Andrew Smith takes a trip to the Music City to bask in one of the most unique fan experiences in professional sports.
Having just experienced it first hand and lived to tell the story, I can confidently say that there’s nothing on earth quite like Cell Block 303.
If one were to cross a costume party, the Rocky Horror Picture Show and one of those contests where guys compete to see who can deliver the best insult about the other guy’s mother, you’d have something approaching the experience of watching a Nashville Predators hockey game in section 303 of the Bridgestone Arena.
It’s an otherworldly scene.
The fans who aren’t wearing jerseys dress in costumes. The guy sitting beside me for Saturday night’s game against the St. Louis Blues wore a cape that he flailed around at each dramatic moment.
A group of guys at the top of the section took turns yelling insults directed at both the visiting Blues players and at the city with the arch in general. Others blow train whistles designed to remind of a Predators player with the last name “Tootoo.”
The fans not only cheer after every goal, they break into a predetermined full minute taunt of the other team’s goalie after every score, delivered in perfect unison. Cell Block 303 starts these cheers after every goal, and the rest of the stadium soon joins in.
The amazing thing is that the fans have a specific insult for every situation. There’s a taunt if an opposing player falls on the ice. There’s a different taunt if an opposing player gets a penalty, followed by yet another taunt when the penalty box door shuts behind him.
Individual opposing players are told they suck after every pregame introduction, right before the first faceoff, and, lest they forget, they are reminded that they suck at various intervals throughout the game.
There are an equal number of synchronized cheers supporting the Predators, and for that matter, even for when the P.A. guy announces the remaining time.
On each occasion, voices ring out in perfect unison with no clear source of origin, as though everyone in the section received a secret text message reading: “Go.” No one rehearses these cheers prior to the game, and there are no instructions handed out, but the fans in the Cell Block somehow just know all the words to say and when to say them.
Its the only setting know to humanity (outside of pro wrestling) where professional sports follows a script.
Given the passion of the fans it contains, one might expect Cell Block 303 to contain the best seats in the house. The opposite is actually true.
Tucked away high in a remote corner of the arena, the section consists of the worst seats in the arena that money can buy. Somewhere along the way, the blue collar fans who could afford nothing better than the cheapest seats in the stadium decided to enhance their experience by collectively going nuts, and Cell Block 303 was born. In a Southern city that wasn’t a natural hockey market, the inmates of Cell Block 303 set out to make their enthusiasm infectious, and have largely succeeded.
In fact, the inmates of 303 have created such an energetic atmosphere that many who experience it firsthand will never voluntarily sit anywhere else again. The seats may not be great, but the energy and sense of community of being an inmate in the cell block are unrivaled.
Of course, the atmosphere isn’t quite so pleasant if you’re a fan of the opposing team who somehow ends up with tickets in the section.
On Saturday, a group of Blues fans, having no idea what they had gotten themselves into, strutted to their seats loudly talking trash and proclaiming their superiority to all who would listen.
Within five minutes they were beaten into verbal submission by retorts from various inmates who had clearly spent all day thinking of ways to defame all thing St. Louis, including its fans. As this unfortunate foursome realized they were in waaayyyy over their heads they suddenly became quiet.
Ten minutes later, one of them turned around and, with voice cracking, sheepishly whispered to my wife and I:
“This is insane. I’ve never seen anything like this. Are we even going to be safe sitting here?”
I assured them they would–that the Cell Block was like this for every game, but that it’s all in good fun. The passion is intense here, but it’s not the kind of place where people actually resort to violence.
Still, at that point, my wife, herself decked out in Predators gear, jumped in: “We used to live in St. Louis,” she said, “so I’m actually a Blues fan too.”
“But there is no way I’m letting anyone know that while I’m sitting here.”