Will fans love a winner?

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

NASHVILLE -- The NCAA basketball tournament is at fever pitch, with Nashville's own Vanderbilt University locked in a double-overtime thriller on CBS, and the Predators are still sold out for a Saturday showdown with Dallas.

The place is jam-packed and jumpin' (they don't use g at the end of many words here) and from the atmosphere inside you'd never know the club is fighting for its life.

Step outside, however, and you'd never know that Nashville even has a hockey team. You almost never see a Predators hat, or sweater, or licence plate cover. There's no hockey buzz whatsoever. In a sports bar across the street from where the Predators are late in the third period against rival Dallas, long after the Vanderbilt game is over, every TV in the joint is still tuned to the hoops tournament.

That's Nashville hockey in a nutshell: a loyal, vocal fan base -- unfortunately, it usually fits under one roof.

"When we came here this was a market that had never seen hockey before in their lives," said David Poile, the GM in Nashville since the Preds opened for business in 1998. "Over a nine-year period, the progress has been good, but, having said that, it needs to be better."

A lot better. To put it bluntly, the Preds are bleeding money in a town that might never come to their aid.

"It's not good," Poile said of the losses. "Pre-lockout, our payroll was $23 million and we were losing money. Last year, it was $29 million, this year it's $39 million. That's $16 million more than two seasons ago and we haven't increased our revenue nearly that much."

ATTENDANCE LAGS

Crowds have picked up lately, but a lean start leaves Nashville 23rd in NHL attendance, and it's been awfully slim pickin's in the business community.

Gaylord Entertainment, which had naming rights to the arena, decided it wasn't getting enough bang for its buck and pulled out 11 years early. When the Preds tried to drum up support in the business community, the slamming doors sounded like a drum solo.

"Things are trending up," Poile said. "But it's a slow process."

Of course, it doesn't help that nine months after the NHL awarded a franchise to Nashville, the NFL showed up with the Titans, who immediately swallowed most of the suite and advertising revenue

The Predators' survival plan depends on getting a few slices of that pie for themselves. And there's only one way to do that: Win. Secure their place in the market like Carolina, Tampa and Dallas did.

"They were southern franchises in non-traditional markets that had early struggles, but it was playoff success that really got their franchises over the top," Poile said. "And they all seem very healthy today. That's what we need here."

Badly, because time is not on their side. If they were losing money with a $23 million payroll, they're absolutely hemorrhaging at $39 million. With the salary cap going up next year and free agents to be re-signed, Nashville's overhead is only getting higher.

So this is a pivotal year for the franchise. Nine years after its arrival, hockey is at a Tennessee crossroads. It either takes root, or it doesn't.

"I want it to work out here, and I'm going to do my best on the hockey side to make it happen," Poile said. "But I can't speak for the business side. A lot of that is going to depend on how we do in the playoffs."

If they fail, there are enough reasons, and contractual loopholes, for owner Craig Leipold to wash his hands of the failed experiment and leave town.

An escape clause in the Preds' arena lease allows them to relocate (for an $18 million penalty) after 2007-08 if average paid attendance falls below 14,000 for two years in a row. It did last year and it will again this year.

Kansas City offered the Sprint Centre to the Penguins rent free, so you have to believe a similar sweetheart deal would be extended to the Preds. Leipold could ease a lot of his financial pressures with a move.

Or the Preds could do it by taking care of business this spring.

Ticket sales are up 40% in Carolina after its Cup win and June 2004 changed everything in Tampa.

"It gave us incredible credibility," Lightning president Ronald Campbell said.

"We started getting incredible amounts of support from sources we never heard from before. The Governor's office and politicians were on board, getting their picture taken with the Stanley Cup. The business community jumped on big time, the fans jumped on and stayed. More people became exposed to the game because of the excitement.

"The Stanley Cup truly is an asset that you can't even quantify with a dollar value."

Just ask Dallas.

"Winning the Stanley Cup in 1999 accelerated everything we were doing down here," Stars president James Lites said. "It was pedal to the metal after that." The Preds are salivating at the mere thought of a similar infusion of fans, energy, money and respect.

WINNING

"If we ever won in this city it would be bananas," said Preds coach Barry Trotz, adding it would be like the L.A. Forum when Gretzky first arrived, only instead of being packed with Hollywood stars, it would be Toby Keith and Faith Hill along the glass. "This would be the funnest place on earth to be. It would be the place to be."

Conversely, an early exit could be fatal.

No surprise, then, that they went after Forsberg, the hottest free agent in the league, to bolster a posse that already includes Jason Arnott, acquired in the summer, and Paul Kariya.

In case you hadn't guessed, the Preds are getting ready for their big charge. Their future in Nashville might very well depend on it.

"I don't mind that role at all," Trotz said of the pressure to win a championship. "You want to get to a point where you take on that role. I think you have to be a little bit bold; you can't say we hope to be a contender. Why not be a contender, and say that you can do it, take the next step? At some point, all organizations have to grow up and say, 'this is who we are. Let's do it.'

"That's where we think we are with this organization. We're ready to compete for the prize."


Videos

Photos