As part of the ticket-selling campaign, Ward helped
develop the Predators logo and mascot
Tom Ward plays
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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
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)