I’ve talked about my early efforts to market this team 20 years ago, laying the foundation for what I believe it today one of the most passionate fan bases in any sport. Last week, I credited a number of individuals with helping me accomplish many of the goals I had set out for this franchise. Mel Lowell, Henry Paul, Tom McEwen, George Steinbrenner and many more.
While it would have been impossible for me to truly capture how integral each of them were to this franchise, solely because their contributions were overwhelming to a degree, they all had a hand in some aspect of the team, whether it be the marketing ,the branding, creating an identity, and especially, bridging the gap of the divide between Tampa Bay sports fans when it came to certain communities around the Bay Area.
I’ve spoken before about how Tom McEwen’s foresight and experience covering Bay Area sports teams, paired with Steinbrenner’s long-tenured position as one of the world’s top sports executives, sparked the ideas that were then translated into motion. Some of those ideas were adding “Bay” to the logo and when the original design of the Lightning crest was created, while others involved moving to St. Petersburg soon after our debut.
Twenty years later, as we celebrate this landmark season, we have affirmed the effects all of these ideas had.
In other words, it is evident today that all of it paid off, and if you ask me, that is very apparent just by looking at our fan base.
People from the outside who come to visit Tampa and attend Lightning games while they’re here, especially this season, are shocked sometimes to learn that we’ve sold out every single home game, and that the current streak is actually a continuation from a string of sellouts dating back to last season.
Well, let me tell you, I’m not surprised in the least.
This ownership group, and believe me, I have seen some bad ones, has done a tremendous job of selling this team to the community and getting everyone to buy in.
Jeff Vinik and his team, with Tod Leiweke, have been unbelievable in shaping the fan base, and it didn’t take long, having done so in just three years. But even that first season, the Lightning nearly made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, and Steve Yzerman was the general manager, and when they brought him in, it added instant credibility and revived this fan base, which in my opinion, had always been passionate and these people loved hockey, but with the previous ownership group, and a few poor seasons, it hadn’t been as strong as it was a few years ago until now.
As the founder of this team, I have to say that makes me so happy.
I’ve said from day one, that this would be a great hockey town. Twenty years ago, people thought I was nuts. Honestly, they laughed at me. But I didn’t care. I was in charge, and I said ‘you watch. You watch what we’re going to do here.’
It took some time, but I knew that these people loved football, they loved boxing, they loved fast=paced action, and so early on when we were preparing to play at the Fairgrounds, I said come to a hockey game, and you’ll get all of that in one place.
In a way, this franchise is my baby. So it makes me proud to see it thrive, just as a parent would be with their child. The two are not that far off.
Back then, I knew that once we had the fans in the building, they would be hooked. The funny thing is though, they were hooked on the game itself, and early on at that time, that was pretty much all we had to offer.
Now, however, you look at what the fans get when they come to a game, and the experience that we have to offer them now is so different than what it was back then. I think about how this team has transformed itself since Mr. Vinik came in, and I say to my wife, no wonder these people love coming here.
I’m getting old, and I’m from the old school, so two years ago at that press conference we had here, I was blown away at what Mr. Vinik and all those involved were willing to do.
It all started with that jersey we unveiled with the microchip that gave fans discounts on food and merchandise. Then we started giving money to the community, and then we put in a new scoreboard, which is spectacular.
It also doesn’t hurt that we hold watch parties for the away games, the fans follow along on Twitter and Facebook and whatever else is out there now, and we also put Dave Andreychuk in a position to where he can relate to fans and create more of a transparency for our team off the ice.
I don’t see any other teams investing in its fans or the community in such a way that this team does. And I’m telling you, it makes a difference. It means the world to these fans. I truly believe that.
Recently, Sun Sports had a television special on our fans. They’re dedicated enough that people know them. They recognize them enough to want to talk to them and have an entire segment dedicated to them. I think that says a lot.
I played in New York and then in Boston and those two cities alone have some rowdy fan bases. They did back then and they do now.
If you ask me, so does Tampa Bay. It’s a credit to this ownership and the job they’ve done, and it’s a credit to those who pay good money every night to come here.