Earlier this week, we presented a look at hockey in Alabama through the filter of three teams: The Southern Professional Hockey League’s Huntsville Havoc, founded in 2004, and the Birmingham Bulls, who returned for a third time in 2017; and the NHL’s Nashville Predators, who draw a good portion of their fans from the state.
The Predators have positioned themselves as the team of the South and have provided a template for other Southern teams to follow by unabashedly embracing their community’s roots while selling the experience of Nashville even more than the hockey itself. They drew under 15,000 per game in 2009; entering 2019, they’re drawing over 17,200 on average.
As part of our examination of hockey in Alabama, we asked a few dozen Predators fans who live in that state about how their favorite NHL team has reached out to that market, and what they believe are the ways in which the NHL could finally figure out how to attract fans in the South to watch its product and purchase its merchandise.
How should the NHL market hockey to the South? A handful of suggestions:
Matthew McWhorter, Daphne, Alabama
“I would think the best start to growing in the South would be to simply increase visibility. I’ve never seen anything associated with the NHL in Alabama. I don’t see apparel in stores, coverage on TV [unless I specifically seek it out], or any kind of advertisement. The only hockey fans I know, other than myself, are the two Canadians where I work.”
Alex Graben, Muscle Shoals, Alabama
“The biggest disconnect is that it is not widely available to many folks in the South. Sure, you may get a prime-time game on NBC, but your casual viewer in the South will more than likely skip over it to view something else, especially if football is on. I think the last two seasons saw a rise in Southern viewership because the Preds had such outstanding seasons, and everyone loves a winner.
“I honestly think if the NHL were able to start some youth programs in some of these areas it would garner attention quickly. We love contact sports, we love to be rowdy, and we love a good athletic event. Many around here just don’t understand that hockey isn’t ‘soccer on ice.’
“People in the South love it when other people embrace their culture. Nashville did an outstanding job of that in their playoff runs by rolling out the red carpet for country music acts and having a ‘tailgate atmosphere’ on Broadway [in Nashville]. I think the NHL or Preds organization can use that to sell their product to many potential fans in the South. I know many, many nights I’d rather be on Broadway than in Tuscaloosa. That atmosphere is second to none.”
Kaylor Hodges, Jasper, Alabama
“In my hometown of Jasper, there’s nothing to do with hockey. Finding another person who is an avid fan like I am is rare. While the return of the Birmingham Bulls has rekindled the fire for hockey, it’s still a thing people do once and just aren’t sold on yet.
“As for outreach, [there hasn’t been much]. I feel like Alabama is a place that if you love hockey, it’s because you heard of the Thrashers and the Bulls, and when both teams disappeared, so did the love for the sport. There isn’t much outreach because I feel like we’re really not a group that is viewed as ‘needed,’ at least that’s the way I see it.
“I believe the NHL should try and cultivate a fandom here in the South. I think the best way is to bring a high-quality product for a preseason game of some kind just so a top-tier team is in a place nearby and fairly affordable. I still have never seen Nashville in person because the prices of tickets are high, and that’s a weekend trip. If the NHL were to do what NBA did and have one match in Birmingham with two known teams for preseason, I feel like it would bring a lot of interest to not just NHL but SPHL.
“Right now the Bulls sell pretty well in the winter/spring, but the fall attendance is very poor, and that’s a reflection of awareness and product that the organization puts on the ice. While the Bulls are undefeated, the atmosphere they create and the show they put on when hockey isn’t being played is very lackluster.”
Christopher Weingartner, Birmingham, Alabama
“I always contend that if you go to a game in person, you’ve got a very good chance of getting hooked and wanting to learn more and dig deeper. The Preds have done a great job of combining entertainment on the ice with elsewhere in the arena. Even if you’re a novice hockey fan, they put on a game-day experience that is enjoyable to all.
“It’s hard to cast a huge shadow via kids camps and all the proactive community outreach that the Preds do in Middle Tennessee, but an event or two outside the Nashville MSA would be well-received and attended, I believe.”
Thomas Boydstun, Birmingham, Alabama
“So far I think the increase in the Preds’ TV exposure has been a real help. However, thanks to Nick Saban, Alabama football is always going to be king of the castle in the state of Alabama. With the growing popularity of both the Birmingham Bulls and the Huntsville Havoc, I think there is an opportunity for both the Preds and the NHL as a whole to do some more advertising. I know licensing deals make things hard, and the SPHL doesn’t have any affiliation that I know of, but I don’t think it would be that hard to send some representatives down for a couple of games to do some giveaways or something like that. Also, maybe pick a few games on the schedule where a discount on tickets is given to people from states like Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia [RIP Thrashers].
“Also, I think the growth of youth hockey is so important. I primarily grew up in Tennessee and Mississippi and never had the opportunity to even try hockey. The only sports that were available to play were baseball, basketball, football and a little bit of soccer. I would have loved a chance to get started playing at a younger age. Hockey is such a great community and sport that once a kid is hooked they are probably going to be a fan for life. I know the Preds have increased the support of youth leagues within the Nashville area, but if they could put on some camps down in Huntsville and Birmingham I think it would go a really long way.”
Nick Corcoran, Gulf Shores, Alabama
“There is really no ‘hockey culture’ in town. As for kinship, it’s mostly my family. I do have a lot of co-workers from Illinois who are big St. Louis Blues fans, so they’re the only other ones really to talk hockey with. Only youth leagues or beer leagues are in Pensacola, which is about an hour away. We are a big tourist town, but hockey season and beach season don’t line up, so we don’t have much of a need for a hockey bar.
“I would say some sort of exhibition games would be a start. College football is obviously king in the South, so finding a way to tie that in would be the best way to reach the most people. Something similar to the guest appearances from the Titans during the playoffs would be a good move. Honestly though, it’s gonna be a long road. Saying you are a hockey fan gets you some weird looks in Alabama, I think hockey fans will have to migrate here and bring the fandom with them. So it may already be more prevalent in the bigger cities.”
Jessica Edwards, Huntsville, Alabama
“Though the Preds don’t do much promotion down here, it’s not unusual to see Preds stickers on cars, or the occasional gold hat in a restaurant if there’s a TV and a sympathetic bartender. Havoc stickers are everywhere. People who look at me funny for not following football at all relax when I tell them I enjoy hockey. Huntsville is a hockey town. Maybe we’re not the hockey capital of the South anymore, but we’re still a hockey town.
“Growing the game is a tough one. Alabama doesn’t take quickly to ‘folk from off’ telling us we should do things, even good, interesting things. It’s my guess that other Southern states are similarly insular. So if the NHL wanted to promote hockey down here, their best bet might be in quietly, steadily sponsoring local initiatives already in place — gear for youth leagues, or a contribution to maintaining existing ice plexes. Maybe holding games in various arenas around the South, the way that Bruins/Flames game was held in China? Grassroots stuff, watering what already grows, offering a seed and letting the locals decide whether they plant it. I have no idea what the mechanisms are for deciding what gets broadcast where, but my household is a perfect example of the power of channel surfing among over-the-air and limited-cable audiences. Folk without satellite TV or a big cable package might watch more hockey if there was more hockey on the major networks to watch.”
Daniel Mead, Huntsville, Alabama
“Hockey culture in Huntsville existed well before the Predators were even a thought in Nashville. In fact, former Governor George Wallace declared Huntsville ‘The hockey capital of the South.’ This is mostly due to UAH’s NCAA hockey team and a couple of professional teams that have come through Huntsville, the Havoc being the longest-lasting and most recent. The Havoc consistently play in front of a mostly full arena. As of right now, the only pro sport in Huntsville and northern Alabama is the Havoc, although a minor league baseball team is on the way. As far as I can tell, there are only four permanent ice surfaces available to the public in the entire state of Alabama. I would assume Mississippi doesn’t have many more if they even have that many. I don’t know how you really grow a sport and fan base in an area where the average kid will likely never even put on a pair of skates.
“The other proven way to make a hockey fan is to have them go to their first game. I don’t know of anyone who has ever gone to a hockey game and not become a fan. Bring more one-off games to non-NHL cities and stadiums.
“The NHL loves outdoor games that they can sell specialty jerseys and lots of tickets to. Bring Stadium Series games to the Deep South. These SEC stadiums are huge and are empty three-quarters of the year. An NHL game in Bryant-Denny stadium where Nick Saban does a puck drop would help the NHL get the entire state of Alabama.
“New Orleans will never have an NHL team, but why not have a game in the Superdome? Or have the Flames and Jets play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The loser moves back to Atlanta.”
Daniel Thompson, Huntsville, Alabama
“I personally think the NHL as a whole has done a fairly good job at broadening the sport into ‘nontraditional markets.’ And at least here locally, I think that Nashville has done a stellar job and growing the sport too with their programs and not limiting it to just Nashville metro. These programs create players who in turn will probably be fans of the best league in the sport.
“The Preds’ Cup run created a hockey frenzy, even here in Huntsville. And despite how much people like to complain about the ‘bandwagon’ fans [which doesn’t just apply to Nashville], everyone has to start somewhere. People who had never tuned in to a game were now watching. Many are still watching. Like me, it just took that one game. It also had a direct effect on the numbers in the local youth and beer leagues. Season prior to the Cup run, the mini-mites had about 40 kids. The following season their numbers were closer to 70. Last adult season, SOL had the same four, six, and eight teams, and HAHL only had one division of four teams. Between the two leagues, we are icing 10 more teams than last year. All the people that started in the adult development after the Cup run have made it into the beer leagues.”
Hank Walters, Enterprise, Alabama
“Hockey will only grow down here with more kids on the ice. And we need more ice. Closest one I know of is a baby-sized rink in Montgomery that’s an hour-and-a-half away. Or even roller hockey would be cool. Education of the sport would help too, but folks won’t want to learn about it unless they can try it. The NHL would have to at least invest in converting football fans to casual viewers, which is the best they’ll get without a surge of youth leagues. I’ve struggled with the same problem playing rugby. No one grew up with these sports down here, so they ultimately say the same thing: ‘Oh ya? That’s cool as hell, everyone hitting each other and stuff. I just have no idea what’s going on.'”
Andrea Walls, Muscle Shoals, Alabama
“In Muscle Shoals specifically there really is not a hockey culture to speak of. We will see the occasional Preds sticker on a car or person wearing a Preds shirt, and you feel the need to go up to the person and say ‘You love the Preds? We love them too!’
“We play hockey in Decatur and Huntsville, and hockey definitely has more of a presence in those towns. Most people we encounter in Muscle Shoals are surprised when I tell them our boys play hockey. A frequent comment is, ‘I didn’t even know you could do that here,’ or, ‘Where do you go to do hockey?’
“We are very happy with the youth league here in North Alabama [we play with the North Alabama Hockey Association]. It is a very well-organized league and has good participation for a Southern hockey market. They frequently offer skills clinics, summer hockey camps and power skating classes to help the kids develop their skills. My husband plays in the beer league [also through NAHA]. Being part of the league does give us the chance to interact with other hockey fans in the area. A lot of them are big fans of the Huntsville Havoc and frequently attend their games. There aren’t too many people around here who follow the Preds as closely as we do, and so we do tend to rely on sites like Reddit to fill the gaps for us.
“I would love to see them get the word out more about the Learn to Play or Try Hockey for Free programs. We really only found out about them because we were hockey fans and occasionally went to the rink to skate. They are more advertised in Decatur and Huntsville, it would be great to see that advertisement reach further out into the other communities. We have had one friend give it a try and is now doing Learn to Play, so I feel like if others knew about it and gave it a try they might like it as well. Soccer culture in the U.S. has grown so much over the past couple decades, and I think a lot of that is due to more kids playing it, leading to more parents [and kids as they grow] following the sport. The same could hold true for hockey in the south. Also, encouraging groups from Alabama [like sports teams or clubs] to come to a game via discounted tickets would also get people in the door that likely have never even seen a hockey game.
“The atmosphere at Bridgestone Arena is just electric and really pulls people in. I know after seeing one game I was a fan for life. I am sure there are others out there who would feel the same way if they were able to experience it.”
Ron Bryant, Somerville, Alabama
“As far as kinship is concerned, if you are wearing a Preds shirt/hat/sweater in public and you hear a ‘Go Preds!’ you will find each other and have an instant friend. But I am only two hours away from the Predators and there are zero promotions to try to recruit new fans. Alabama is seen as the football state and almost gets a pass from the NHL. There needs to be a culture push as far as promotions, appearances, and outreach from teams and the NHL as a whole — the Panthers, Lightning, Stars and Predators.
“About 12.9 percent of all NHL teams are in what is considered the Southern U.S., but we continue to only be bombarded with college football and baseball. I am wrapped up in the Dunkin’ Donuts promotions for the Atlanta Braves, which is 3.5 hours away, but not for the Predators, which is under two hours away. Also, ticket prices. I am happy that people are willing to pay large amounts of money to go to see their teams, but if you want to grow a fan base, tickets need to be affordable to the people who have their heart and passion invested in the teams.”
Steven Darby, Huntsville, Alabama
“Even though Gary Bettman is widely hated throughout the league, I think he’s done a great job in terms of Southern expansion. Nashville and Tampa are two of the top markets in the whole league right now. It definitely helps that they’re two of the top teams in the standings, but I’ve heard the atmospheres are also tops in the league.
“I’d really like to see college hockey expand in the South. I think the success Arizona State is having right now shows that it can definitely work. I think the players love the warm weather down here, and if the schools had the resources they could recruit some of the bigger-named players. Nashville itself has really done a great job of creating a college-like atmosphere at their games and mixing it with hockey. I’m a student at Auburn right now, and I think if some big SEC schools could fund a higher level than club hockey, it would be great for the sport. I also think that college hockey is gaining a lot of interest in NHL prospects compared to other junior leagues. I think if they could get some big SEC schools on the D-I level, that could give college hockey a greater boost.”
Matthew Mireles, Tuscaloosa, Alabama (by way of Atlanta)
“Honestly? Put a team back in Atlanta. I know that seems like such an absurd idea that it’s not even worth the energy to laugh off, but the Atlanta Spirit group was only ever apathetic towards hockey at best, and malicious at worst. The Thrashers leaving was due to poor ownership. The low attendance in the final years was merely a symptom.
“I played in my hometown city. It’s full of transplants like my parents who will go see their hometown teams and their kids grew up loving their hometown team. There were two or three active amateur leagues that were constantly growing in my time playing there, and all lamented the loss of the team. Yes, our attendance was poor at the end, but in the Thrashers’ best seasons in 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, tickets were difficult to come by, and Philips Arena [now State Farm Arena] was full. Atlanta is larger than Nashville, Raleigh and Tampa, and there is already a seed of fans needing a team. Bring one back. You can start by having the Predators and Canes play some preseason games in Atlanta.
“Second, I know that UGA, Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University all have hockey teams that are fairly prominent and successful in their own right, as well as Alabama having the Frozen Tide. What the league needs to do is go to the sports fans and show them hockey. If the Southerners can tie hockey to their favorite school, it will gain traction fast.
“I’m a scientist, not a marketing or PR mind, so speculation as to what specific outreach events the league should run with the universities around the state is best left up to others. Maybe if they’re interested in a long-term investment, make some kind of initiative to get rinks built on SEC/ACC campuses that have competitive/visible programs [by the region’s standards, we’ll never compete with the collegiate hockey powerhouses].
“The Predators aren’t a hockey team in Nashville; the Predators are Nashville’s hockey team. That’s how the NHL needs to approach the South, and the regional universities are one of the ways that I can see to do that. Also, I regularly converted friends at undergrad who had grown up in college-football-as-the-gospel households, that became intense hockey fans once exposed to the sport. Hockey will never replace college football as the ‘sacred sport’ of the South, but there is no reason it can’t be up there with it.”
Sean Smyth, Huntsville, Alabama
“That’s a tough question. Personally, I’d love for Huntsville to get an NHL franchise named the Aliens, it would go with the city’s space and NASA industries, and create the best rivalry of all time in Aliens vs Predators. I’d bet that’ll never happen for a multitude of reasons, but a man can dream.”