Tod Leiweke has earned a reputation as a builder and fixer of sport franchises. Most recently, he's run the business side of teams owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen: the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, the NBA's Portland Trailblazers and the Seattle Sounders Major League Soccer team. • On Tuesday, Leiweke took on new job that will test his interpersonal and financial skills: Chief executive and minority owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He held an introductory press conference at the St. Pete Times Forum Wednesday morning and will start work once a new Seahawks CEO is hired. • Leiweke, 50, talked with the Times about giving the Lightning a brand identity, deeper community ties and some much-needed front office stability.
You're taking on a big challenge rebuilding attendance and relations with corporate sponsors. What's the first step?
Early on, we're going to focus on figuring out what the brand of this team and organization is. Before you can get to economics, you've got to first understand who you are and what you stand for. If you can understand that, you can create consistency. What's happened here has been inconsistency just by the sheer nature of changes in ownership.
Does the Lightning have any brand now?
We've got work to do. If you asked people what the Tampa Bay Lightning means to them, you'd probably get a wide variety of answers. In Seattle, it's the number 12 (for the stadium crowd or "12th man''). It means passion. It means fans.
Why is that so important?
This isn't a commodity. We don't sell signs, we don't sell tickets. This is ultimately a relationship business and that is what we are going to get into. Relationships tend to pass the test of time. The Seahawks have had a couple bad years, but the stadium's going to be full. Sponsorships didn't fail because we had good relationships.
You've talked about making the St. Pete Times Forum the best arena in the NHL. Any ideas about where to start?
Sponsors get exposure here, but it's pretty overwhelming. You've got to get to the point where everything here reflects (fans') values. We're going to honor what's happened in this organization. They friggin' won a Stanley Cup and it was not very long ago. We're going to honor our players. Steve Stamkos is incredible. So, this building is going to sing hockey when we're done.
Another big deal for you in Seattle was involving the team in community activities such as the United Way. Is that part of your plan here?
I did over 50 speaking engagements on behalf of the United Way. We climbed (Mount) Ranier and planted the flag. Ultimately, we ran a campaign in arguably the worst economic times in my generation … and achieved over $100 million. We are going to pick some things here that are going to be game changers.
What convinced you to come down here from a pretty good gig in Seattle?
(Principal owner) Jeff Vinik ultimately was the guy I bought into in this whole thing. There was (general manager) Steve Yzerman. This is an awesome place to live. Boating in the morning and watching hockey in the afternoon is a really cool idea.
And the fans. The fans showed up here and had the same passion as any fans anywhere. The run up to the Stanley Cup — I watched some of the games on YouTube — was totally awesome. So, it's been here. It's not like you have to go start something.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.