How Smashville was born (and died, and lived again) in Nashville

NASHVILLE – It’s on the hats and the shirts. It’s on the banners that hang around the arena. It’s the nickname that encapsulates the jubilant mania that exists around Nashville Predators home games, and the community of fans that have crowded their bandwagon for the last several years.

It’s one word: SMASHVILLE.

And it’s everywhere.

“It’s amazing to come back here and see everything. Although my first thought was, ‘why didn’t I copyright this?’” said Tom Ward, with a laugh.

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Ward was the executive vice president of business operations for the Predators when the franchise was born in 1997. He was there when Smashville was born, and he helped deliver it. Twenty years later, it’s come to define a team that’s redefining what a hockey town looks like.

Which is to say that Smashville has come a long way from Ward trying to sell a team that barely existed, without a name or a mascot or players, to a market that approached hockey like an alien concept.

***

There was a moment around 1997 when Ward realized how difficult this sales job was going to be – thanks to David Letterman.

“The Late Show” was on Ward’s television in his apartment, and Dave had been informed that Nashville was getting an NHL team. “Letterman’s like, ‘you’re kidding? Hockey in the deep south? They don’t know anything about ice unless it’s what they’re putting in their sweet iced tea,’” recalled Ward.

“But the punchline was that Letterman says, ‘That’ll be the only arena in the country where the fans have less teeth than the players.’”

(rim shot)

“I’m like, ‘oh my god,’” recalled Ward. “We’re getting humiliated on national television, and we don’t even have any players yet!”

Ward arrived in Nashville from the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA. The task at hand was an arduous one, and there wasn’t a moment to lose. “We had to get this thing up and running because we had to sell 12,000 season tickets. The team was a conditional franchise, like Atlanta and Minnesota at the time. We had about six months to really sell the 12,000 tickets to become a full-fledged franchise,” he said.

The expedited schedule for the hockey team was due to the fact that the Houston Oilers were relocating to become the Tennessee Titans, and they wanted to get a jump in the market.

So Ward and the team’s executives had to figure out, fast, how to sell a sports team that didn’t really have anything to sell. “We had no name, no logo, no players, no nothing,” he said.

What he did have was Nashville, which provided everything his team currently didn’t possess – marketable faces, from the city’s country music scene.

So the team decided to ask some of the biggest names in country music to sell hockey to their fans through a series of print ads ad billboards. “We got folks like Garth Brooks and Martina McBride, and Vince Gill and Laurie Morgan to really be the faces of the franchise when we had no players,” he said.

There was one condition: The team wanted them to black out their teeth in the print ads, to create a “hockey smile.” It was going to be a comedic spin on the “Got Milk?” ads, as someone like Amy Grant would smile with a gap-tooth grin next to the words “Got Tickets?”

They obliged.

“Suddenly, one of them does it, and we’re in USA Today and Sports Illustrated and everywhere else,” said Ward. “They all agreed to do it with getting any money for it. That’s how the country music community really embraced this team today.”

It’s also where the seeds for SMASHVILLE were planted.

“It’s always going to be Music City, but Music City and Smashville are actually joined at the hip thanks to our early marketing,” said Ward.

With the franchise secured thanks to season-ticket sales, the task turned to marketing the Nashville Predators to the community.

“We were a non-traditional market, and so we had to do some non-traditional marketing,” said Ward.

That included a building-length banner of enforcer Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson when he joined the team in 2001. That meant dressing sales associates in full hockey uniforms and sending them to local businesses as a stunt. Ward recalls one getting thrown out of a bank once. “It made The Tennessean,” he said.

That also meant finding the right marketing slogan to captured the fans’ imagination, because interest was waning. The Predators’ attendance dropped from 15,985 in 2000-01 to 14,838 fans per game in 2001-02.

They tried several of them out in the early years, none of them all that memorable. (Many of them centered around the word “fangs,” from their logo.) So in 2002, the Predators decided to ask the fans what slogan would resonate with them. “We sent it out to the fans in a contest. Send in your favorite slogan. If we pick yours, you’ll win season tickets,” said Ward.

Frank Glinski was one such fan.

Glinski actually came up with the term “Smashville” during a conversation with the Predators’ then-vice president of marketing, who like Glinski had a child playing youth hockey locally. When the fan contest for a new slogan was announced, Glinski was informed that his friend entered “Smashville” into it.

Ward still recalls seeing the “Smashville” entry cross his desk, and having an epiphany.

“I said ‘that’s it.’ Out of the thousands, that’s the one,” he recalled.

Glinski is now known as “Mr. Smashville” locally. True to the team’s word, he’s had free season tickets every year since winning the contest.

“What’s even better is when you’re watching ESPN or NBC and you hear it nationally, when they say the word Smashville. That’s when it really kind of perks you up a little bit,” he told WKRN.

So why Smashville?

Ward saw it as a connection between the country music roots of the previous marketing campaigns and the brutality of hockey. “It was where the big hits of hockey met the smash hits of country music. That was the theme that was percolating,” he said.

But the concept of Smashville was as a place “where anything can happen.”

“Smashville was this crazy little town. Population 17,113. Because that was the attendance,” said Ward.

The TV ads for the team “introduced a mythical town ruled by the love of hockey, where speeding is encouraged, shootings are a common occurrence, offensive behavior is embraced and disturbing the peace is a way of life,” said Ward to Sports Business Daily in 2002.

So Smashville was born in 2002, giving the Predators and their fans a unique identity.

And then it died around 2004.

Ward had left the Predators for the Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA. He said the new marketing regime for the Predators tossed “Smashville” aside for their own campaign.

“It went away, and that was devastating to me,” said Ward. “To me, it was like Hockeytown in Detroit. That became our identity, and we really needed the continuity to build on it. But new people come in, they change the marketing and they did.”

But Smashville would rise again.

***

In Sept. 2009, the Predators surprised fans with a new commercial that aired during Monday Night Football. It wasn’t centered on the ice, it wasn’t using the slogans and marketing hooks of the last few years.

Smashville was back.

“Smashville is the place to be,” Predators President of Business Operations Ed Lang said at the time. “The Smashville spirit is what fuels our pursuit of the Stanley Cup year after year. It is what compels us to put on the best game for our fans. From high-speed playmaking to an exhilarating come-from-behind win, anything can happen in Smashville. ”

With attendance still struggling, the marketing firm GS&F was hired to find a new way to attract fans. They find a new way to do it, through an old slogan.

“GS&F recognized the potential of the word ‘Smashville’ to capture the new extreme entertainment experience, as well as the need to bring it back to life and give it meaning that would resonate with a whole new generation of potential fans,” said the firm on its website.

From GS&F:

“From our perspective, the challenge wasn’t to sell hockey. Too many locals were unfamiliar with the sport. And you certainly couldn’t educate an audience that wasn’t interested in learning about a sport they didn’t know. For us, the solution was to change the whole dynamic. So instead of looking at hockey as a game, we portrayed it as entertainment—on steroids. We knew hockey was the most intense form of entertainment possible: flashy, noisy, visceral and unforgettable. A night with the Predators was more than a couple of hours at a hockey game. Because you didn’t just watch a game. You celebrated on Lower Broad beforehand. You met in clubs, bars and restaurants afterwards. You were invited to a party downtown whenever the Predators played. And sitting in the arena above the ice, every fan became part of the game itself.”

Anyone that’s experienced the playoff party around Bridgestone Arena knows how the fans here live, breath (and drink up) all of that.

For more than a decade, the Predators tried to figure out how to be a hockey team in Nashville, until it finally figured out that it needed to be Nashville’s hockey team. It was that moment when the promise of Smashville became fulfilled.

When one walked through the 50,000 fans that partied all night outside of Game 3, or listened to the deafening chants and cheers inside the arena, or looked around the city at the gold flags and banners draped around every downtown business and bar, or felt the joyous mania of a Stanley Cup Final game finally arriving in here after nearly 20 years of trying, there was really only one way to describe it:

This Is Smashville. And it always has been, even when it wasn’t.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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