tampabay.com

Will Tampa hockey work this time?

The new team is looking to stop organization's money-losing skid.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 8, 2007


For a succession of out-of-town owners over 15 years, the Tampa Bay Lightning has provided ample excitement but punishment for the pocketbook.

Michigan auto glass billionaire William Davidson gave team ownership a whirl for 8 years only to lose more than $70-million. Two predecessors shoveled $120-million into the money hole that is Tampa Bay area hockey.

The announcement Tuesday that Davidson's Palace Sports & Entertainment will sell the Lightning to Absolute Hockey Enterprises for close to $200-million begs an obvious question:

How can the new ownership team -- a recently fired hockey team president, a Hollywood horror film producer and a Florida developer -- make this thing work financially?

For starters, Doug MacLean, Oren Koules and Jeff Sherrin promised an end to management by remote. The trio (who will be bolstered by other unnamed investors) all plan moves to Tampa.

Davidson's attachment to Tampa was often overshadowed by his successful stewardship of his hometown basketball team, the Detroit Pistons. His main company, Guardian Industries, is a multinational maker of windshield and building glass.

The new owners, by contrast, insist the Lightning franchise and running the St. Pete Times Forum will become their top priority. "This is our job," said Koules, 46, whose low-budget Saw horror film franchise has cleared more than $400-million worldwide.

The Lightning buyers declined Tuesday to reveal individual stakes in the team, nor even say whether the three combined owned a majority. When asked who would hold a controlling share, Koules quipped, "The bank." But the group pledged deep pockets to rebuild a championship team that would turn a profit.

"It usually takes care of itself," Sherrin said. "The better the team, the better the numbers."

Sherrin, 51, developed such projects as Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores, an outlet mall. He traced his involvement in the deal to a personal friendship with MacLean, who, until April, was the president of the National Hockey League's Columbus Blue Jackets.

But it's no coincidence that the deal includes two lots adjacent to the St. Pete Times Forum totaling nearly 5.5 acres. While Sherrin said "we don't have a clue" about how to develop the riverfront property assessed at $17.5-million, its brick-and-mortar value figured in the partners' calculations.

"It's choice land and well located," said Ron Weaver, a Tampa lawyer who's tracked the parcels for years. "The Marriott Waterside nearby is one of the most successful in America and people might want to replicate that. If the condo market comes back in two years, it's a perfect place."

Though the plan was still sketchy Tuesday, Koules suggested adding Hollywood pizzazz to the Lightning's marketing. He mentioned enlisting business associates such as actor Charlie Sheen, whose sitcom Koules produces, or using the hockey team's beefcake appeal to sell tickets.

Koules bemoaned the fact that the Lightning possessed "great-looking young guys" who remain unknown relative to their baseball and football counterparts.

"It's about getting them out there a little bit," Koules said.

It's that sort of passionate, well-rounded approach that attracted Davidson to the new owners, Lightning president Ron Campbell said. The tycoon met MacLean and Sherrin at the Stanley Cup finals in June. An aggressive courtship ensued, even though Davidson had never placed the team on the market.

"This group kept pursuing, kept asking, showed a breadth that was very attractive," Campbell said.

Aside from the red ink -- the team said it only turned a profit in its 2004 Stanley Cup championship year -- Davidson had wearied of his long-distance ownership, Campbell said.

"He's just not as mobile as he used to be," Campbell said.

At 84, Davidson appears to be consolidating his sports and entertainment affiliates in his native Michigan. He recently bought a Detroit-area firm that does banners for the Pistons and is eyeing a uniform, ball cap and sports apparel company.

Though no one alluded to economic pressures on Davidson, his core manufacturing business is exposed to an economic downturn in the auto and building industries.

Though the new owners speculated that the National Hockey League would approve their purchase in weeks, Campbell assumes three months is closer to the mark.

MacLean, 53, a transplanted Canadian whose previous jobs included coaching the Florida Panthers hockey team, will run the team day to day as chief executive. Sherrin will handle many of the money matters.

"I hope I'm a better owner than I was a coach," MacLean said.