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Morning Skate With President/COO Sean Henry

by Jimi Russell / Nashville Predators will be doing a weekly series called "Morning Skate with...," where we will spend time with key members of the Preds' hockey operations and business staff to give you, the fans, some insight into their lives and careers.

In this week's installment, we sit down with President/COO Sean Henry.

Now entering his third season as the President/Chief Operating Officer of the Nashville Predators and Bridgestone Arena, Sean Henry has brought a unique and aggressive approach to arena booking and operations, ticket and sponsorship sales and government affairs to his position. As President and COO, he is responsible for assisting Chief Executive Officer Jeff Cogen in all business operations of the franchise and venue.

In his first two seasons with the team, Henry has been a busy man, guiding Bridgestone Arena to its first-ever consecutive Top 10 Pollstar year-end rankings. He was instrumental in helping Bridgestone Arena secure a new lease with the city of Nashville, keeping the downtown staple thriving and growing through 2028. Henry also helped guide the Nashville Predators to their most successful sales season to date, with a franchise record 25 sellouts in 2011-12 and an all-time high 96 percent ticket renewal rate.

Now that you have the facts, let's hear a little more about why Sean loves the fans here in Nashville and why he should play centerfield for the New York Yankees...

You’ve spent nearly 15 years working in non-traditional hockey markets. What makes markets like Nashville and Tampa different/special?

Our market is special and it’s different. A lot of times, some other “snobbish” traditional markets will say we’re non-traditional, or different, or special, but they mean it in a derogatory fashion. We embrace the term “non-traditional” because Nashville is different than any other market I have encountered in my career. We're different because there is such an incredible bond between our fans and the organization. We're different because our fans remember when the franchise came here, they remember when this building was built, they remember how the building and city transformed – the entertainment corridor that is Broadway, they remember when the team almost left in 2007 and our fans saved it. All of those factors have established a very unique bond between the fans and the organization. As a fan, you remember when the team was drafted, you remember when the players came up from Milwaukee for the first time and you remember when that player became a star. I’ve never been in a market – working or just attending as a fan – where you see more connection with the fans, partners, the employees and the players, than you do here in Nashville. It really has been a great 15 years here.

What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career? How did you overcome it?

I think other people can identify the biggest challenges that I’ve faced better than I can. It has been much easier here in Nashville than in any other market because the team, from a hockey operations standpoint, is one of the best run teams in sports. What David Poile and Barry Trotz have done – from the day they got together 15 years ago – is put something special on the ice with very special players. When I got here, I think we had two or three sellouts the year before, so Jeff Cogen and I said, we’re going to have 15 sellouts. We set lofty goals and we tried to bring the organization together, we knocked down a lot of the silos, and we brought people together to hit these very aggressive goals. Then Tom Cigarran, our chairman, said those goals weren’t aggressive enough. The goal that we are going to have is, we are going to be the premier sports and entertainment venue in America and at the center of it is going to be the Stanley Cup Champion Nashville Predators. Those goals are very, very lofty, so we said, OK, we are going to live into those goals. How do we do it? We fill the building, we fill the building and we fill the building.

The biggest challenge has been growing the number of those passionate fans. No one argues that, these are the most passionate fans in all of sports. It is just an accepted fact. What it wasn’t – it wasn’t big enough. So we grew it and you know who helped us grow it? The fans. We were able to do it because we try to engage with our fans in a more one-on-one fashion. We do it to reinforce the fact that this is their franchise and the best way to continue to grow this franchise is through growing the number of fans. I think we’ve done that – we had 25 sellouts last season plus five playoff sellouts. We are one of the busiest venues in America right now because those same fans that come here for hockey are crossing over to concerts. So, once again, the biggest challenge was setting the goals properly and aggressively enough – to the point where we really had to stretch to hit them and we’ve done that.

After three years of working together, the Sean Henry and Jeff Cogen team has been able to achieve those goals previously mentioned. What makes the Henry-Cogen tandem successful?

As I said before, all the credit goes to the fan base, but what we also have here in Nashville is a great group of employees. They were here before Jeff and I were here – long before we were here. I was talking before about the longevity of the David Poile and Barry Trotz team, but we also have a lot of employees who have been here since day one. We have a lot of employees who were here for the lockout of 2004-05 and they worked through the 2007 rally to keep the team here – you don’t go through those things without becoming some of the very best in the industry. We were very fortunate when we walked in the door to be working with this great duo on the hockey operations side, with this tremendous group of people on the business side, all we needed to do was take the handcuffs off our people and let them do what they needed to do. 

The funny thing about Jeff and I is we knew each other. We had met a couple of times before the idea was pitched to both of us about coming here to Nashville, and we met a couple of times before we accepted, but we have never once divided up who does what, how we do it, why we do it. Our partnership has been very natural. Maybe it is because we share the same birthday, our kids are about the same age, we have similar backgrounds in how we got started and where we came from – we were both in Detroit, we both worked in Florida, he was in Dallas when I was in Tampa, we were a part of new markets – but we both always looked at Nashville enviously because of the unique connection with the fans. So when we got the chance to come here, we brought all of the things we both did well in our previous markets; we brought some of our previous failures and we were able to bring all those things together, apply those things to this tremendous staff and we really altered the way things are done by simply letting those employees work to their full potential.

One of your biggest duties is the day-to-day operation of Bridgestone Arena. How do you see the building growing over the next couple of years?

We want the busiest venue in America with a number one Pollstar rating. People will laugh when they hear that and they have in the past. When I said that in Tampa, they laughed, but we became the top venue in America and we led the League in attendance there. We can do the same thing here with the same principles. This building was always in the mid-20s when it came to Pollstar rating. By removing those handcuffs and breaking down those silos that I talked about earlier, by bringing all of our employees together, we have been able to apply those principles to both hockey and concerts. We want to take those shows that used to be 6,000 person shows and make them 10,000 person shows. Then we are going to take those 10,000 person shows and we are going to turn them into 15,000 person shows and so on. More importantly, when we do a show, we want to make sure we are out grossing all of the other venues on that tour. Once you start doing that, everyone starts to notice. People love coming to Nashville and people love playing in Nashville, but for whatever reason in years past, people didn’t think they could put up the same numbers in Nashville as they could in other markets. By breaking into the Pollstar Top 10, as we have for the past two years and we will again this coming year, it changes what people think about the Nashville market. We’ve always known what this market was, but now everyone else is starting to notice. The real goal is for us to continue to be in the Top 10 year-in and year-out – the more we can do that, the better chance we have at moving up the ranking each year. Other than just the ranking, we want to be known by the managers, by the agents and by the performers as the best place to play in America. We have the most passionate fans, the energy of Broadway and the building is an easy place to move in and move out of. We want them to know that when they come here there are no production issues, there are no guest issues and we want them to know that it will be the best venue on the tour. At the end of the tour, they should be able to say that the best experience was here in Nashville.

@PREDSident is very active on Twitter. Why has Twitter become such an essential business tool for you?

For me, it has always been very important to have direct contact with all your partners. Whether they are criticizing you, calling you names, making fun of everything you are trying to do, or complimenting you – I really take more from criticism than I do from anything else. Some of the best relationships I have today, with our fans, came from an initial email where they were complaining about something, or pointing something out that needed to change. I think by directly corresponding with people, by really figuring out what’s wrong, then you can properly fix it and when you do that, people really realize that it works. The more information I get from our guests, the better product we can provide for them.

Twitter is just a great mode of communication and it is a lot faster than email. For me, it’s tremendous, because I have a tendency to run on and it limits me to only 140 characters. I’m still new to it and I still make some mistakes when it comes to tweeting. I initially joined to spy on my oldest son, if nothing more, to see what he was doing and who he was talking to. Then, I realized how much of an asset it was as far connecting with our fanbase. The best thing about it is, it’s immediate, it’s fast, and people can tell me about stuff while they are still in the building. I also enjoy the fun, one-on-one relationships you get to build to some degree.

You’re an avid sports fan, if you could play one sport professionally what would it be and why?

Hockey, of course, but there were many coaches who pointed out why I would never play professional hockey. Growing up, like most guys on our team and in our front office, I played everything – baseball, soccer, lacrosse and hockey. It was a little hard to play organized hockey when I was younger, there weren’t a lot of rinks where I grew up on Long Island, so we waited for the ponds or canals to freeze over. Lacrosse and soccer were my two favorite sports and I’ve always been passionate about baseball. I always had a dream that the Yankees would call and sign me to a centerfield contract. I’m still hoping – especially after this past sweep by the Detroit Tigers – they may need a 45-year old with a lively bat.

You’re very active in your kids’ lives. How do you balance work and being an active father?

For me, it’s pretty easy. I talk to people who are just getting into the business and they always hear that the hours are awful and I laugh at them. The hours are awful everywhere, everyone works hard and everyone works long hours. In our industry it is a lot easier. What we do for a living, kids want to be around. There are events like Disney On Ice, hockey games, concerts, you name it – we have a very open and exciting atmosphere in our building. So a lot of times, I’ll bring my kids to work with me. If I am working late, or a Saturday, or Sunday, they can come with me and they get to have fun with me at work. I think more people know my kids than know me. My youngest son is on the jumbo-tron more than Gnash with his painted beard. Everyone enjoys stories about my daughters and my older son. My kids are very active in sports, so a lot of the people I see in the stands here are the same people I see on the fields Saturday morning. The same people I’m cheering with out there are back in here singing the goal song later that night. So, it has always been natural to me. My work life and home life overlap seamlessly. I’m never really seen it as a challenge; I know other people do, but it just flows together so well for me.

Follow Sean on Twitter: @PREDSident

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