Off The Post: Bolts, Bay Area Shedding “Non-Traditional” Myths
Off The Post is a feature that gives an in-depth look at specific topic regarding the Tampa Bay Lightning or the NHL.
There was a time when many thought hockey would not work in Florida. It was too hot and muggy and no one would want to go see a game. Then Phil Esposito got this idea to bring a team to Tampa 22 years ago and since then, the Tampa Bay Lightning, like the San José Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings have defied the myths associated with the non-traditional markets.
For sure, the first thing one would need to look at and understand is that almost all of these franchises have been around a lot less than say the Boston Bruins or the Montreal Canadiens so already they have to build up a brand so to speak. The fastest way to build up that brand, to build up the fan base—is winning.
All of the aforementioned teams have won a Stanley Cup, the Kings have done it twice, or they have had consistent success in reaching the playoffs and giving their fans, city and region the taste of playoff hockey like the Sharks.
The Bolts won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and unfortunately, the 2004-2005 lockout took much of the team’s brand building momentum with it as fans didn’t get to jump right in and enjoy the championship as some of the other teams did. Waiting a whole calendar year without raising the banner can do that sometimes.
Not only did the Bolts have to compete with the lockout but their fans also had to suffer through a highly questionable ownership group in OK Hockey, who according to former Stanley Cup winning GM Jay Feaster, “they did everything they could to try to purge any evidence and record and memory of the 04 Cup win.”
Jeff Vinik has done no such thing as he has encouraged and honored the fact the Bolts won the Cup in 2004 and has gone as far as making statues, holding ceremonies and even allowing fans to have a chance with to photograph with the Cup. OK Hockey tried and tested fans’ patience and as each loss piled up, well there was talk that the team would move or relocate to places such as Quebec and Winnipeg because “hockey doesn’t work in Florida.”
Vinik is doing his best to change that mindset. He poured his own money and finances into bettering the Tampa Bay Times Forum such as a new scoreboard and the electronic organ bar, hired Feaster to develop a community hockey program for fans and families of players to enjoy. The Feaster move is critical as it not only gives Tampa a stronger hockey community presence but it will also be a great selling point with free agents who want their kids to grow up and play hockey. Also having Hall of Fame player Steve Yzerman as his GM hasn’t hurt him so far.
These moves are all being recognized and rewarded by the fan base as the Bolts stood 8th in attendance last year. The only teams ahead of them have been around for a long time and the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings benefited from playing the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan’s “Big House.” Another tidbit of information is the Lightning operated at a 97 percent capacity so this playoff run should help them reach that 100 percent if the team does well next year.
The most interesting thing though is the Lightning were the only “non-traditional” market to be included in the top-10 in attendance. The next team that is “non-traditional” is the Stanley Cup winning Los Angeles Kings at 13th. The Kings also benefited from some of the outdoor games as well. That’s pretty good for a team that seven years ago was supposed to be relocated to Quebec or Winnipeg.
The Bay area fans want to support a winning team and a team they believe in. Vinik and the rest of the organization are giving them a reason to believe in the team and show support. This show of support hasn’t beenevident since the Bolts won the Cup. Sure, the team will have to compete with other sports and Florida’s massive amount of tourism entertainment but for now they seem to be doing one thing.
They are disproving the myth that hockey in Florida can’t succeed. Clearly, the numbers bear that out.