A year and a half into the dream of owning a hockey franchise, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is ready to say progress has been made.
One sign, he told a room of nearly 600 businesspeople, is the use of the term “bullish” by his top executives at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Vinik was keynote speaker last week at the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s annual Fast 50 Awards luncheon honoring the fastest growing Tampa Bay area businesses.
He’s bullish on his organization, bullish on the Tampa Bay business community and bullish on the U.S. economy. Vinik still quietly runs a hedge fund and has been successful in the stock market, so the term bullish is endearing for a lot of reasons.
The recovery is slow, “two steps forward and one back,” he said. “But corporate earnings are good, and that’s good for capital spending.”
Looking ahead five, 10 or even 30 years, these are “manageable problems,” Vinik said. Other positives he cited: the urbanization of China, India and Indonesia.
“They are in the third or fourth inning of that process,” he said, “or better, the beginning of the second period,” to apply the parlance of baseball and hockey, the sports he has invested in personally.
Vinik described his time as owner of the Lightning as likely the best year and a half of his life. Some of his initial objectives, he said, expressed in the early days of his arrival, are being met: to have a team and organization considered “world class.”
Another has been a complete “best in brand” overhaul, which the team rolled out midway through last season.
By giving to all 10,000 season ticket “members” jerseys implanted with chips for 25 percent discounts at concession stands, he believes the club is practicing innovation.
What was originally a $25 million renovation of the St. Pete Times Forum is now a $40 million effort with the decision to open up the ends of the concourse by removing revenue-generating suites to create character and add originality to the venue.
“We don’t want fans to feel they are in a generic arena,” Vinik said. “We want them to know it’s Tampa Bay.”
Other changes include a grand entryway outside, more efficient ticket offices, better heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and better lighting on the ice and for TV.
Efforts to preach customer service even had him picking up garbage at a game, Vinik said.
Add a deep playoff run to the efforts and it seems to be paying off with 4,000 new season-ticket packages sold so far in the offseason, “far and away the best in the NHL,” he said.
“We feel like we’re a startup. We have that entrepreneurial feeling,” Vinik said.
Alexis Muellner is editor of the Tampa Bay Business Journal, an affiliated publication.