Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Business

It takes months of work by the Tampa Bay Lightning to make it loud for the playoffs

TAMPA — Louise Forrest loves to be a loud, "hard-core" Tampa Bay Lightning fan.

During the postseason, the Lightning makes it easy. Playoff hockey at Amalie Arena means free thunderstix, rally drums and other swag — whatever it takes to help the fans whip up a thunderous noise on their home ice.

Fans clamor for the promotional trinkets, said Lightning officials, and the team is happy to oblige them. Forrest, 54, a season ticket holder who lives in St. Petersburg, is particularly fond of the loud paper fans.

"It just kind of fits with the whole mood of the arena," she said. "It gets everyone into the game."

The Lightning says the point of the giveaways is simple: to create an experience fans can't get by watching games on their big-screen TVs at home. But it takes planning.

The life of a Lightning-emblazoned rally towel or thunderstix can start in February, said Bill Abercrombie, executive vice president of partnership development, when marketing and partnership development teams brainstorm ideas for the playoffs.

The team has to do it months in advance because some items can take as long as 12 weeks to arrive in Tampa.

Fans will get light-up thunderstix for tonight's Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Abercrombie said, and the team has already ordered giveaways should the Lightning advance to the Stanley Cup final.

If so, expect even more rally drums and those loud paper fans.

Those choices meet the two-pronged approach of Abercrombie and Eric Blankenship, the team's vice president of marketing, toward picking freebies. It has to be loud, like rally drums, or visually appealing, like the light-up LED thunderstix.

Ideally, Blankenship said, the giveaway will do both.

"In both cases, we want it to add to the atmosphere," he said. "That's the overarching goal of giveaways now."

It's a pivot away from giveaway culture during Blankenship's first tenure with the Lightning from 1998 to 2002.

Back then, bobbleheads were all the rage, he said, but they were costly and took a long time to make and ship. Now, he said, it's all about creating a raucous and fun playoff environment at the arena.

"People like to make noise," Blankenship said. "We want it to be loud at the arena beyond our fans being loud."

Creating that atmosphere is "well worth our while," Abercrombie said, even when promotions can cost the team $3 or $4 apiece for up to 20,000 items. Oftentimes, sponsorship partners will pick up some or all of the cost, Blankenship said.

One partner, DEX Imaging, had its name on Lightning rally towels given to fans on Friday. DEX Imaging chief marketing officer Nancy Lycan said Lightning marketers pitch promotions to her company. She prefers to partner up on items that will see a lot of use in the stands.

"What we really want are for the giveaways to be interactive," Lycan said, "to become part of the game."

Deciding what items to order is meant to bolster "who we are as a team and are as a brand," Abercrombie said. Recently, that brand was one of the finalists vying for the SportsBusiness Journal's top professional sports business team of the year. Last year the Lightning was ranked No. 1 among NHL teams in ESPN's Ultimate Standings ranking of professional sports teams.

The clamor starts before the puck drops. Lightning fans will tweet or send direct messages to team social media accounts asking about the next promotion. Some even call Blankenship.

He said he tries to be proactive on social media. Lightning accounts will share GIFs, videos or photos teasing whatever the team will hand out to fans next.

"At the end of the day, it's all about fan engagement," he said. "It's all about finding creative ways to give the fans what they want."

Forrest is matter-of-fact about what her goal will be in Game 6.

"You want to drown everyone out," she said, "especially the opponents."

Contact Samuel Howard at [email protected] or (813) 226-3373. Follow @samuelhhoward.

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