St. Petersburg Times
Tampa Bay Lightning

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Ownership can help its team join fun

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 28, 2003

If there ever was a prime example of how a sports team can take over a town, it happened a few hours after the Bucs won the NFC championship and were greeted at the stadium by 25,000 screaming fans.

Lightning coach John Tortorella watched on television and marveled at the passion. He only wished Lightning ownership, based in Auburn Hills, Mich., had seen it too.

This is a transition time for NHL teams. Succeed in January and February, and March becomes a playoff race, and maybe the general manager works a trade to push the team over the hump.

That final step can only happen with a financial commitment from ownership, and that is why Tortorella wishes the higher-ups at Palace Sports & Entertainment could experience Bucs mania and, in their own way, join the party.

"I wish they could see what's happening in our city with a winning team," Tortorella said. "This is football country, always has been, always will be. But if we continue to go about it in the right way -- and these are decision times as far as where this team is right now -- we can reap the benefit of bringing people in here in a winning atmosphere like the Bucs have.

"I guess it's difficult for (owner Bill Davidson) and the people in Auburn Hills to feel it because they are not here. But I wish our ownership could see what would happen as we evolve if you win. That is what I'd like them to see. That is what I'd like them to feel."

Palace Sports knows all about the effect a winning team has on a community. The company owns the NBA's Detroit Pistons, which won championships in 1989 and '90.

But there is a philosophical difference as to how the company perceives its relationship with the Lightning, and what others -- players and coaches among them -- expect from ownership.

Palace Sports, which to be fair has lost, by its count, an estimated $38-million in the 31/2 years it has owned the team, wants ticket sales and results in the standings to lead to greater investment. The opposing model says ownership should invest on the front end with an eye toward reaping the benefits when the team wins.

By adding just $2-million in salaries, the Lightning has plunged into the playoff race. And its $28.1-million payroll is just $5-million less than what the Hurricanes spent to get to the Stanley Cup final.

"I feel this city can support both teams, three teams, the baseball team too when it becomes successful, because it's a great sports town," Tortorella said. "But you have to go about it in these steps. Eventually, the whole organization has to step up to another level."

Tortorella, a Boston native, remembers the orange-clad Bucs.

"That franchise was an absolute joke, and look what's happened as they've gone through and matured. It's fantastic," he said. "Are we not on a similar path? They were God-awful and look what they've done. And it hasn't been just the players. It hasn't been just the coaches. It's ownership too.

"If I get in trouble for saying that, why work for the organization? I care about the organization. I think we're building in the right way, the way the Buccaneers had to go through; slowly coming along and then really making a push and really taking a run at it."

Bucs ownership spent $8-million to get coach Jon Gruden from the Raiders. NHL teams don't have the luxury of billion-dollar television deals, which ensure every NFL team makes money. And there is no salary cap (yet) to promote parity.

Tortorella said that is not the point.

"I think our ownership wants a winner here," he said. "I'm not trying to berate or second-guess anybody. I think we're on the right path. I think it's been very positive. But these are crucial times of where we go next. Do you keep spinning your wheels or do we make a push as an organization?"

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