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Lightning

Hottest tickets on ice

SUITE SEATS: High above the ice, in the domain of the corporate suite, the view is great, the liquor's flowing and loyalty is often the price of admission.

By JEFF HARRINGTON
Published May 27, 2004


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As general manager for Ticketmaster, Sherry Dye knows what it's like to be sought after for the hottest tickets in town.

But when it came to doling out the 18 spots in Ticketmaster's corporate suite for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, even Dye was taken aback at the number of requests pouring in. "Oh, my gosh," she said, laughing. "You don't even want to know."

It is a rite of championship sports - giving away the good seats. With the Lightning in their first Stanley Cup final, the corporate suites that ring the upper levels of the St. Pete Times Forum have never brought such a sweet return on the investment. Now, those companies are reveling in the home team's good fortune by filling the boxes with loyal clients and favored employees.

If there's a downside, it's having to choose who gets the night of hockey, the great view, the drinks and the chocolate-laden desserts.

Dye said Ticketmaster, like many companies, did its best to spread the wealth in distributing suite tickets: a pair for Tampa Sports Authority operations director Mickey Farrell and his son; a couple for the Orlando Magic; some for executives with the Outback Bowl; a few for Clear Channel; and Infinity Radio and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I know some people use these (suites) for their employees," Dye said. "For us ... we do a lot for our clients, for people we deal with on a regular basis."

For others, workers came first.

Eddie DeBartolo was in Las Vegas at a convention during Tuesday's game but he left use of the DeBartolo Property Group's suite entirely for employees.

Nearby, in Suite 31, Alltel Communications opted for a mix of employees and clients - heavy on the clients.

Dennis Sheaffer, vice president of business solutions with Alltel, said two or three sales representatives came Tuesday, along with some top business clients. Among those enjoying the suite's hospitality were Jay Martin of JJ Taylor Distributing, the beer wholesaler, and LPGA Tour pro Beth Bauer.

Bauer admitted a limited knowledge of hockey and said her schedule has prevented her from watching the playoffs so far. But it didn't take her long to get caught in the moment.

"For this town and for (the Lightning) it's so exciting to see this," she said. "As an athlete, I know what it's like to reach their dreams."

For the St. Petersburg Times, use of Suite 18 rotates between senior management in areas such as the newsroom, advertising, marketing and circulation as well as ancillary operations such as Florida Trend, according to Times marketing director Ed Cassidy. The managers decide how to use the suite.

For the finals, Cassidy said, the paper has invited a mix of business and civic leaders, including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.

In Suite 11, Gator Ford split costs with Hunt Douglas Inc. and Gold Bank. That gave Robert McElheny, Gator Ford's vice president and general manager, just six tickets to divvy.

"It's a tough decision," McElheny said. "We go to the sales people and try to reward clients based on their loyalty to us. ... You hate to disappoint people but somebody's not going to go."

The Lightning's success is even sweeter, McElheny said, because it comes after Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment and its predecessors struggled for years to put a competitive team on the ice.

Like many of the suite holders on the third and fifth floors of the Times Forum, Gator Ford has been with the team through the down times.

"These are tickets that we used to beg people to take," McElheny said. "Now ... they're doing the begging instead of us."

The cost of a suite can vary significantly depending on where it's situated and whether the corporate buyer is seeking access to all events, hockey only, some concerts, or any other mix.

In round terms, suites on the third-floor cost as much as $200,000 a year for all events while fifth-floor suites may be closer to $100,000 for all events.

Prices have risen as the Lightning have improved. The luckiest suite holders may be those who locked in to a deal for as long as 10 years when the Times Forum, then called the Ice Palace, opened in 1996.

For the St. Petersburg Times, the cost of the suite was incorporated as part of the 2002 naming rights deal for the arena. The Times is paying about $30-million over 12 years for sponsorship of the St. Pete Times Forum.

Before the naming rights deal, the Times was operating under a 1995 agreement for its suite. It paid about $100,000/year for a 10-year deal with a clause allowing for a 2 percent annual increase, Cassidy said.

The roster of suite holders is diverse. Among them: Tampa Bay Surgery Center, Ferman Motor, Bright House, Cox Target Media, Hooters, AT&T Wireless, The New York Yankees, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a dozen area banks and law firms.

One consistent feature in each suite was the replenishing of supplies of beer, liquor, and assorted sandwiches, hot food and desserts.

It provided for a festive atmosphere, until Calgary scored two quick goals in the second period en route to their 4-1 victory over the Bolts. As the Flames went up 3-0, a hush came over most of the Ticketmaster suite. It was punctuated by one guy, dressed head to toe in Calgary red and white, cheering loudly. Dye, the Ticketmaster executive, rolled her eyes.

"He's not really with the Magic," she said in defense of one of her clients. "He's friends with someone with the Magic."

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

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 07:20:06]

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