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Root for the Nashville Predators and you get the feeling of trashing your archrival's car.
That's no metaphor. Before every home playoff game in Nashville, a local artist named Audie Adams paints a vehicle in the colors and logo of the Preds' opponent, and for a small donation to the club's charitable foundation, fans can step up with a sledgehammer and bash the thing to pieces.
This goofy ritual is a timely reminder that sports at their best let us hate without being hateful. And it's a small but fun example of why the Predators deliver more value to their fans than any other team in North America.
If we were still running ESPN's Ultimate Standings -- which compiled fan surveys and financial analysis to determine which franchises give back the most to fans -- there's no question who would rank No. 1 this year. Nashville made the Stanley Cup finals while charging middle-of-the-pack ticket prices. Beyond that bang for the buck, the Preds deliver eye-popping customer service. In our most recent polls, Nashville topped all NHL clubs in engaging fans through social media, delivering information via mobile devices, making it easy to use the team website and providing avenues for feedback.
Buy a Predators ticket and you'll receive an email telling you about promotions at your game and who's singing at intermissions. Send questions back about parking or food allergies and you'll get a personal reply. "We are in a dialogue with every fan who comes through our gates," says CEO Sean Henry, who has been figuring out how to take care of crowds since he started his career as a busboy at Robert Moses State Park on Long Island, New York.
Nashville was one of the NHL's wobbly forays into the Sun Belt under commissioner Gary Bettman, and a decade ago the franchise was in serious trouble. Bleeding cash, the Predators were so close to moving to Hamilton, Ontario, that season-ticket deposits were being made there. And even after fans rallied to keep the team in Music City, prompting civic leaders and local sponsors to help, it turned out that part-owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio had used fraudulent loans to buy his share of the club. (He wound up bankrupt and spent time in prison.)
Things began to turn around in 2010, when former health care executive Thomas Cigarran took over as chairman. Under Cigarran, Henry and chief revenue officer Chris Junghans, the Predators have balanced the demands of existing fans with the need to keep cultivating new followers in a nontraditional hockey market. This season Nashville says its season-ticket sales are up more than 30 percent, but the team still reserves about 3,000 tickets per game for individual or group sales. Management has also empowered David Poile, the NHL's reigning GM of the year. Before last season, Poile traded Shea Weber for younger, cheaper and just-as-great P.K. Subban. This summer he signed or re-signed Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, Nick Bonino and Austin Watson -- all to contracts of different lengths, layering potential defections the Preds will face in the future.
Add it all up and the Predators, who are growing a new generation of fans two decades after their launch, are a team on the cusp. And they are worthy successors to franchises that have excelled in our rankings, such as the Spurs, Packers and Tampa Bay Lightning. These teams offer two big lessons. First, sports look very different to fans paying for their seats than to most sports writers or team executives. Time and again, fans have told us they care more about players giving their best effort, owners providing friendly arenas and teams showing loyalty (to their rosters as well as their communities) than championships. Fans want commitment, not guarantees.
Further, fan value is franchise value. Big league clubs are protected monopolies with huge media deals, so even the Cleveland Browns are worth nearly $2 billion, according to Forbes. But for a team to maximize its value, it needs connections to local sponsors and community leaders and die-hard followers who won't bail when it falters on the field or court or ice. Which is why investing in fans is a better long-term strategy than screwing them.
Since the 2012-13 lockout, Forbes says the Predators' value has jumped by 62 percent to $270 million. As more fans grow up learning to throw catfish onto the Nashville ice, it's a good bet those numbers have just started to take off.