By ALAN SNEL
Sean Henry hosted a Stanley Cup party at his suburban Tampa house back in 2004 after the Lightning hoisted the hardware thanks to their thrilling seven-game triumph over the Calgary Flames. Henry served as chief operating officer when the Lightning were owned by Bill Davidson (who also celebrated an NBA championship that same year when Davidson’s Pistons also won the Association’s title).
And now this week, Henry, the president of the Nashville Predators, is looking for his second Stanley Cup title as his Preds battle the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Both Tampa and Nashville are southern, warm-weather expansion NHL cities and Henry — the veteran executive known for his animated personality and sense of humor — is in the unique position to offer some expansion life insights and business growth advice for the Vegas Golden Knights and owner Bill Foley.
Henry was in Pittsburgh between Games 1 and 2 when LVSportsBiz caught up the Preds president to discuss the challenges of building NHL fan bases in sunbelt markets.
Henry said he saw similarities between Las Vegas, Nashville and Tampa because all those markets specialize in hosting big events while having tons of local residents with emotional allegiances to other NHL teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings or New York Rangers.
Here’s the Henry 5-step blueprint to cultivating a strong local hockey fan base in an event-driven southern expansion market.
1. Hook the kids early by signing them up for free youth programs where they get free logo gear and even pep rallies at their schools because they will be your future season ticket-holders. “With kids, you’re planting the seeds,” Henry said. Commit players and team leaders to schmooze with older hockey fans at Rotary and local community group events and lunches. “You have to expose hockey to people who have not watched hockey before,” said Henry, who worked for the Lightning from 1999-2010 before serving as Nashville’s president since 2010.
2. Establish team colors that are unique and stay away from emulating the colors and designs of the Original 6 teams. In Nashville, the color that is stressed is gold — which just happens to be in the Vegas’ team name. “We looked at the color spectrum and we wanted a color outside of the reds, blues and blacks of the Original 6 teams. Gold was isolated and nobody’s primary color,” Henry said. “We needed something that was ours. New market teams try to emulate the Original 6 teams. I don’t get it. It’s never uniquely yours . . . When you see gold in Nashville, it’s a Predator fan. Develop your own brand and live it and commit to it.”
3. Build youth rinks in the market and pay for them by partnering with local cities. In Nashville’s case, kids play hockey in programs during the year that are specially tailored to fit into schedule windows that are between other youth sports programs such as football, baseball or volleyball. In one case, the Preds gave free hockey equipment to the first 500 kids who signed up for the youth program, Henry said. After the rinks are built, the team took over facility operations. “You better get real aggressive in building rinks and make then available to everyone.” The key is molding the hockey youth leagues and programs so that they don’t interfere with the kids’ other sports programs. “You need to break down every barrier. And I’m not only talking about the costs (of youths playing hockey) but also time. You can’t have a long (youth) season that conflicts with the kids’ other schedules,” Henry said. “Once that kid plays, you have a fan for life. Neither one of us (in Nashville or Tampa) built the rinks when we first came. Every new team is catching up.”
4. Protect your ticket sales from outside fans because your local fan base doesn’t appreciate tourists and fans from other teams taking over the home arena. The Predators were aggressive in limiting sales of home tickets to scalpers and fans from outside local Nashville zip codes — a strategy that drew a lot of criticism from a vocal minority, Henry said. “I don’t know if you can bank on tourists to sell tickets. You have to build your home base. We needed to develop Lightning fans and Predator fans. And we need our own fans to buy the tickets.” The Preds created a “Grow the Gold” program that focused on allowing the hometown fans to have the best opportunities to buy the best tickets. In past years, there would be games where 8,000 Blackhawks fans would fill seats in Nashville’s arena. Now, Henry said, he said there were only 70-100 Preds tickets on the secondary ticket market for Game 3. “When tickets are in scalpers’ hands, you have no idea who your client base is. It’s not easy and other markets will attack you and some local fans will attack you.”
5. Partner with a big-time local celebrity who has integrity in the local market. In the Preds’ case, it was high-profile figure skater Scott Hamilton, who played an active role in teaching kids to skate. “His attitude was to have kids laughing when kids fall on their asses on the ice,” Henry said.