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Friday, July 22, 2011
'Thrash to Smash?' Preds trying to lure Atlanta fans

By Scott Burnside

The NHL may have forsaken the Atlanta market, but the battle for the city's few hockey hearts and minds continues.

The Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators are both in discussions with the league and Fox Sports about the possibility of sending their local television broadcasts into the Atlanta market for the coming season, a source told ESPN.com on Friday.

Further, the Predators have launched an advertising campaign in the hopes of luring disenfranchised Thrashers fans to the Music City.

"It's sort of an awkward situation, if you will," Predators CEO Jeff Cogen told ESPN.com.

The team doesn't want to be seen as the buzzard picking over the bones of the Atlanta Thrashers after they were relocated to Winnipeg following this past season. But, by the same token, there is a core of hockey fans that followed the Thrashers and the NHL for the past decade (as ugly as that show may have been for the most part in Atlanta). So the Predators are hoping some will make the four-hour trip northwest to Nashville and build a new relationship with the Predators.

The Predators, who have coined the phrase "Smashville" to denote their franchise, are offering packages that feature essentially a game a month on the weekend and hotel specials in Nashville. "Thrash to Smash" is the catchphrase. Among the games offered will be a visit to Nashville by the new Winnipeg Jets and another former Atlanta franchise, the Calgary Flames.

The ad campaign is in its infancy and Cogen said they aren't sure whether they'll try to sell the plan via phone or hire sales people in Atlanta and pay a commission. Even with a passive start to the campaign, Cogen said they have already sold a couple of dozen packages.

The standing joke, of course, is people wouldn't travel the few miles, or even blocks, to see the Thrashers in Atlanta, so why would they drive four hours to watch the Predators? Well, for one, the Predators have actually won an NHL playoff series, let alone a single playoff game, something the Thrashers failed to do in Atlanta. Secondly, these are hockey fans and that means sometimes defying logic.

Cogen recalled a recent town hall meeting in Nashville that attracted several thousand fans. Among them was a former Thrashers season-ticket holder who stood up and asked team executives how they could convince him to become a Predators fan. After hearing responses, the man was presented with a new Predators ball cap by the team's mascot.

Hey, you've got to start somewhere, no?

Regardless of the traffic the ad campaign generates, it shows a certain chutzpah for a market that seems to have finally turned a corner after being considered on the NHL's critically endangered list for many years. The Predators' home sellouts jumped from four in 2009-10 to 16 this past season, and the team hopes for another jump in sellouts in 2011-12. The season-ticket base has also seen a 10 percent spike. Sponsorship is up and the team is appealing to the employee base with those sponsors to drive up demand for tickets.

"Nothing sells tickets like selling tickets," said Cogen, who was previously the president of the Dallas Stars and the MLB's Texas Rangers. "We're trending the right way. We're growing the base."

As for trying to fill the local television vacuum in Atlanta, Cogen said he's indicated to the NHL they would love to put Predators games on the air in Atlanta, but the decision will involve a number of other parties.

"I'd love to have our games broadcast in that area," he said. "But I can't snap my fingers and make it happen."