On a cold, dreary February night that would eventually ice over car windshields, Nashville sports fans had little to do other than retreat to the warmth of their homes and grab the remote control.
This was no typical Tuesday night, though. The viewing options were juicy and compelling.
On Lower Broadway, the Nashville Predators took on the Detroit Red Wings. A few miles away on West End Avenue, Memorial Gym was the site of a Vanderbilt-Kentucky basketball clash.
Long-time Nashvillians struggled to recall a winter night – or any night, for that matter – when two bigger games were played simultaneously in this city.
In the NHL, few teams stir the passions of opposing fans like the Red Wings. In college basketball, Kentucky is viewed by many as the Evil Empire.
The Sommet Center was sold out, and 15,692 fans watched the Preds claim a 4-2 victory. Memorial Gym, packed to the rafters with 14,325 fans, was rocking as the Commodores administered a 93-52 beatdown.
Not surprising that both arenas were sold out. Anything less would have been shocking.
Here’s what is surprising, if not stunning: In Nashville’s 49-county television viewer area, the basketball game drew a 5.5 television rating, while the hockey game came in at 0.1.
Each rating point represents 9,662 homes. Do the math. More than 50,000 homes had the basketball game on, while less than 1,000 tuned in to hockey.
How should these numbers be interpreted? Is Vanderbilt that much more popular in this area than the Predators? Maybe not.
“I think the bases of Preds fans and Vanderbilt fans are pretty comparable,” said Willy Daunic, a co-host on the afternoon sports-talk show on 104.5-FM. “They are both extremely loyal bases.”
Daunic might be one who would know. He played basketball for the Commodores in the early 1990s and now hosts the Predators’ pre-game and post-game shows on his radio station.
The difference, Daunic believes, is the interest in the two sports, not the two teams. That difference is seen in what callers on talk shows wish to discuss.
“We have more discussion on college basketball as a broad topic,” Daunic said. “We don’t have that broad interest in the NHL.”
To me, what it means is the truly passionate Predators fans have tickets and attend the games – and there simply aren’t many more of them left over.
College basketball, however, is different. Our city is jammed with Kentucky fans or those who just enjoy the sport. Even a Tennessee fan, huddled by the fireplace Tuesday, might have been willing to flip on ESPN and watch Vanderbilt and Kentucky square off.
In Nashville, a casual sports fan isn’t likely to watch hockey because it’s a sport that has yet to be ingrained into our cultural fabric. A Flyers-Islanders NHL game Tuesday in Nashville on the Versus network had a zero rating. Literally, nobody was watching.
“The typical Predators fan is someone who moved in from somewhere where they grew up with it,” Daunic said.
Nonetheless, TV ratings can’t be ignored, especially when they are lopsided as they were Tuesday. Local stations use them to help shape, but not dictate, their coverage.
On Tuesday, the sports staff as WTVF-Channel 5 met and determined that its evening broadcast would lead with Vanderbilt coverage first and the Predators second regardless of the outcomes of the two games.
“After being in this business for so many years, I just go on gut feel,” said Hope Hines, WTVF sports director. “You have to make a decision at some point, and apparently the viewership agreed with us.”
Predators fans don’t always take this sitting down. Many call local radio and TV stations to voice their displeasure. At that point, Hines said, reality must be handed out.
“Sometimes you just say, ‘Hey, let me be honest with you. This is why we do what we do,’” Hines said.
I’m of the opinion that entertainment options – TV ratings aside – are healthy for a city. I don’t know anything about hockey [isn’t icing what you put on a cake?], but I believe Nashville is a better city with the Predators here.
Even while I covered the Vanderbilt-Kentucky game on Tuesday, it was refreshing to know another important sporting event was taking place down the street. Variation is good. Otherwise we’d be Tuscaloosa or Gainesville where we all think about and discuss the same topic 24 hours a day.
Throughout any given winter, Vanderbilt basketball consistently draws higher TV ratings than the Predators, but does that really matter? Nashville should be big enough to support both teams. If you think you’re big time, then act big time.
Tuesday, however you cut it, was a big-time night in Nashville.
Brett Hait covers Vanderbilt and the Southeastern Conference for The City Paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.