As part of the ticket-selling campaign, Ward helped develop the Predators logo and mascot

Hockey Tonk

Tom Ward plays lead as
Music City's broken hearts
meet hockey's broken bones

When Tom Ward walks out of the Predators office and into the fresh air, he can see the Tennessee Titans' 3-year-old football stadium across the river, gleaming skyscrapers towering above him, and an impressive hockey arena beside him. Across the street, he can see the original Grand Ole Opry building and a row of honky-tonks where road-worn bands play for tips. This is, after all, Music City.

Tom Ward is no musician, but he orchestrates a major performance 41 nights per year. Some would say he has a dream job: as executive vice president of business operations for the Nashville Predators hockey team, his job is to make sure everyone in the arena is having a good time.

Ward grew up around Rockville and Gaithersburg, Md., with a normal boy's interest in sports. He played football and basketball in high school and eventually went on to play junior college football at Montgomery Community College. "It was fairly obvious that I wasn't going to be a star," Ward explains.

He eventually transferred to JMU, where he majored in marketing and management. "It's funny when I look back now," says Ward. "One of the most hands-on things I did there was to arrange the big 'Lakeside Jam' event. I coordinated this giant all-day party hosted by the fraternities. We probably had 100 kegs of beer, live bands, the works. It all came off pretty smoothly and we raised a lot of money. It turned out to be good training for my later duties."

Ward enjoyed his time at JMU and also met a person there who would change his life: Joanne Hopper, who eventually became Joanne Ward. They both graduated in 1979 with business degrees and moved back to the Washington, D.C., area. Ward had only one career goal: to work for a professional sports team.

"After getting out of school, I started in August with the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) at an entry-level position. I was pounding the pavement trying to pitch tickets, selling door-to-door. I was about as far down the ladder as you can get and I had to work my tail off just to make a living. At times it was less than minimum wage."

He eventually moved his way up to sales director, then marketing director, and then took a detour to get some broadcasting experience. He left the Bullets and spent a year and a half selling radio time, learning all he could along the way and keeping his NBA contacts alive. He eventually got wind of openings at a possible NBA franchise in Charlotte and saw the opportunity to get out of Washington. "We were commuting three hours a day, both my wife and I, just to and from work. We had a six-month old. We said, 'Let's get out of this rat race.' So I interviewed down in Charlotte and helped launch the Hornets."

He stayed there almost 10 years, gaining great experience in overcoming obstacles to set up a new team. There were plenty of people who thought that in the middle of college basketball country, Charlotte would never get a NBA team. "I'll never forget one writer from the Sacramento Bee saying, 'The only franchise Charlotte is going to get is one with golden arches,'" Ward laughs. "We were able to grow to about 15,000 season tickets up through November, December of the first season, then it just exploded. We ended up capping our season ticket base at 21,000."

When the call came about starting a new hockey team in Nashville, he couldn't resist. Ward had heard great things about hockey from industry friends and saw the sport as the next "rising star." Fed up with selfish attitudes from NBA players and stung by bad team publicity in Charlotte, he saw the move to Nashville as a great opportunity to work with a committed owner and an exciting new market. "It was tough on my kids and I felt really bad about that." Kelsey, Summer and Buddy had spent their whole childhood in Charlotte. "It was just something that I had to do though: I could see the Charlotte franchise deteriorating, and I needed to make a clean break, both from the team and from basketball."

"I came to Nashville Aug. 19," he explains."The owner, Craig Leipold, said we were going to launch in September. We had no employees, no staff and no team. We had a couple of coaches out scouting and that was it. He said, 'And by the way, we'll have six months to reach a goal of 12,000 season ticket holders.' I was thinking, 'What the hell have I gotten myself into?'"

Ward planned a series of events to build excitement, something he refers to as "milestone marketing." Much of it was based around the striking Predators logo, a fang-baring saber-tooth tiger. All of the efforts were geared to selling 12,000 tickets, to enable them to win the NHL franchise.

The first major event was a big party called the Icebreaker Bash. "Nothing was sweeter to our eyes than when 12,000 people showed up on that first day," Ward remembers. "We sold close to 3,000 season tickets. At that point, we all said to ourselves, 'This thing may work after all.'"

Ward ran a series of targeted direct sales programs, then tied into the local network of country music celebrities for a billboard and ad campaign. The effective ads showed Garth Brooks, Lorrie Morgan and Amy Grant with missing front teeth and a hockey stick. The tag line, "Got Tickets?" was a takeoff on the "Got Milk?" campaign.

The marketing team then parlayed their music business contacts into another successful event, the "Hockey Tonk Jam" at the famous Ryman Auditorium. Performers included Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Gary Chapman, with a taping made into a TV special.

Much of that first-year story is now immortalized in a book: Hockey Tonk, written by Rick Oliver and the Predators' owner, Craig Leipold. "It won't be a big seller nationally," Ward admits, "but we've got a pretty big regional audience. It's going to be exciting for me to have my name in a book anyway."

Eventually, of course, the story had a happy ending. The organization sold over 12,000 season tickets and the NHL granted them an expansion franchise. The pressure took its toll on some of the key players in the organization, however. "It was absurd," Ward explains. "I was working all day and into the night, six or seven days a week and I tell you, we're lucky we survived these days. Staff and players were relocating here, people were risking their careers, the entire franchise was at stake."

Ward doesn't hesitate when asked what advice he'd offer to aspiring sports marketers. "Be prepared for some very long hours. This is not a job for someone who's not 100 percent committed. I've worked 70-hour weeks my whole career and it's not nearly as glamorous as people think. I often regret not having more time to spend with my kids."

Despite the pressure, Ward talks about the Predators launch as the most rewarding career experience of his life. "The fun is starting something from scratch where you can help mold it. There was nothing here a few years ago. We took this spark of an idea and built it into what it is today."

The Predators are now the envy of the league when it comes to ticket sales. While the team often sells out its 17,113-seat arena over the 41-game season, many teams in traditional hockey markets are lucky to come anywhere close.

In its first three building seasons, the team posted losing records, so Ward knew that the staff had to provide a total entertainment experience from start to finish. They used "Outrageous customer service" as their No. 1 goal, focusing all efforts in the arena toward that end. "I don't really ever call it the sports business," Ward says. "We're in the entertainment business." Predators fans get programs that explain the rules, announcements that educate the fans about hockey, and plenty of diversions when there's no action on the ice, including a house band. "Our goal is to keep it fresh every game, every night. We know our players have long-term contracts but our fans don't."

 

-- Tim Leffel ('86)


Publisher: Montpelier Magazine For Information Contact: montpelier@jmu.edu