NashvillePredators.com 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 Vice President of Ticket Sales Nat Harden.
An “original Predator” who started with the franchise in 1997, Nat Harden is entering his sixth season as Vice President of Ticket Sales. In his current role, Harden is responsible for all tickets sales and service for the Nashville Predators. Under his direction, the Nashville Predators have enjoyed their most successful sales season to date, selling out a franchise record 25 games in 2011-12 and securing an all-time-high 96 percent ticket renewal rate for 2012-13.
Harden started with the Predators as a Fan Relations Account Service Executive before becoming a Corporate Account Executive in 2000. He was promoted to Season Ticket Sales Manager prior to the 2003-04 season, then Director of Ticket sales in 2006. Since Harden’s promotion to Vice President of Tickets Sales the Predators have increased attendance by more than 20 percent and renewed their season ticket holders at an average of 88 percent during that time.
A graduate of Mississippi State University with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a master’s degree in Sports Administration, Harden played baseball for the Bulldogs from 1992-96. Since taking over the season ticket sales, he has required all employees to ring a Mississippi State/Nashville Predators cowbell upon a sale.
Now that you have the facts, let's hear a little more about Nat's start with the team, what it was like playing alongside a couple of future major league ball players and why he's the Preds next puck-moving defenseman.
What was it like being an original Predator and what changes have you seen in the organization and the city since day one?
When I originally came to work for the Predators, the team had just got to town and we had to sell at least 12,000 season tickets to be awarded the franchise. It was a new experience for everyone – employees and fans. I remember having to sell season tickets in Cool Springs Mall down in Franklin. I’ve been fortunate during the 15 years that I’ve been here – I started out at the very bottom of the totem pole and I’ve been able to work my way up through the organization and do different jobs.
The biggest change I’ve seen during my time in Nashville has been the understanding of hockey throughout the community and the amount of fans we have now compared to 15 years ago. An example of that change is the number of Predators logos you see around town now. When you drove around town in 1998, you never saw anyone with Predators stickers on their cars or wearing Predators gear. A lot of people didn’t even know who the Nashville Predators were. Now, you can’t go anywhere without seeing someone with a Predator tag on their car or a fan wearing our gear around town. The general fan base has grown so much over the years. The growth in our fan base over that time has definitely made my job as the head of ticketing easier than it was when I started 15 years ago.
Are there any certain season ticket holders that have stuck out in your mind during your time with the Preds?
There are always stories of people who have never been to a hockey game before, that come to a game with friends. Then they end up buying individual tickets for themselves. Then they bought a mini plan and now they are full season ticket holders. We hear those kinds of stories all the time.
One specific season ticket holder that stands out to me is a gentleman who lives in Pennsylvania and he travels down to games because he’s such a big Predators fan. We have season ticket holders from Alabama, from Georgia, from Missouri, from all sorts of places. Seeing people who are so committed and so passionate about the team, who travel such long distances and make so big of a sacrifice for this team, is really exciting for me.
Why has it been so important to keep our fan base engaged during the current work stoppage?
A big difference between this work stoppage and the one in 2004-05 is going into this year we really wanted to make sure to keep our fans as engaged as possible. As a franchise, we had a lot of momentum coming into this season, coming off our second consecutive second-round appearance last season and our signings this off season. We didn’t want to lose any of that momentum. So each week, we try to provide our fans with new and unique benefits – whether its free tickets to the zoo, discounted tickets to games at Vanderbilt, discounts to the Adventure Science Center or whatever it may be – we want to offer our fans additional benefits while we’re not playing.
In addition to that, we’ve had several events at Bridgestone Arena to get our fans into the building, even if there isn’t hockey being played. We’ve offered tickets to concerts, family shows like Disney on Ice and we even hosted a minor league hockey game between the Knoxville Ice Bears and Huntsville Havoc back in October. We just want our fans to keep coming to the building and staying engaged with the team.
Looking back at the last stoppage, we didn’t do any of the things we are doing now. I think a big part of that was that the landscape of the lockout – it was a lot different and we, as a franchise, didn’t have the momentum or the fan base that we do now.
What was it like playing college baseball at Mississippi State?
Playing college ball was a lot of fun for me, but I really had to learn how to manage my time – how to balance my school work with practice and games. There wasn’t a lot of personal time back in those days, so I really had to learn how to manage my time effectively.
What a lot people don’t realize is playing college athletics is it is almost a full time job in its own right. Learning to balance that with school was a big challenge and it prepared me for my future in the professional world.
A lot of the guys that I played with at Mississippi State ended up in the big leagues – Jay Powell played with the Florida Marlins, Adam Piatt played with Oakland A’s and Gary Rath spent some time with the Minnesota Twins – they were all great guys and far more talented than I was; that’s the reason I’m selling tickets for the Predators and they were playing big league baseball. Just being able to get to know those guys, to compete with them and to play with them on a day-to-day basis was a big thrill for me.
You completed your third Ragnar Relay in November. What has that experience been like for you?
My wife and I really enjoy the sport of running and we enjoy spending time together while running. We started with a 5K in 2002 and we really enjoyed it. After that we decided to start training for a marathon and we ended up running the Walt Disney World marathon soon after.
We continued to run after the Disney marathon and some friends of ours decided to form a team for the Ragnar Relay. The relay starts in Chattanooga and ends in downtown Nashville – we cover the entire distance in one night. You're on a team of 12 people and each person runs seven or eight miles at a time, then you switch out to rest. When you’re not running you ride together in a van and you get to hang out with all these different people. It’s been a lot of fun and we have been a part of the same team for three years now.
Running is a really good outlet for me – it gets me away from the office and the day-to-day grind.
If you could take the ice for the Preds, what position would you play and why?
I would definitely be the next puck-moving defenseman for the Preds. Good teams are built on solid defense and good goaltending – just as the Predators have done for years.
There are a lot of reasons behind my answer – first being, we have drafted a lot of really good puck-moving defensemen. So I’ve been able to watch a lot of high-caliber puck-moving defensemen come through here. But the most important reason is my 9-year old son is a puck-moving defenseman on his team, so I’d want to follow in his footsteps. It’s not a glamorous position, but that’s where the core of the team is built and I’d want to be a part of that core.
Follow Nat on Twitter at: @natharden