Friday, August 03, 2007

Stupid Things That Make Me Crazy, Vol. 2, No.1
— Requiem for a Boomtown (2 of 2)

***August 6, 2007 Update***
As so often happens as I write, the story doesn’t usually stop in my mind after it's been posted. This is a prime example. News about the Predators’ fate in Nashville has continued to come out and I have continued to refine my opinion on the subject. I don't talk a lot about sports in my blog, but I think about it all the time. As both a Nashville resident and a seven-year Preds season ticket holder, this is obviously something that I care a great deal about.

So for those of you who share any level of interest in the current and future status of NHL Hockey in Nashville, you may be interested in re-reading this post. It has been heavily augmented since it's original posting last Friday, and this time I think I've said exactly what I wanted to convey when I first started thinking about it early last week.

Makin’ Waves
Ever notice what happens when you throw a rock into the middle of a still pond? The rock causes a considerable disturbance at the point of impact, but eventually, the ripples emanating from that disturbance hit the shore and slowly return from whence they came until the water is soon calm once again. The disturbance is gone; the condition of pond is just as it was before.

Change comes in waves. At first, we feel the impact of change and growth; its disturbance is palpable — frightening, challenging, and exciting. Its waves sweep across us in newness of attitude, unforeseen opportunity, and a focus upon new responsibility.

But how do we react when the waters become calm again? How do we respond when that which was once exciting becomes commonplace? Do we continue to disturb the water or fall back into sameness?

Do we continue to make waves or just lay there and float?

Sameness is like that; falling back on that which is comfortable is a natural reaction. Actively fighting that urge is the mark of progressive thinking, and a progressive city.

Has Nashville truly become a progressive city, or the same ol’ parochial one in disguise? Does it care if it fails, or worse yet, looks like it doesn’t care?

Sometimes I wonder.

In some ways it seems that Nashville’s decades-long push toward becoming a leading city in more than just the eyes of Country Music lovers has merely been a cowardly lark; a brief dip of its big toe in the water, only to recoil upon the realization that the water is cold sometimes, and that you have to dive in and stay there for awhile to get used to it.

Or maybe it’s simply parochial southern stubbornness, proclaiming that, “We don’t need to be anything more than we’ve always been.”

“Everything was better before all these yankees came in and took over our city”

“We never had to pay such high taxes before these damned pro sports teams came to town.”

Whoops! There goes my objectivity. The jig is up. Off comes the mask.

If you thought this piece was something other than a sports rant, well you’d be wrong, but if I’d come right out and started it that way, many of you probably wouldn’t still be reading...(right Aimee?). But hear me out, because hopefully you’ve already realized that this goes well beyond sports.

Upon considering our move here from Southern California, what I hated giving up the most, besides the great weather, were my pro sports teams. I am to this day a fan of all Los Angeles major pro sports teams, just as fervently now as I was while I was growing up. Why? Because when I arrived in Nashville there were no alternatives, that’s why. There was nothing there for me to change allegiances to.

Pro sports? Who needs ‘em?

To me, Nashville has always appeared to be a minor league town with a major league chip on its shoulder; not just in sports, but seemingly, even in the way it compares itself to other cities. It seems to have the opinion that it doesn’t need to follow the path of other city to be what it wants to be; it’s never aspired to be like anyplace else; it wants to stand on its own merits. And indeed, at face value, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is, in fact, a characteristic I can both respect and identify with personally.

However, there comes a time when it’s important to self-realize the distinction between integrity and plain, old-fashioned bullheadedness.

Nobody has ever doubted Nashville as a place of importance in the overall culture — at least musically, as far as I’ve been able to tell. Even while still living in Southern California, particularly after I’d gotten into the music business, I became abundantly aware of a very apparent respect for Music City. But as I mentioned before, it was more about Country than anything else, and unless you were of that particular musical persuasion, there wasn’t a whole lot you figured that Nashville brought to the table.

But as the 80s were winding down, that perception began to change. Nashville started to get the itch. The establishment of two prominent automakers’ investments in the area made it apparent that the opportunity was there. The nation was beginning to see Tennessee in a whole new light, and that light was becoming brighter as the decade of the 1990s approached.

The city elected a mayor, who would, following two terms, successfully move on to become Governor. He was a different kind of man for a different time. He wasn’t, um, “from around these parts.” He saw things a little differently, a little less conservatively, a little more progressively. He was a leader who saw the value in going ‘big time’ even in a relatively small market. He saw the value in pursuing amenities like professional sports teams, which in modern times, like it or not, have become the measuring stick for the perceived success and maturity of major cities in our American culture.

Enter Phil Bredesen.

Major League Dreams
When Bredesen was elected Mayor of Nashville in 1991, the best Nashville had ever done, sports-wise, was to moderately support a few Minor League Baseball and independent Minor League Ice Hockey teams. But while certainly popular, they were never on a par with the true religion of the South, College Football.

The Nashville Sounds, the local AAA Minor League Baseball affiliate for a number of Big-League clubs over the years, had always been the great hope to someday get Nashville over the top as a major league city. The Sounds’ venerable former owner, Larry Scmittou, made numerous attempts over the years to garner local support for the idea of building a new home for his club. The plan was to design a new facility that would be expandable to Major League standards, in hopes of one day, eventually drawing an expansion or relocating an MLB club to Nashville. But while his plea was indeed passionate, Schmittou’s plan always seemed to fall on deaf ears. It required too much taxpayer money, without sufficient local interest to commit to it.

However, when Bredesen came to town, it looked as though he might change all that.

Almost immediately the Sounds’ owner sought and began to receive support from the Mayor for a possible new stadium in a variety of possible locations in and around Nashville.

But plans still never panned out, and eventually, Schmittou sold the team to an investment team from Chicago, who have been following a similar course of action consistently ever since. The intention is no longer to draw a Major League club to Nashville, but rather to create a more modern, fan-friendly home for the still-popular Sounds, a successful ballclub who truly deserve a better place to play.

Herchel Greer Stadium is woefully behind the times for even a Minor League park, showing every bit of its nearly thirty years of age. Though improvement renovations have been made and suggested over the years, by today’s standards, the undersized Midtown ballpark is barely suitable for a high school program.

But while Mayor Phil Bredesen’s early attempts to help the Sounds were (and continue to be even now as Governor) apparently genuine, it was also apparent that there were bigger fish he hoped to land for his city. It was just the beginning of Nashville’s Major League Dreams.

Bredesen would, in the mid 90s, push for the construction of a new downtown sports arena, as part of a broader urban renewal effort focused on the core of downtown Nashville’s ‘Lower-Broad’ district. The ‘if you build it, they will come’ hope was to this time draw an NBA Basketball franchise, which wasn’t all that much of a stretch, given the popularity of basketball on both the local high school and college level — or something even more radical: an NHL Hockey team to hockey-ignorant Tennessee.

Bredesen wasn’t desperate, but he was determined.

But then again, maybe he didn’t know any better. You see, he wasn’t from around here. He was just a yankee from New Jersey. And while that distinction may have carried enough weight for his first Mayoral opponent to successfully use it against him, it didn’t work the second time around. He won handily his second Mayoral attempt in 1991 and began executing his plan to elevate Nashville’s status to that of an elite city.

Bredesen gave Nashville the progressive chops it needed to believe it could play with the big boys, and ‘play’ wasn’t necessarily a passing term in his plans. It didn't matter whether or not Nashville cared about professional sports; he did.

He knew that the rest of the country does too, and that the way a our national culture now judges the viability and success of its cities is by the performance — or lack thereof — of their professional sports teams. Bredesen knew that if Nashville was to be taken seriously as both a city to be respected and embraced by investment from the corporate business interests he sought to attract, it had to awaken from its small-market, small-thinking slumber. If it wanted to be a player among the great cities of the U.S., It had to play with them as well.

He fought for and negotiated to bring both the NFL’s Houston Oilers from their former home in Texas, while simultaneously helping Wisconsin businessman Craig Leipold land an NHL expansion franchise to play in the new Downtown Arena worked so hard to have built.

With new NFL and NHL franchises, Nashville was finally a Major League city. The waves of excitement washed over the populace like a flood, particularly among the more recent residents like myself who had anxiously waited to see that day finally come to pass.

The Nashville Predators began the 1998-99 season in the new Nashville Arena, while the newly-minted Tennessee Titans had to wait until the following fall to open play in their own state-of-the-art Football palace, just a mile away, across the Cumberland River.

The Predators inaugural season in the NHL was exciting and well-supported by the locals, despite the fact that few locals had previously witnessed live NHL Hockey. Preds fans were loud, enthusiastic, and didn’t seem to mind that their new team lost far more than they won in that initial expansion campaign.

Across the river, however, the Titans, a transplanted — yet well-established franchise — was poised for the most special season in their history. As a successful, yet underachieving team for years in Houston, they would peak at the precise time they arrived in Nashville, at the start of the 1999 season.

They rode an AFC Wildcard spot all the way to the Superbowl their first year full-time season in Nashville, and with that performance, all but cemented their standing in the hearts of the community.

At that point, the Titans ruled Music City. The Preds had some catching up — and catching on — to do right out of the gate.

Preds in Peril
Now no one would deny that Football is the true sport of the South. Every man, woman and child grows up watching it, talking about it and playing it in one form or another. It only stands to reason that the community would give the team all the support it deserved.

Ice Hockey in this part of the country is a different story however. Nashville winters are rarely cold enough to freeze a sidewalk for more than a day or two, let alone a pond or lake enough for kids to skate upon.

Hockey wasn’t played or even thought about by the vast majority of the locals who populated this town in the years prior to the decade of the 90s, when Bredesen’s vision for a major-league Nashville were born; that day when the Mayor’s rock hit the proverbial pond, makin’ waves.

It’s really no surprise then that hockey would take longer to catch on in a (quote) non-traditional market such as this one. But be that as it may, the larger problem hasn’t been in attracting the individual fan, but rather, the local business community to participate in the process of supporting Nashville’s otherwise successful NHL team.

Even many who never cared all that much about the sport of NHL Hockey (including yours truly) before the Preds arrived did got hooked on its contagious action, speed and skill. This fact is supported by statistics, not just my opinion. For all the attendance woes the Predators have endured throughout their history, save for that first honeymoon season of 1998, the team boasts the highest percentage of individual (as opposed to corporate-owned) season ticket holders in all of the NHL.

Then again, the problem of low attendance has never been laid at the feet of the individual fan, but rather with the local business community, which in every other major professional sport (not to mention every other NHL team) is the predominant ticket-purchasing patron in the support process.

So obviously, not everyone has appreciated Bredesen’s vision; at least one half of it anyway. After showing up that first year, corporate support quickly faded. Whether it was the fact that the novelty had worn off, or that the young team wasn’t winning enough, many of the local businesses chose to spend their entertainment dollars on sources perhaps a little closer to their traditional comfort level (…um…like Pro Football).

Nevertheless, nearly everyone who sees the Preds play in person is immediately hooked. It’s just getting them in the door that has proven difficult. However, I’m a firm believer that the culture of what we grow up watching and playing is the greatest determining factor in the draw of pro sports.

Football is played and known by everyone here.

On the other hand, participants of hockey on the grassroots level, are often the children of northern transplants — many of who comprise the Predators’ season ticket base.

Nonetheless, it still seems odd, that now, some eight years later, as the Predators have risen to the status of one of the best teams in the NHL, and the Titans have regressed to the middle of the NFL pack (or lower), that the disparity of corporate ticket support remains virtually unchanged.

I find it really puzzling. The team has done very well in the regular season, and has put together a well-run organization whose philosophy of team building is the poster-child of the NHL. They’ve risen to the level of perennial playoff contender each of the last three seasons but have not gotten beyond the first round — and that too has been a major strike against them. While I can appreciate the fact that Nashville wants a winner, isn’t this a little harsh?

The Titans’ success with local fans is understandable however. They came in from another southern city and won immediately. Conversely, the Predators came in with an out-of-town, northern owner and struggled for their first five full years in the league.

But it’s not just the unfortunate balance in the scales of ‘who’s hot/who’s not’ that plagues the Nashville Predators at the moment. There is very real possibility (which has been largely promoted as probability by media pundits around the NHL) that the great Nashville hockey experiment may end in as little as two years — perhaps sooner if things don’t change, pronto.

And it’s more than talk. There are forces afoot that have actively attempted to make it happen, and even more of alleged hockey elite status who would welcome such a change, claiming that Nashville never should have been given a franchise in the first place.

Funny, those people weren’t saying a thing years ago when the Preds were still taking their lumps. Only now that they might prove to be an ‘instant winner’ elsewhere are their anti-Nashville sentiments being hurled with such vigor. And for awhile, they appeared to be winning.

Jumping Ship
In May, it was announced that the Predators were being sold, as owner Craig Leipold finally admitted to giving up hope of making NHL Hockey work here after nine seasons, reporting losses in excess of $70 million. Sad as it is, one could hardly blame him. He has done as much as any professional owner could to support and promote his team in a community that refuses to get it.

The Preds had the 3rd best record this past 2006-07 NHL season, but after investing heavily in expensive free agents to hopefully get the Preds over the top, another early exit firm the playoffs placed a huge damper on the season and essentially sent Leipold over the edge.

There’s Something Rotten in Hamilton
Almost immediately after Leipold announced the sale, reports surfaced that a buyer had been found — and almost as quickly, the realization that something was up, and it wasn’t good.

Speculation soon gave way to clear evidence that Leipold’s would-be suitor, Canadian businessman, Jim Balsillie harbored the sole intention of moving the team to Hamilton, Ontario at the earliest opportunity. Balsillie’s organization brazenly began taking advance cash deposits for ‘Hamilton Predators’ season tickets.

In the wake of the scandal, Leipold — genuinely or otherwise — backed out of the deal with Balsillie and serious support to keep the Preds in Nashville caught fire.

A group of local businessmen awoke from their decade-long slumber to the realize the Predators’ value to the downtown economy, despite their lackluster attendance.

This wake-up-and-smell-the-humiliation moment included the realization that the loss of the Predators perhaps might wield an even greater blow, a black eye suffered by Nashville as a city that wanted to be ‘big-time’ but just couldn’t cut the mustard. It would be a failure we would live to regret, and I couldn’t agree more with their assessment.

The good news is that this group has apparently stepped up to put together a proposal to purchase the Preds from Craig Leipold. The process is still months from completion, but all signs point to it being completed in time for the start of the 2007-2008 NHL campaign in October.

But lest we who believe in Nashville pro hockey rest and assume all is well, a new wrinkle in the proceedings has created a healthy wariness for all involved.

Although the new ownership is a group comprised of local businessmen, they’re not all local. The lone out-of-towner whose donation to the purchase pool actually cemented the Letter of Intent, granting exclusive negotiating rights to purchase the Predators, was made by someone who some suspect might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

At the same time that Balsillie was not-so-covertly attempting to spirit the Predators away to Hamilton, Ontario, yet another significant outlier was making no effort to disguise his intention of purchasing and subsequently moving the team to Kansas City, MO.

Apparently he’s now saying, “If ya can’t buy ‘em, join ‘em.”

William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, has now joined the ranks of this newly-sanctioned ownership group. While the group’s insistence has been that nothing afoul is planned, it’s never been denied that this group refuses to lose the millions that Leipold did. They say they’d be happy to break even, just to keep hockey alive in Nashville, but if the status quo continues, the active option exists that they will sell out, and Del Biaggio will be there, happily waiting to purchase their shares.

Del Biaggio is listed as a minority owner, so he cannot command such a decision himself, however his presence will cast an ever-present shadow on the franchise so long as attendance sputters.

The Preds are still not out of the woods.

If attendance does not improve to levels at least commensurate with league norms, the new owners will not beat a dead horse; they will allow the team to go to a city in which they’ll be better appreciated. Whether to Kansas City, Las Vegas, Houston, or any number of Canadian cities clamoring to get their hands on an NHL franchise, The Predators are apparently a sought-after prize to all but the city that knows them the best, but apparently appreciates them the least.

Sink or Swim
Whether you grew up watching hockey or not, whether or not you care if they go or stay, losing the Predators would have major ramifications for Nashville.

Although it happened after I myself moved away, I observed the effect that losing two NFL teams had on Los Angeles — the Rams to St. Louis and the Raiders back to Oakland. While everyone assumed that LA would soon find a team to fill the void, there has been no NFL Football in that city since 1995, and there are no signs of that changing anytime soon.

No biggie, right? LA seems to be doing just fine; Nashville could recover as well, you say?

Well with all apologies to the memory of the late U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, I lived in Los Angeles. I worked in Los Angeles. L.A. was a friend of mine.

Nashville, you’re no Los Angeles.

But you could be better If only you’d wake the hell up and pull your head out of your parochial ass.

And this, finally, brings me to the point of this long-winded story.

Over the weeks since the announcement of the Predators sale, the trolls have been working overtime, taking the opportunity afforded them to tell anyone who’ll listen what a mistake it was to bring Nashville into the pro sports business in the first place.

All of the acrimony, hatred, and backbiting of the naysayers who refuse to support even the idea of Hockey in Nashville, now relish the thought of the Preds leaving town.

What’s up with that? What could possibly be the benefit of such thinking?

How can you deny the negative implications of any city losing a pro sports team? I really have to shake my head at such stupidity.

These are the same small-minded types who hate professional sports, yet plaster their cars with University of Tennessee flags and paraphernalia on Gameday as they drive three hours on I-40 to catch a college football game in Knoxville.

They’re the short-sighters who care more about the taxes they paid ten years ago to have the downtown arena built, than the dividends those taxes have paid in subsequent economic stability to a huge part of Nashville’s tourist-trade: the nightlife venues on Lower Broad and surrounding areas.

They blame the primary tenant as if they were the ones who built it, when the complainers themselves voted for that construction long before the Predators were even conceived.

I see these butt-brains spew their venom on message boards and comments sections all over the Internet, lending support to the many trolls outside of Nashville who are absolutely having a field day with our apparent failure as a major sports town. They make their circular arguments, denying the true value of professional sports in Nashville and long for a return to the days to when ‘outsiders’ didn’t run their city.

They make me wanna puke. Those ‘outsiders’ like Phil Bredesen helped transform your uppity little town from a Hee-Haw punch-line into a smart, safe, cosmopolitan city in which families can thrive and people can have full, diverse, and rich lives.

Nashville was only a few corroded guitar strings away from the Rust Belt back in the early-80s. It was the work of big-town thinking that turned all that around. This city didn’t get to where it is today by its leaders sticking their head in the sand. We have to continue moving forward.

So finally, this is my challenge to all you who were in that pool when the rock came splashing down: are you content to just sit still, and wait for the water to become calm again, so that you can go back to doing what you do best: just floating along?

Or will you keep moving, keep splashing, keep fighting for change? It’s sink or swim, Nashville.

What are you gonna do?

blog comments powered by Disqus