When Jeff Cogen joined the Nashville Predators as CEO in August, he put himself on a crash course to learn the culture of the organization he suddenly led.
He spent preseason games in the press box, learning key team members, listening for the chants from the infamous Cellblock in Section 303, watching how all the back-of-the-house operations worked.
Cogen saw that the pieces were there; this was an organization, like any, with problems. Off ice: a former owner in jail for fraud. On ice: a failure to get past the first round of the playoffs. But it wasn’t broken.
During those cram sessions, Cogen started to formulate a strategy of gambles and calculated risks, to be sure, but also one that might get the Predators over the hump — on the ice and off it.
The walls of Cogen’s office inside Bridgestone Arena are covered with images and memories that trace his professional career, from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to the Detroit Red Wings to the Dallas Stars to the Texas Rangers to the Florida Panthers. All the items are grouped based on where he was at the time; they’re like layers of silt, telling a story as you dig through them.
Among all these things, the one that catches his attention is a mounted and framed card with the Predators’ logo and the word “together” on it. For all that he has achieved and experienced — much of which serves as the foundation for his current philosophy — nothing speaks more clearly to what he has set out to accomplish with the Predators and the arena.
“You had hockey operations and you had business operations and you had the team and you had the building,” Cogen said, enumerating the “silo-centric” situation he inherited at 501 Broadway. “I wanted to consolidate both operationally and culturally. I culturally wanted to break down silos.”
He spelled it out in an early October memo to every team and building employee, heralding a “population explosion” and the start of “tourist season” at Smashville, of which he dubbed himself mayor. He also made references to the “public works department,” aka building employees, chief architect David Poile (general manager) and Sheriff Barry Trotz (coach).
There was a serious point to the playful memo: Under his direction, no person or group of people would operate independently of one another.
But the move also had immediate consequences. As he consolidated the thinking, he also consolidated what he considered to be redundant resources, which meant eliminating some jobs.
“This isn’t a body count issue,” Cogen said. “I do not believe you save your way to prosperity. I believe you sell your way to prosperity. It’s not about saving paper clips or body count to me.”
Inclusion meant that even the most notable and marketable segment of the organization — the Predators’ players — were not exempt from his desire to cross-pollinate.
Cogen reached out to a group of key players — captain Shea Weber, as well as Steve Sullivan, J.P. Dumont, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne — and spelled out his expectations for them and many of the efforts he planned to undertake on their behalf. Mainly, he intended to humanize them to the public at large, through a combination of their community service efforts, which Cogen already deemed significant, and “helmet off” features that tell their stories beyond their playing careers.
“You know he’s not blowing smoke,” Sullivan said. “We know that the message he’s giving us is right. He’s not throwing any hot air at us, and we appreciate that. If we have ideas, he wants to try them.”
But that relationship still relies on the players being players, and nothing attracts a crowd like a winner. Or is it that nothing contributes to a winning atmosphere like a crowd? Rather than waste time pondering the chicken and the egg, Cogen proposed that the players pursue their end of that conundrum with the same passion he attacked his.
“The thing I remember the most is that he said it’s a cycle,” Sullivan said. “Does winning hockey bring people into the arena, or does bringing people into the arena make winning hockey? He said that we have to find a way to do one to bring the other. He said that was his job to try to bring people into the building to try to get our attendance up to help financially, so he could turn that over to the hockey department, which could turn our club into a winning hockey team.”
Nashville sold out two of its first five home games and was fewer than 1,000 tickets short of another in that span. Last season, the first home sellout occurred the day after Christmas, and there were just three others the rest of the season.
The Predators earned at least one standings point in each of this season’s first five home games, and after the first three weeks they had the best record in the NHL. Their place in the standings slipped somewhat during the first half of this month, when the team played a stretch of six straight road games.
“Especially for us who have been here since before the lockout, usually before football season ends you have a more quiet, not-as-full building,” Sullivan said. “I think they’ve done a great job with the attendance and having people in the stands. We appreciate that, because it’s a lot more fun playing in front of a full crowd than it is an empty building.”
If it’s true that “nothing sells tickets like selling tickets,” as Cogen claims again and again, the quick start may portend a big year for attendance. Through the first five home games, the team averaged 16,011 fans, the best first-five average since 1999, when the team drew 16,304 nightly. It’s also only the fourth time the team has had two sellouts in the first five games. At this pace, the Preds could top an average of 16,000 per game for the first time in more than a decade.
It all fits into to Cogen’s “Big 15” strategy of identifying what will be must-have tickets before the season starts: opening night, Saturday nights, holiday games and top rivalries like the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. Selling out those games plants a seed in the walk-up crowd that their only chance to lock up tickets to the top games is to purchase a package, he said, whether it’s a 10-game, half-season or full-season deal.
It seems almost antithetical. The key isn’t to sell as many tickets as possible to every game. It’s to sell as many tickets as possible to the games that already draw well. It’s all about creating a perception that everybody wants to go to the big games as much as you do — and that you might have to do a little something extra to beat them to the punch.
While Cogen was the big-splash hire of new Preds Chairman Tom Cigarran, his arrival represents the culmination of a strategy begun by David Freeman, Cigarran’s predecessor. Original team owner Craig Leipold saw the arena simply as a carrier vehicle for the team, but the Freeman-led ownership group emphasized the symbiotic relationship between the success of the arena and the profitability of the team — a feint in the direction of the breaking down of “silos” to which Cogen is so dedicated.
Even that small step toward integration led to a measure of profitability. An internal memo obtained byThe City Paper shows that during the final five years of ownership under the Leipold regime, the organization lost $46 million before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. That included $12 million in the 2006-’07 year.
Since 2008, by contrast, those numbers have been positive every year, totaling about $6 million.
The average revenue of the organization over the past three years is $74 million. During the Leipold era, the organization averaged $43 million.
With Cogen — the savvy circus man who’s handled Sun Belt hockey success in Dallas and Florida — the Predators ship may be headed to calm waters for the first time.
And if his gambles work, there will be a lot more people on board.
When you’re sitting inside Bridgestone Arena, Cogen wants the experience to be memorable.
The changes are subtle. There’s newer music on the public address system, a change that’s due, in part, to the team’s partnership with active-rock giants 102.9-FM The Buzz. The team’s pre-game video is set to a remix of a Jay-Z song, and the day after its debut, Predators blogs were abuzz with requests for copies of the feature — and links to Amazon to download the remix.
Cogen is willing to take chances, and he’s got a lot more in his brain.
For example, the team’s organist — “Krazy Kyle” — is being shown on the JumboTron more often as he tickles the ivories. He’s also branching out from the usual “Da-duh-da-duh-da-duh … Charge!” tunes of standard repertoire, adding the Internet viral hit “Bed Intruder Remix” to his playlist.
While Cogen is brimming with new ideas — the ones he’ll talk about and the ones he’s holding back like the circus showman he once was, building to a big reveal — it’s almost more noticeable what he’ll never talk about.
Gone is the fear-based strategy of “Buy tickets or you’ll lose the team,” which, intentional or not, was the way the team sold itself in the post-lockout period. Gone is the moaning about how 65 percent of season tickets are sold to individuals and not corporations, a reverse of most NHL franchises and long a complaint of Preds brass.
Cogen doesn’t care if you are Joe and Jane Q. Public or Waller Lansden or AT&T. Everybody’s money is green. Everybody’s butt fits in a seat.
The new boss wants everybody in the building to get in on the ticket-selling action. Preds PR people, the guys in maintenance, ticketing staff, marketing staff, hockey operations, the guy driving the Zamboni — nearly every employee is in Cogen’s sales contest. They’re all on teams, some with funny names. There are prizes and trash-talking. Maybe one of the employees will sell to somebody who’s never been to a game before.
Cogen isn’t afraid to admit he’ll give away tickets to get people in the door. Papering the house is a common and long-standing practice in sports and entertainment, but one almost nobody will admit to. Cogen doesn’t see the risk. He says comp tickets will be up 10 percent this year over last.
The way he sees it, if he gives away 20 tickets, five people might come back to another game and one of those might buy season tickets. Those 20 free tickets just turned into 41 paid tickets.
And he’s willing to try everything. Trade in a losing lotto ticket for a free or discounted Predators ticket, text-to-win for a chance at rink-side seats, register this can of Mountain Dew for a discount, use this code for $5 off. It’s called “data capture” and as the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
“If you give me your email and your phone number, you better believe you’re going to get a follow-up call from one of my people,” Cogen said.
But he doesn’t want to breed contempt among the every-night crowd by giving away stuff to first-timers. The Preds have about 8,000 season-ticket holders — a number he’d like to boost to 10,000 — and he knows those people are the lifeblood of the fan base.
“So we give them ‘flowers,’ ” he said.
For the first time, season-ticket holders get a badge, and each night, they get something out of the badge: discounted food, lower prices in the pro shop — and a greeting from the arena staff, who are told to keep an eye out for the blue badges and, as any season-ticket holder will already attest, told to greet every one they see.
“Hi, how are ya? Everything going all right?” they’ll ask.
Every six weeks or so, Cogen sends his season-ticket folks a how-ya-doin’ letter (each of which he signs himself) and a goodie — an upgrade coupon, for example, or a food voucher.
The perks for being a season-ticket holder, Cogen promises, will get better and more targeted. For example, a constant complaint since construction began on the Music City Center is the lack of affordable parking. Last week, season-ticket holders were offered a chance to secure parking in the Pinnacle at Symphony Place for $8 per game — 20 percent under
the going rate at even the least-dear lots on Lower Broad.
In Cogen’s world, the combined force of his burgeoning fan base will propel the team, which will move sales, and so on into the night.
“And [ticket holders] will show up,” Cogen said. “And cheer.”