I've reviewed tons of shows at the St. Pete Times Forum in my six years here as the pop music dude, and I swear I didn't recognize my suddenly sparkly home away from home on Monday.
But what was more startling about the $40 million in renovations at the Tampa arena — and by "startling" I mean "power-to-the-people awesome!" — was the refreshing respect shown to the folks in the cheap seats.
As a critic, I get killer tickets to concerts. Can't lie about that. It's a perk. As a sports fan, however, I'm routinely wedged shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ueckers of the world. Nosebleed City, baby! For the Tampa Bay Lightning's home opener, I was in section 305, one row from the top.
I've been to dozens of stadiums and arenas around the country, and there's pretty much a universal nonchalance for the grunts up high. Hemorrhoidal seats, lousy views, lame eats. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Tropicana Field.) But Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has opened his wallet and bucked the trend. Huzzah!
Herewith, my five fave things about the 300 level at the "new" Times Forum:
The Between the Pipes Bar. Take the escalator up to the 300s (a rare luxury in itself), and it guides you toward the Between the Pipes Bar, a wide, charmingly lit double-sided watering hole providing both beer and top-shelf booze — not to mention epic views of the arena. On top of the bar perches Ray Horsley and his five-keyboard organ. But wait, there's more: Looming above Ray are 63 gigunda organ pipes plus a mondo Tampa Bay Lightning sign, all of which strobe along to the blood-pumping music.
The Bud Light Party Deck. This 10,000-square-foot outdoor wild zone features multiple long bars with plenty of servers plus Cuban-themed snacks featuring palomilla steak. Even better than that is the yowza view of the Tampa skyline. And even better than that — at least for the healthy set — is that firing up a Marlboro Light is strictly prohibited. By the way, traffic remains an annoying problem in the 300-level corridor, but the Party Deck should help ease the glut and make getting a cold beverage easier.
The Cushy Chairs. The leg room — or tragic lack thereof — remains comically squishy, with anyone over 6 feet folded in on himself like an aging yoga instructor. And the ballyhooed new cupholders actually take up more of your legroom. That said, the hard plastic seats have been cushioned in a dark cozy fabric, which nicely softens your landing after you rocket up and down with every Marty St. Louis slapshot.
The Sightlines. Like football, hockey is a good TV sport, which means it's also a game better viewed from up high. You need to see plays develop, and the Times Forum has always been known for its fan-friendly sightlines. But with all those newly upholstered chairs and a hot paint job, an average indoor decor now looks classy and clean, which makes the panoramic shots from on high even snazzier. Plus the giant hanging scoreboard with its crisp screens and fun vids has always been better enjoyed from the upper deck.
The BBQ Chicken Nachos. Okay, these gooey beauties aren't new. But man, is there a better stadium snack anywhere in the country? And if there is, can you bring me a lot of them, preferably smothered in cheese? You'll find me way up in 305 — and smiling big.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.