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A future on thin ice?

The Tampa Bay Lightning hopes to parlay last year's playoff appearance into increased ticket sales and a loyal fan base. It's a daunting but crucial task if the money-losing major league hockey team is to survive here for the long haul.

By JEFF HARRINGTON
Published September 8, 2003

photo
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Andrew Skora, 5, and his sister, 3, both of Tampa, pose for a photo taken by their father, Steve Skora, in the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room. They were among more than 10,000 people who showed up last month for IceFest, a chance for fans to meet players and tour the locker rooms at the St. Pete Times Forum.

TAMPA - As a birthday gift 10 years ago, Debbie McCune took her son Josh to see the Tampa Bay Lightning play in an old barn on the Florida State Fairgrounds known as Expo Hall.

This year, she's doling out nearly $800 for season tickets. And her 8-year-old grandson Brandon has grown into such a Lightning aficionado that she jokingly refers to him as "Brandon Khabibulin," after his favorite player, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.

"Brandon's goal is to be a Lightning player," McCune says as she waits her turn in a preseason autograph session featuring the newest addition to the roster, Cory Stillman.

It's fall. Time for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to launch their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Time for some renewed enthusiasm over the struggling Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the ragged end of a season in which the team played some of the best baseball in its young history.

The challenge for Lightning owner Bill Davidson and his staff is to recruit more fans like the McCunes, who would rather spend their leisure dollars this autumn on the area's other pro sports team. It's a daunting task but a crucial one if a major league hockey team that has been losing money since its inception is to survive here for the long haul.

Lightning president Ron Campbell says there is still time to grow the franchise into a moneymaker. Yet the intensity of the team's marketing effort and the increased amount it is spending conveys a sense of urgency for a team five weeks away from its first game of the season. In part, it's an effort to get the maximum benefit out of last season's performance, when the team advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Between billboards, radio and TV spots and meet-and-greets with players, the Lightning is spending nearly $1-million on marketing this season, up 25 percent from last year.

And everywhere, the Lightning appears to be countering its rival sports franchises in the area.

As anticipation about the Bucs dominates the local airwaves, 24 Lightning billboards promoting the players as "super heroes" dominate local highways. College football previews in the St. Petersburg Times included ads by the Lightning. As the Rays make a last-ditch effort to sell games in the waning weeks of a season, the Lightning pitches a chance for fans to view its team locker rooms for the first time.

Also for the first time, the Lightning has pushed its marketing into Orlando, Sarasota and Lakeland in an attempt to expand its regional draw.

Sports marketing experts say the Lightning owners are skating uphill. Without an established hockey culture as in Detroit or Toronto, they say, the Tampa Bay team has to win more often and put on a better show than its Northern counterparts if it's to build a fan base.

"It's not a natural sport to be marketed in that part of the country," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You've got other interests for discretionary spending down there. (Hockey) is probably not the first thing they think of."

Swangard compared Florida to California, recalling how Jerry Buss said he bought the L.A. Kings in 1979 after discovering about 300,000 Canadians had moved to southern California. When he later sold the team, according to Swangard, Buss quipped that the reason so many Canadians moved to California was because they hated hockey.

Seeking a winning formula

The Lightning has struggled financially since its birth in 1990. The hockey team and the venue it plays in, the St. Pete Times Forum, have cut losses considerably in recent years but still reported a cash loss of about $10-million for its fiscal year ending in June.

Davidson, whose Detroit company, Palace Sports & Entertainment, bought the Lightning in 1999, is in search of that golden formula to get the team out of the red - a combination of tax breaks, concessions from the city and county and, of course, higher ticket sales.

In recent years, the Lightning has spent more money giving away tickets than any other team in the league and spent more on marketing than its NHL peers. It hasn't been enough.

Last year, Lightning ticket sales totaled about $17-million compared to the league's average "gate" of $28-million.

Campbell says he's a realist. He doesn't expect to make up the ground in one season but he would like to raise ticket sales about 25 percent to $21.5-million this season.

"Our goal is to do exactly what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did and that is sustain a playoff-competitive team year after year," Campbell said. "That's how you sustain your fan base."

Even winning won't solve everything. Some of the bigger problems outside the team's control are escalating players' salaries and the threat of a strike or lockout after this season.

"They're still trying to put a favorable face on a season full of some serious looming questions, not the least of which is, "Are we going to play next year?' " Swangard said.

Kathleen Davis, a professor at Florida International University who also runs a sports consulting company, said the Lightning has some advantages with an improving team and "very nice digs."

But like Swangard, Davis said the Lightning's biggest challenge is establishing a loyal fan base in a non-traditional hockey town.

"There aren't the diehard fans that will stick with you through thick and thin," she said. "Your focus has to be even more concentrated on people who want to go and see winning action and a good team."

Davis' assessment seemed accurate based on a recent Lightning autograph session inside the St. Pete Times Forum.

Several fans surveyed said they had moved from the Midwest or Northeast, where they first developed a love of the game. Some, like Dana Gray of Lutz, played the game in high school when he lived in Massachusetts.

Gray, 45, enjoys the fast-paced action of hockey so much that he gave up his more expensive Bucs season tickets a year ago. Hockey "is a much better spectator sport," he said.

But in his heart, Gray still has the highest regard for his native Boston Bruins hockey team, declaring Bobby Orr the greatest player ever. In that respect, the Lightning is second-tier.

For the Lightning, creating that long-lasting bond with a fan, win or lose, "is the ultimate challenge," Swangard said. "There's not a lasting loyalty in the years they've been in the league. It's still a work in progress."

To foster loyalty, Davis suggests that the Lightning schedule as many player-fan interactive events as possible.

That turns out to be a key part of the team's marketing playbook. The team's new advertising theme of "super heroes" is centered on the players and their push for a second consecutive playoff appearance.

In addition to weekly player autograph sessions and meet-the-player lunches, the team arranged for fans to meet players and tour the locker rooms during in an open house last month dubbed IceFest.

Aware that fans want the player interaction to continue through the season, Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said at least one player may host his own radio show. And look for the third annual Glitz & Sticks celebrity casino night in October.

Finding a boost in sales

So far, the strategy is paying off.

As the team prepares for training camp that starts this weekend, season ticket sales are running about 25 percent ahead of last year.

It helps that the Lightning has momentum on its side. Fan support peaked during last season's playoff run with an average of 20,533 tickets sold per game, more than any other team in the league.

After player salaries, bonuses and other expenses were taken out, Palace Sports netted $3-million from the playoff run, according to Campbell. Not enough to overtake its losses, but it did make a dent in the bottom line.

So did a favorable court decision last month that should save the Lightning about $2-million a year in property taxes.

More money from sponsorships is helping as well. Last year, Davidson signed a 12-year, $30-million sponsorship deal with the St. Petersburg Times that changed the name on the building from Ice Palace to St. Pete Times Forum. Palace Sports still runs the Times Forum and the Lightning.

Put it all together, add another post-season run this year and the Lightning could approach break-even.

But Campbell isn't counting on such an immediate turnaround. It takes years to build a fan base, and despite the financial pressures on the team, he insists Palace Sports is patient.

"It takes time; it's a process," he said. "But if we do it according to plan, hopefully we'll have fans for life."

- Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com or 813 226-3407.

[Last modified September 8, 2003, 01:46:45]

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