Will 'Project Forecheck' work for Preds?

Late in the 2003-04 season the Nashville Predators, desperate to draw crowds to see their playoff-bound team, sent their mascot Gnash up onto the radio tower that dominates one corner of the team's home building.

The plan was for him to stay up there until the team sold out one of its remaining home games.

The days passed.

The team played to less than capacity.

Musicians and patrons of the famous downtown strip of honkytonks bellowed up encouragement in the wee hours of the morning. A fierce storm hit Nashville, sending the bedraggled saber-toothed mascot scurrying for cover. Finally, a local executive with Firestone saw the soggy Gnash on television and bought up the required tickets.

It wasn't pretty.

By the end of the 2003-04 season, the Predators were averaging just 13,177 (out of 17,113 capacity) fans per home contest, 28th in the NHL. But the team did make the playoffs for the first time and played to raucous, sold-out crowds during an exciting first-round playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

Then the lockout came and the Predators were left in limbo, somewhere between expansion town and hockey town. For many critics, the team was symbolic of a greedy league's determination to expand where it had no business expanding.

Now the Predators are determined to prove those critics wrong.

Whether they can will say much about the team's future in Nashville. Beyond that, the team's successes on and off the ice in the coming months will say much about the long-term viability of the new collective bargaining agreement and its promise of 30 healthy NHL teams.

General manager David Poile admits to having concerns about the "out of sight, out of mind" mind-set that may have taken hold during the team's 17-month absence from the local sporting scene. He has likened the post-lockout return of hockey in Nashville to starting over as an expansion franchise.

To that end, the Predators have rolled back season-ticket prices to Day 1 levels. They have abandoned the concept of premium pricing for certain teams and cut Monday-Thursday tickets by $5 to $10 a ticket.

They have addressed the small (free popcorn on Tuesdays and $1 hot dogs on Thursdays through November, Day 1 beer prices on their first two home dates, breaks on arena-area parking) to the big (giveaways of cars, boats and airline tickets to Predators' away games).

The big giveaways will take place on Saturdays, the most popular night on the Predators' home schedule. The theory is that if you create demand for one night, the folks who can't find tickets will spill over to the other nights.

In terms of corporate support, new executive vice president of business affairs Steve Violetta believes the local business community has never been properly sold in the benefits of having season tickets.

Individual fans make up 70 percent of the Predators' season-ticket base with just 30 percent held by corporate clients. That needs to be reversed if the team is to enjoy long-term financial stability. As a result, the team has set out to educate the business community on the value of having season tickets in terms of retaining current clients, bringing in new clients, assisting with recruitment and maintaining an existing work force.

The team is also trying to tap into the medium of small businesses in the Nashville area with a direct mailing of 43,000 information packages that went to every company with 20 or more employees or with $5 million or more in revenue.

"We need Bob's print shop down the road to buy a plan, too," said Violetta, who is working with former Tennessee Titans president Jeff Diamond on a marketing plan called "Project Forecheck."

The team identified 12 corporate captains, the movers and shakers in the different business sectors, to make calls to their colleagues who haven't bought season tickets or weren't supporters of the team.

"We're just asking them to get us in the door," Violetta said.

Predators' sales teams have even gone door to door in business centers, setting up picnic tables with goodies and trinkets in an effort to reinforce the team's presence.

Violetta predicts the season-ticket base that had slipped considerably since the team's first season in 1998 will be up as much as 30 percent over 2003-04.

Naturally, all of the giveaways and direct mailings will amount to a hill of ice shavings if the team doesn't improve. The acquisition of seven-time All-Star Paul Kariya plus the signing of Steve Sullivan to a four-year deal plus the addition of tough-as-nails defenseman Danny Markov to an already solid defensive squad should help the team build on its 2004 playoff run.

"There's no reason why Nashville can't be a great hockey town. It's Nashville's time," Sullivan said.

The team is also expecting average attendance will rise by as much as 35 percent. On the first day single-game tickets were made available to the public this summer, 9,200 were sold, a record for the team.

Those moves "make a statement to this market that's never been made before," Violetta said. "We should have a team to talk about this year. We're banking on that."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.