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Nashville - the NHL's Waterloo?

Posted: May 25, 2007

News arrived last week that owner Craig Leopold is selling the Nashville Predators to Canadian businessman (and Blackberry tycoon) Jim Balsillie.  This development has Nashville hockey fans in a desperate state.  The thought is by many in mid-Tennesee, including Tennessean columnist David Climer, that the Predators will be in Canada as early as the 2008-2009 season.

Balsillie hails from the hockey-mad Canadian province of Ontario.  Waterloo, Ontario has enough surrounding population to support an NHL team.  Hockey is Canada's sport so it won't be hard to see instant and strong local support.

The irony here is that an NHL failure in Nashville could set back the NHL for the next 50 years.  Before expansion and movement fever started in the early 1990's, there was almost no NHL presence in Swampland footprint. 

Looking at the low economic growth patterns in the NHL's existing market (old economy places like Canada and the American Midwest), Gary Bettman, a former NBA executive, took professional hockey into the sun.  Since 1990, nine teams were placed in markets that almost never see snow, let alone frozen ponds where the sport of hockey often begins for young kids.

This recent article in the Tennessean clearly shows that the Predators are all but done in Nashville.  However, it makes us here at Swampland Sports ask whether the Predators ever had a real chance to connect with the Southern sports landscape.

A few issues to consider:

1.  The Predators were placed in a Western Conference division with Detroit, St Louis, Columbus, and Chicago rather than connecting Southern markets like Atlanta, Tampa, and Carolina.  Although the Red Wings are a high interest team, this philosophy of selling your opposition to your fanbase rather than building interest in your home team has been proven to be total folly in the South.  (See the Florida Marlins and Tampa Devil Rays as an example in baseball).

2.  The Predators never had credible local ownership.  In this current era of pro sports, it is almost essential that the fans feel a strong and positive connection to their team's owner.

There are several other issues to address as well.  We will be covering it as Swampland Sports continues to explore the challenges of building pro sports in the Swampland footprint.

The real question is whether this first exit from the South is only the first step in a full on retreat for the NHL back to its homeland.  If that happens, is the NHL forever doomed as a niche sport considering the South's expected growth curve over the next two decades?

(The ultimate irony may be that Balsillie's failure to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins may have set the dominos in motion for the NHL's failure in the South.  Had Basillie bought the Penguins and moved them to Kansas City, the Predators could have ended up with Atlanta, Carolina, Florida, and Tampa assuming a move of the Washington Capitals to replace Pittsburgh.  That non-move never allowed Nashville to become a key component to the NHL's Southern strategy.)

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