in which hockey was more mainstream, then moving into the area when a new job for their parents brought them to Music City. But by and large, in my experience, most of these new fans were like the rest of us, young and old, smitten strictly by the excitement and action experienced in their first time at a Predators hockey game.
These aren’t transplants, rooting for the home team every night except for the nights when their ‘other’ favorite team was visiting the Arena; these are born and bred, Nashville Predators fans. They’re the new breed; a new generation.
I call ‘em, ‘Generation P.’
One of the really good things that happened to Nashville’s economy in the 1990s also played a tremendous role in bringing the NHL to the area as well. The advent of General Motors’ Saturn automobile provided a number of economic benefits for the Greater Nashville area, not the least of which was creating fertile ground for an expansion NHL franchise.
Not only did the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, TN help usher in more than a decade of ‘boomtown’ status for Nashville, making it a regional mecca for auto workers from around the country – and particularly so from the Detroit, Michigan area – it also installed an instant hockey fanbase, locally. Many of those Michigan transplants didn’t need to be sold; they were already enthusiastic fans of the sport, having grown up rooting for the Detroit Red Wings. This group of displaced, hockey-starved consumers was in the right place at the right time. They had the passion – and the disposable income – to make a Nashville NHL expansion a fairly easy sell, despite the fact that many of the true locals mostly just didn’t get it. These so-called ‘Predwings’ became the basis of the team’s initial season ticket holder core, as the expansion Predators became the NHL’s 27th team to begin the 1998-99 NHL season. They would finish that inaugural season near the middle of the pack, attendance wise, 17th out of 27 teams with an average of 16,194 butts-in-seats per game. The following two seasons would see the Preds hold that relative number before abruptly sinking to the bottom in league attendance in 2002-03.
Perhaps it was the novelty of the NHL that was wearing off, maybe it was the fact that the franchise just wasn’t very good, missing the playoffs by an average of 17 points per year over its first five NHL seasons. It certainly didn’t help (and likely wasn’t much of a coincidence) that the promise of the Saturn automobile began to swoon at about the same time that attendance did. Many of those transplanted auto worker/hockey fans who had come into the area under the assumption of perpetual employment were facing layoffs and relocation in the face of the apparently failed Saturn experiment.
Evolution of a Fanbase
Not to say that there aren’t plenty of loud and proud greyhairs amongst the Bridgestone Arena crowd, cheering and wearing their Preds jerseys night-in and night-out, but it doesn’t take a statistical whiz to notice that the relative age of Nashville’s hockey fanbase is growing decidedly younger.
All you have to do is look around.
According to the data graciously gleaned and furnished for this article by the great folks in the Predators Corporate Communications, Ticket Sales, and Business Strategy departments (and with a generous dose of ‘Spreadsheets-for-Dummies’ interpretation, courtesy of my neighborhood’s resident stat-geek, the Forechecker), the Predators fanbase has definitely trended younger in recent years.
Understandably, the age group with the most likelihood for available disposable income, the 35-54 age demographic has always comprised the lion’s share of the Predators fanbase. Currently, as of 2010, they make up its largest constituent group at 42.6% overall.
However it’s interesting to note that those same thirty-to-fiftysomethings, whose numbers have run north of the 50% mark in some years, were involved in the most dramatic age group sea-change in fanbase history, between 2005 and 2006.
At the same time that the 35-54 age group was taking a dramatic dip – going from 47.4% in 2005, down to only 37% in 2006, the 18-24 year-old group more than doubled their numbers, growing from a paltry 9.5% in ’05, to 19.3% the following year. Could the coincidence of the Saturn plant’s demise have been a significant factor? That’s more analysis than I have time or inclination to delve into, but one thing is clear: by the mid-2000s, when the Predators were in the paradoxical position of at once fielding their most talented hockey teams while also teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the fanbase began growing younger.
Although it’s impossible to prove from the available statistics, it is my contention that those 18-24 year-olds in 2006, who were children, aged 6-12 during the Predators expansion season of 1998-99, were a group in large part comprised of former kids who had grown up with the team and were taking the logical next step in the evolution of their nearly lifelong passion for NHL Hockey.
It’s not a slam dunk assumption that all or even many of those young fans had parents who were previous or existing season ticket holders, but it is clear that this was more than a group of casual Preds partisans.
The GenP group continued to expand in the late 2000s, with a notable influx of females comprising the largest gain in their demographic makeup.
The 21-34 age group currently accounts for nearly one third (30.7%) of the entire Predators fanbase, with the main growth in this group coming from female fans. Again, these are folks who were ages 9-22 at the franchise’s beginnings, who developed a genuine, natural attachment and loyalty to see their team through thick and thin.
On a more granular level, the most populous of any four-year age span amongst Predators fans is the 30-34 year-old age demographic. This is significant due to their greater relative income and subsequent likelihood of becoming season ticket holders as opposed to walk-up, single game attendees.
Meet The Peez
While looking at the numbers is nice, I wanted a more detailed sampling of what makes the young fan tick, so I asked a few with whom I’ve become fairly well acquainted in person and via the social media phenomenon, Twitter – which in and of itself has been a boon for the team’s fan expansion and involvement.
In fact, were it not for Twitter, I might never have met a great gal, whom with her husband have sat just a few rows behind me in Section 329 for the past five seasons.
Jen (@Crackerjen on Twitter)
Jennifer B. is a delightful music industry professional who, much like myself, became a STH by going in with a group of former co-workers on a full-season package in the Preds’ inaugural season of 1998-99, while in her late twenties. Jen soon caught fang fever and after leaving the company associated with her shared season tickets, decided to purchase her own full-season package in 2005-06, following the players return to work from lockout of the previous year.
Jen and her husband are excited about the future and proud of the role they’ve helped to play in supporting the Predators’ current success.
J.R. (@jrlind on Twitter)
You know him as the dashing, bow-tied wordsmith for the Nashville Post and Nashville Scene. You may also know him for his legendary man-crush on Preds forward MARCEL GOC. What you may not know is that J.R. Lind’s hockey fandom goes all the way back to a school book fair when he was in just the second grade.
J.R. recalls, “I picked up a paperback copy of The Stars of the NHL. Wayne Gretzky was on the cover, of course. It also included Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey and the guy who would become my first favorite player – Mario Lemieux. At the time (and presumably even still), it was possible to pick up Pittsburgh Penguins games on the radio at night if the air was just right, as their AM radio partner was on a clear-channel. I was also briefly a Washington Capitals fan during the Calle Johannson/Peter Bondra era.
“So when the Preds came to town, I didn’t need any selling. I went to my first game in March of ’99 against the St. Louis Blues up in the nosebleeds and saw my first Preds win a few Fridays later down near the glass in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks (featuring J-P Dumont). The Preds scored five goals and we went and got our free hot-fudge cake after that.”
With his busy lifestyle, the 29 year-old prefers the flexibility of a half-season ticket package, with his seats located in legendary Cellblock 303, while filling in the gaps with single game tickets whenever his schedule allows.
J.R. is actually one of the chief reasons I decided to write this story, as he piqued my interest on the subject a few weeks ago, with a tweet based on a comment I made to a somewhat controversial (and formerly adversarial) Colorado Avalanche media person whom many of us follow on Twitter.
The reporter had expressed surprise over the depth of enthusiasm he witnessed from Preds fans during the Avs recent final visit of the season to Bridgestone Arena. I suggested it was the influence of the ‘new generation’ of Predators fans at work.
At the time Lind merely hinted that my comment “reminded him of something” but never completed the thought. However, he was kind enough to indulge my recent request to expound upon his thoughts for the benefit of this post, framing what I very much consider to be a phenomenon of his very age group. Here’s what he had to say:
“I never really thought about Preds fandom being generational until I attended my first away game this season. One thing I noticed was how many old people there were there. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way towards my more experienced fellow Preds fans, but the fact is, you just don’t see many old folks at Preds games. Or at least, I saw more at [the game in] St. Louis [that I attended]. Then it occurred to me – ‘wait, I’ll be the old person at Predators games ([a friend of mine] has the season ticket next to mine and we already talk about being in our 70s and telling our grandkids about the greatness of Patric Hornqvist).’
“The wife tells me she now sees kids at games she remembers being born (or at least remembers when their moms were pregnant) and I think that generational shift is why the Preds have had increasing attendance success this year. I was 17 when the team got here, I’m now at a point where I have disposable income to pay for season tickets and I was on the older-end of the curve back in the day. Soon, the 10 year olds in 1998 will be entering the work force and they’ll get season tickets too.
“The kids that grew up with the Preds are having kids of their own now. And that’s why the team is really becoming part of the city now.”
Andrea (@andreamazing on Twitter)
Bubbly, early twentysomething, Andrea became a Nashville Predators fan in March of 2007. She told me she’d always been curious about the Preds, but living in Bowling Green, KY, never had an overwhelming excuse to attend a game.
However, one day some people came into the place where she worked selling discounted tickets through the Preds’ ‘Smart Circle’ program. She bought one of the cards and took her best friend and brought their boyfriends along for the ride. Their first game was versus the Dallas Stars and that was all it took.
Andrea fell in love from the moment the puck was dropped. She expressed that she’d never been to a sporting event with the level of crowd energy she experienced at that first Predators game.
This was also the game in which she fell in love with forward Jordin Tootoo. In the heat of action, he one-punched the Stars’ Stephane Robidas, knocking him out cold, and subsequently received a suspension, a penalty she still doesn’t agree with. “I think Tootoo was defending himself,” she insists.
Andrea says that nearly every aspect of her life revolves around hockey season. When she registers for school, she’s sure to avoid taking night classes on Tuesdays or Thursdays. She hangs a Preds schedule in the office at work so that her boss can see it when he’s making out the schedule.
She says that people in her classes in school refer to her as, “that Predators girl.”
Andrea is completing her second season as a full season ticket holder, and has signed up for two more.
“I really can’t think of a better experience for hockey,” she beams. “Because of the Nashville Predators (and Twitter) I have a new and wonderful group of friends.”
Chris (@3DLink on Twitter)
24 year-old Chris Link is an impressive young man I’ve gotten a chance to know better over the past few weeks. He attended the Red Wings game with me a couple Saturdays ago and impressed me both with his maturity as well as his passion for hockey.
A resident of Chattanooga, TN, Chris began making the two-and-a-half hour drive to Nashville for games during the 2006-07 season, but now enjoys a much shorter commute from Murfreesboro, TN, where he’s an MBA candidate at MTSU.
Chris was a quarter-season ticket holder in Section 303 for the past two seasons, but only made it to about twenty games altogether. Living in Chattanooga, attending Preds games was matter of when he could make the drive and what he could afford. He still managed to make it to five or more games during those seasons.
His hockey foundations were laid in the state of Pennsylvania, where he lived until he was ten years old. With his family’s allegiances highly invested in Philadelphia sports teams, Chris grew up watching the Philadelphia Flyers and the ‘Legion of Doom’ line of the mid 1990s.
His live hockey experiences were limited to the American Hockey League, seeing first the Hershey Bears and then later the Philadelphia Phantoms. He admittedly lost track of hockey when his family moved to Chattanooga.
He says he’d seen a few Predators games on TV, but didn’t really start following the team until the post-lockout 2005-06 season. He soon began his I-24 treks to Nashville and his love of hockey was reignited.
Chris reveals that like so many others, his first game was where he got hooked. Ironically, the Preds were playing the Anaheim Ducks and the entire environment reminded him of home, but at the same time felt totally unique.
Chris describes the experience thusly, “Being a Predators fan is being part of a family. You may fight and bicker and disagree about things, but in the end you know that you can always walk into the arena and spend time with 17,000 of your best friends.
“I wouldn’t cast doubt on the passion and loyalties of hockey fans in other markets, but Nashville is a special place for hockey. The players aren’t gods; they are friends and neighbors. In my opinion they’re a part of the community like no other team in the league. That is their impact in this ‘football town.’
“I can’t speak to college football, because frankly I don’t get it, but as I see it, the Titans are in Nashville, but they ‘aren’t’ Nashville. Football culture is football culture wherever you go, but Nashville has actively been engaged in shaping and being shaped by Predators culture.
“I may be off the mark, but I can only attest to what I have seen.”
I think Chris’s vision is just fine, don’t you?
A Huge Next Step for the Next Generation
One of the interesting things I look forward to is seeing over the next ten years or so, just how the Predators’ Generation P will cope with the adversity that at some point will surely come.
It’s clear to me that with the influx of top-grade talent that now exists in the Nashville player pipeline, which will likely assert itself as early as next season with the Preds’ AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, things certainly promise to continue getting better before they head in the other direction.
But what if they don’t?
We’ve seen it before; good team, bad attendance, whether the influences for it where economic, apathetic, or otherwise in origin. As much as we’d hope to assume we’d respond in a positive, experienced way, Nashville has yet to prove they can weather another storm on the scale witnessed five years ago.
Would I EVER wish such a fate to revisit my favorite hockey team? Never. Do cycles of such patterns exist in sports? Unfortunately, yes; yes they do.
However I now return to the absolute chief reason I decided to write this tribute to the vital, young, new generation of Nashville Predators hockey devotees.
A Hockey Town Is Born
A week ago I was on a bus traveling back from St. Louis as part of the Section 303 Roadtrip in which we attending the final game of the regular season between the Preds and the St. Louis Blues. Scottrade Center was packed, as would be expected on Fan Appreciation Night, and seemingly every three minutes the PA announcer was giving away yet another parting gift to the Blues faithful.
I saw some attendance figures on the Jumbotron I couldn’t quite believe, given what I knew of the recent hockey history there in the City of The Arch.
Despite the fact that they have never won a Stanley Cup – and have advanced to the Cup Finals only once in their 43 years of existence – the St. Louis Blues had a staggering 25 year streak of playoff appearances from 1980-2004. During more than half of their 43 years, they’ve been a good team. Not necessarily a championship team, but one that has given their fans hope.
But look what’s happened there recently. Since the lockout, the Blues have fallen from their once perennial position of ‘playoff team,’ and have struggled mightily over the past five years to return to the form that was once automatic both in expectation and execution. That’s a tough place to be if you’re a fan used to seeing your team make the playoffs every season. The team has gone through an ownership change and they’ve have had a few lean years at the box office. However they believe they’ve been making progress.
And, for the most part, the fans have been patient. And why not? The St. Louis fanbase isn’t a bunch of bandwagoners; they’re experienced; they’re generational in depth.
J.R. Lind was quite correct in his observance that there were a lot of ‘old’ Blues fans in St. Louis. Hockey is ingrained there. It’s part of the culture. Some fans may stay away out of frustration if the team isn’t winning, but doesn’t that happen in any sports market? Fans just need to have hope. Apparently the blues fans are full of it.
This season, St. Louis had a better-than decent 23-13-5 record at home, yet finished 10 points out of the running for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. However a second straight and sixth out of the past seven seasons absent from the playoffs didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of their fans.
The Blues sold out the 19,000-plus-seat Scottrade Center for all 41 home games this season. That’s an impressive statement, Preds fans. Will we be so responsive the next time our number is up and hard times fall on Nashville’s hockey team?
Has the front office learned from the shortsightedness of former owner Craig Leipold? Have The Tennessean and other lukewarm local media entities finally figured out what the Canadian National hockey press has breathtakingly pronounced over and over in recent weeks, that Nashville is indeed a HOCKEY TOWN?
Will the next generation of Predators fans continue the trend of passion and loyalty for their team, win, lose, or shootout loss?
Will defeating the Anaheim Ducks and successfully making it to the second round of the playoffs or beyond this season be the tipping point everyone hopes it could be?
Only time will tell what’s next for this next generation of Nashville Predators players, and the fans that continue to grow with them.
My sincerest thanks to Kevin Wilson, Jessica Jones, Jordan Kolosey, and Nat Hardin of the Predators front office, along with Dirk Hoag, Jen B., J.R. Lind, Andrea Richardson, and Chris Link, for their contributions to this story.
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