Friday, January 19, 2018
Business

Tampa Bay Lightning won't block opposing fans from buying playoff tickets this year

TAMPA — During last year's Stanley Cup playoff run, the Tampa Bay Lightning frustrated fans of opposing teams with tight restrictions on who could buy tickets to games at Amalie Arena.

This year the Lightning will abandon that tactic, but not because it didn't help with home ice advantage. And not because the team wants to play nice with fans in other cities.

The Lightning just doesn't need to do it any more.

As the team heads to its third consecutive postseason, consistent success and a growing, energized fan base have pushed season-ticket sales to 13,500. And because season-ticket holders get first dibs on playoff tickets, the team doesn't expect too many single-game tickets will even be available to opposing fans.

Tickets for the first round go on sale today at 10 a.m. through Ticketmaster, and unlike last year the company won't block people with out-of-state ZIP codes from making a purchase. Those restrictions foiled many fans of the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks during the 2015 postseason run, or at least pushed them to more expensive secondary markets.

It's just not an issue this year, Lightning CEO Steve Griggs told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday.

"It's a statement about the reaction of the market to what we're building," Griggs said. "Five years ago we couldn't get 5,000 season-ticket holders and our fan base was disengaged."

Some things won't change, though.

The Lightning will still monitor whether season ticket holders attend the games or sell their seats on secondary markets.

That practice started during the 2015 playoffs as the team implemented strategies to keep Amelie Arena occupied by Tampa Bay's faithful. All four Lightning opponents last year were Original Six teams — a nickname for the NHL's founding franchises — with devoted fan bases known to travel to away games.

"We were going up against 400 years of hockey history versus our 20 years," Griggs said.

The plan worked, Griggs said, but it came with some backlash — and not just from opposing fans. The policy ensnared a local Army captain who sold his tickets while training at Fort Knox, the Times reported at the time, and the team was forced to apologize and reinstate his tickets.

Nevertheless, it became official team policy last summer. Season ticket holders were sent new terms that included a clause allowing the team to take away their seats if they chose to sell more than half of their allotted games.

The goal is to keep tickets at a reasonable cost for locals and prevent outsiders from profiting off the team.

If someone has to sell their seats, the team would prefer it be through a ticket exchange operated by its partner Ticketmaster, and not other sites like StubHub or Ebay. Those secondary sites are heavily utilized, though, because the potential exists to turn high-demand tickets into a lucrative profit.

Griggs didn't say how many tickets a person would have to sell before it put their seats at risk, but he didn't anticipate it would be an issue.

"Because we put the policies in place, we have pretty much eliminated the garage brokers," Griggs said. What's left are the "true fans," he said, who he expects will attend most games.

The Lightning will also bar opposing team colors and sweaters in two premium seating sections: the Chase Club Level 4 and Lexus Lounge. Anyone who shows up in the wrong team threads will be told to put on neutral colors.

The policy was misrepresented on social media and some news sites trafficked by fans of Lightning opponents as a blanket prohibition on anything but black, blue and white inside Amalie Arena. Griggs said there were only about seven instances when someone was asked to change clothes.

Club members "were asking us to do something and 99.9 percent want the policy in there because that's their club," he said.

Fans in larger markets with long-established teams may mock the Lightning's methods, as they did last year. But Griggs said the team's ticket holders are appreciative. And as local support continues to grow and deepens to include second-generation fans and millennials, it will take less effort to ensure the stadium is stacked with Bolts backers.

"Our purest intention," he said, "is to build the most passionate fan base."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.

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