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Lightning

Bolts' shining moment reflects on Tampa Bay

The Lightning's momentous victory comes with a slate of immediate and potential benefits for its home town.

By SCOTT BARANCIK and MARK ALBRIGHT
Published June 9, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
3:35 a.m. Tuesday: Taking home the Cup
As the Lightning players' celebration wound down in the early hours of Tuesday, team captain Dave Andreychuk emerged carrying the Stanley Cup, much to the delight of fans outside the St. Pete Times Forum. After mingling a short time, he tucked the silver trophy into the back seat for the drive home. Each player gets to spend at least 24 hours with the Cup.

Tampa Bay area hockey fans may never forget the Lightning's come-from-behind victory in this year's Stanley Cup finals.

But will hockey fans around the world remember the Tampa Bay area?

Bay area tourism and business leaders hope so. They're well aware that millions of viewers saw images of the area for the first time during the seven-game series, which was televised over two weeks on ABC and ESPN.

"You see the city at night, you see the stadium, you get a glimpse of the beaches, and so all of a sudden, people say, "Hey, this is an interesting place, why don't we try it out? We always go to Miami,"' said Walter Klages, a Tampa tourism consultant.

Hillsborough County economic development director Gene Gray, whose agency helps recruit out-of-state employers to the bay area, said a championship sports team is a good marketing tool.

"People like to be associated with winners," said Paul Catoe, CEO of the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The challenge will be converting those fleeting images into concrete economic growth. When it comes to winning the economic development wars, the Stanley Cup just isn't in the same league as football's Super Bowl or baseball's World Series, local officials said Tuesday.

Viewership is one factor. Nearly 90-million people watched the New England Patriots win this year's Super Bowl. By comparison, 20-million people per game watched the World Series in October, while just 3.3-million per game watched this year's Stanley Cup finals, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Even Monday night's breathtaking Game 7 between the Lightning and the Calgary Flames lost out to network series such as Fear Factor and Everybody Loves Raymond.

Timing and ticketing are another factor. The National Football League controls roughly half of all Super Bowl tickets and frequently awards them to corporate sponsors or vendors. The executives can easily plan travel to the big event because the location is known months in advance.

By contrast, the National Hockey League controls less than 5 percent of Stanley Cup tickets, NHL Enterprises president Ed Horne said. The joint sites of the series aren't known until just a few days beforehand, when the two finalists emerge from the conference championships.

"The best comparison for us (to the Super Bowl) is our all-star game," Horne added. "That really is the opportunity for the league to entertain corporate partners and (for the host stadium) to be used as a major promotions and hospitality opportunity."

In a twist, the Stanley Cup series may have done more for Tampa Bay's image in Canada, home to the Flames, than many other areas.

Catoe, the tourism official, said he sent a delegation of marketers to Calgary last week to promote Tampa. Armed with Cuban sandwiches, they went to public festivals, made luncheon appearances and gave media interviews. Catoe himself was interviewed on Canadian television about the bay area. The fact that the bay area has warmed up to Canada's national sport reinforces the kinship. "Half the Lightning players are from Canada," he said. "They are now hometown heroes."

Assessing the short-term impact of the Stanley Cup series - How much money did out-of-state visitors spend in the bay area during the week? - is difficult. Klages and others declined to venture a guess, citing a lack of hard data and the vagaries of the subject. Chicago sports consultant Marc Ganis predicted a boost of $30-million to $50-million during an interview last month.

But there are some anecdotal data.

Tampa area hotels enjoyed a healthy influx of hockey-related business, from a 400-person media contingent to out-of-town fans. At the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, for example, 150 rooms were booked just a few hours after the Lightning's Saturday night overtime win for the following day and Monday. Without that extra jolt of business, the 450-room hotel would have sold about 300 rooms. Instead, it was nearly sold out Sunday and booked on Monday.

"It doesn't make our month financially, but in a slower month like June it certainly helps," said Don McDaniel, Grand Hyatt general manager.

Robin Ronne, senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said there was "substantial" traffic at Tampa International Airport and at restaurants near downtown Tampa. He called the Stanley Cup a "great boost."

One entity clearly benefiting from the series is the Lightning itself, and parent company Palace Sports & Entertainment. Last month, chief financial officer Sean Haley said the team was profitable for the first time in years, thanks largely to the team's playoff success. He said the team would likely rake in $1.9-million for every Stanley Cup game it hosted, which turned out to be four.

Tuesday, Henry wasn't interested in discussing such figures.

"Forget get about short-term finances," he said. "Last night, the amount of memories we built were insurmountable. This is what franchises are built on. When you're a 50-year-old man, you can look back on when you were 12 years old and the Lightning won in seven games."

In terms of public relations, winning the series was important, but so was the way the city's fans behaved afterward. No overturned police cars lit ablaze. Nothing that would embarrass a business recruiter like Hillsborough County government's Gray.

"Thank you, Lord," he said.

- Times reporter Eric Deggans contributed to this report, which also used information from Times files. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.

[Last modified June 9, 2004, 01:00:39]

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