For someone who runs a money-losing hockey team, Tampa Bay Lightning principal owner Jeff Vinik is certainly in a spending mode lately.
On Monday, the Lightning unveiled new blue-and-white uniforms, which along with a new logo and some rebranding cost close to $1 million. Add in that the Lightning is giving away jerseys to thousands of full season ticket holders (at about $150 apiece) along with heavy concession and merchandise discounts at games, and the price tag escalates quickly.
Today, the team will announce a major charitable contribution at Metropolitan Ministries. On Wednesday, it will reveal more plans for an estimated $40 million makeover of its home stadium, the St. Pete Times Forum, an overhaul that the St. Petersburg Times first reported last week. County documents indicate the team wants to be reimbursed for much of the expense using tourist taxes, but Lightning execs indicate Vinik is prepared to move forward with or without the pledge of financial support.
Put the spending spree together — along with $5 million Vinik & Co. already spent on Forum improvements — and it looks like a long-term commitment to the Lightning.
Yet, Vinik, who bought the team almost a year ago, won't say how much he'll invest or how long he's willing to wait to turn a profit. "The key here is building a winning program for the long term," he said. "We want to bring a Stanley Cup back to Tampa Bay. Let there be no doubt that is what we're trying to accomplish."
So he's patient about becoming profitable? "I didn't say that either," Vinik said, laughing. "Your words." Financial goals, he said, are "private."
Chief executive and minority owner Tod Leiweke said the money spent on the uniform and logos alone "is not for the faint of heart."
Leiweke's yardstick of success is a visual one. He wants the inside of the Times Forum to look like it did during the Lightning's Stanley Cup championship season in 2004, before an under-performing team, lousy economy and disjointed front office combined to torpedo attendance.
"For Jeff Vinik, we owe him an opportunity that (the Lightning) at least has a shot at being a long-term viable entity," Leiweke said. "We owe this to the fans. … This was an organization that seems to have lost its way. The statement we're making today is we're back."
The previous owner, OK Hockey, covered an era best known for infighting.
Enter Vinik, a Boston hedge fund manager whose background in hockey was as a spectator.
He pushed the team to move forward with a makeover quickly, making the rare move of unveiling a new jersey and brand mid-season. Three years worth of work in the past six months as Leiweke described it. "We're living in dog years," he joked.
To promote the new jersey, the franchise is trying another first: each full season ticket holder for the 2011-12 season will receive a home game jersey. Inserted in the sleeve will be a microchip that can be scanned at concession stands and merchandise shops throughout the Times Forum, entitling the fans to a 25 percent discount on concessions and 35 percent discount on merchandise. The team didn't say when the jerseys, which won't be worn by the team until next season, would go on sale.
For Monday's unveiling, the team rolled out stars adorned in the new jerseys — forwards Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, fresh from an appearance in Sunday's NHL All-Star Game, along with Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier and team legends Dave Andreychuk and Phil Esposito.
Vinik will be back inside the Times Forum on Wednesday, as he begins his push toward a building overhaul. Among changes being discussed are new seating, an overhauled ventilation system, a new interior color scheme and an upper-level concession area.
The county-owned Forum was built in 1996 for the Lightning. The St. Petersburg Times bought the naming rights in 2002.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ jeffmharrington.