SBJ/October 3-9, 2011/Franchises

Changing culture at Tampa Bay started with listening to ticket holders, CEO Leiweke says

When Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke started with the team in July 2010, he found an outdated building with plastic seats and no food service in the upper bowl, a disenchanted fan base and a season-ticket base of about 5,000. Now, on the eve of the 2011 season, the Lightning has nearly 11,000 season-ticket holders, a powerhouse team and a renovated arena. Staff writer Fred Dreier caught up with Leiweke to discuss the team’s speedy renaissance.


What challenges does Tampa create for a sports franchise?

LEIWEKE: I think the economy hit this area harder than others, and that coupled with the fact that the team had been for sale caused it to lose momentum. Every market is a different opportunity, and we’re blessed with phenomenal weather. Last year the NHL did a survey and we were in the top five teams for players saying it was a great place to play. But that creates a challenge too, because on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of hockey season it can be 70 degrees and a great day to go boating.

NEWSCOM
Tod Leiweke has helped the Lightning double its ticket base and update its arena.
You’ve more than doubled your season-ticket base in a little over a year. To what do you attribute that success?


LEIWEKE: The players and fans found a lot of inspiration in [owner] Jeff Vinik and [general manager] Steve Yzerman, and we found a way to win. But of course we also modified the logo and did a $40 million privately financed construction project. We have a brand-new, 11,000-square-foot outdoor deck. We knocked down two seating sections in the end zone and built an interior stage, and on top of that sits the mother of all hockey organs.

You also did several innovative campaigns involving the jersey and the logo. Talk to us about those.

LEIWEKE: We decided to take a look at the logo to see if there was something that symbolized what Jeff is trying to create. So we did this thing where every season-ticket holder gets a jersey with a microchip woven into it that gives them a 25 percent discount on concessions and 35 percent discount at retail. It’s unfair that our fans paid the same price for a beer as a visiting Detroit Red Wings fan.

Jeff Vinik worked with New England Sports Ventures, and there has been talk that he hopes to start a Fenway Sports-style business in Tampa with the AFL Storm.

LEIWEKE: There is probably some bandwidth there, but one thing at a time. The goal right now is to become a sustainable organization. We’re not going to break even this year, we’re not there yet. We’re not sold out, we still have season tickets to sell. But all of the metrics are pointing in the right direction.

How did you change the culture within the organization?

LEIWEKE: The first thing you have to do is listen. A year ago we did a major survey of our suite holders and season-ticket holders. A lot of the inspiration for the renovations were triggered by that feedback. The desire to see traditions emerge from this team has manifested itself in a lot of what we do.

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