Lightning’s growth on ice and in community has turned Tampa into a hot spot, for now
TAMPA, Fla. — This is the South, where football is still king, so the Tampa Bay Lightning must work harder to entrench itself than teams in longer-established sports or in traditional hockey markets.
Jay Feaster, formerly the Lightning’s general manager and now its executive director of community hockey development, is reminded of that each time he visits a local school to introduce street hockey to kids in first through eighth grades. For many, it’s the first time they’ve held a hockey stick.
“That’s the biggest challenge,” Feaster said. “We’ll be talking and ask,
‘Howmany of you know what the Stanley Cup is?’ Nine times out of10 they say, ‘It’s like the trophy for football. It’s like the Super Bowl.’ The kids are born and that’s part of their DNA, whereas hockey is not part of their DNA.”
Hockey might not have been in their blood but it’s becoming a bigger part of sports culture here. Besides those grass-roots efforts, its growth has been fueled by renovations that enhanced the fan experience at gleaming AmalieArena, community involvement directed by owner Jeff Vinik after he bought the franchise in 2010, and the current success of the young, exciting Lightning.
As the Stanley Cup Final opensWednesday, featuring the East champion Lightning against theWest champion Chicago Blackhawks, TampaBay has becomea hockey city for now— and, club executives hope, for the long term.
“Iwould say there are more hockey fans here than people realize,” said Steve Griggs, a native of Canada who is president of the Lightning and the arena. “I think people are so excited about what Jeff Vinik’s doing here in the community and then you have a team that’s performingwell and theywant to be a part of it. Their knowledge of hockey might not be like it is in Minnesota orToronto but their passion for the game and our brand is on an equal level.”
The NHL came to Tampa Bay with an expansion teamin1992, following the shift inU.S. population to Sunbelt cities. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004— with Feaster at the helm— but took a steep fall after the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.
The season ticket base had dwindled to about 4,000 by the time Vinik, a hedgefund manager and minority owner of the Boston Red Sox, bought the franchise and land around the downtownarena. Besides investing about $60 million in improving the countyowned building, he plans a half-billion-dollar real estate development near the arena, along the lines of L.A. Live. Froma hockey standpoint hewas smart enough to hire Steve Yzerman, a finalist this season for the general manager of the year award.
“That’s an exciting, fun teamtowatch,” NHLCommissioner Gary Bettman said. “Steve Yzerman has done a great job building and then rebuilding the team, but it all starts, as it always does, with ownership. Jeff Vinik has been a fabulous owner forTampa, took over the franchise at a point in time where it needed good, strong, committed ownership.”
Feaster believes Vinik’s financial investment in the teamand the area will persuade fans tomake long term emotional investments.
“I look at it fromthe standpoint of the fan base,” Feaster said. “Even if there are some down years in the future, they look at it and say, ‘We trust these people.’ ”
The Lightning’s season ticket base is at11,500 inan area that has no Fortune 500 company headquarters. It played to 98% capacity this season, up from96.9% last season. The team’s five regular-season games on NBCSN averaged a1.4 rating; its second-round playoff rating averaged 5.5 and rose to 8.3 in the East finals, with six games on NBCSN and one on NBC. TheGame7 rating of 11.9 was the highest metered market rating for a Lightning gameon an NBC network in the Tampa market.“The research told us the marketwas here. Past history told us the marketwas here,” said Griggs who previouslyworked for the MinnesotaWild, theTorontoMaple Leafs, and the NBA’sToronto Raptors and Orlando Magic. “What I would tell you is that the brandwas not strong and the product and services were not strong and the culture needed to be transformed.” Hesaid the majority of season-ticket holders are from Tampa, including transplants. Winter visitors, called snowbirds, buy 10packs and mini-packs but most season ticket holders are first- or second-generation hockey fans, he said.
Increasing the number of fans is a mission for Feaster, who returned to the club last July. With ice at a premium— there are only eight sheets of ice in the area and four more due to open in Pasco County later this year — street hockey is the easier entry level and the team has reached thousands of kids this year alone. The Lightning runs clinics as far away as Orlando and Daytona Beach, supplies jerseys to participants in local rec hockey leagues, and plans to increase its involvement in local high school hockey.
“In my mind there’s no doubt that it’s a legitimate hockey market,” Feaster said.
It’s also a legitimate destination for players who want to win, and not merely coast to retirement.
“When you think of Florida you don’t really think about hockey first and foremost. But I must say I’m overwhelmed by the fan basewe have. Verymuch dedicated, unbelievable fans,” said standout defenseman Anton Stralman, who signed a five-year, $22-million contract as a free agent last July.
“They meet us at the airport every timewe come back froma playoff game. It’s been truly an amazing experience with the fans. I’ve never been involved with a teamwhere the fans are so excited for you and really give us a lot of energy.”
Amalie Arena, with its Tesla coils that simulate lightning bolts, should be jumping Wednesday night for the opener. The team’s success to date has already provided the city quite a jolt.
“It’s galvanized the community,” Griggs said. “What we’ve done is we’ve moved people up the fandom ladder. You have passionate Lightning fans, you have casual fans and you have non-hockey fans. We’re trying to stair-step those fans upward and attract newfans.”
FANS CHEER in Tampa, Fla., after the Lightning’s 2-0 victory over the Rangers in New York in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.