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The story behind all the Tampa Bay Lightning banners hanging around town

TAMPA — Eric Blankenship is always looking for prime piece of real estate in Tampa Bay.

A couple of weeks ago, he found one. Right near the airport, with plenty of traffic.

It was a parking garage for an office complex at the corner of Veterans Expressway and Memorial Highway. For the thousands driving by every day, you can't miss it.

This is the perfect spot for a massive, 210-foot blue banner with white letters, like the 40 others that dot the Tampa region this time of year.

"Go Bolts!" they say.

In the last year or so, Blankenship and his team of marketing sleuths at the Tampa Bay Lightning have overseen the installation of these banners all over the city, working with local printing companies who turn them around in days when it would normally take weeks.

"It is a very organic process," Blankenship said. "A year and a half or two years ago, we said 'hey, would you mind putting this banner up?' Now, it's hard to keep up with all the groups that want to show their support."

That is, as long as the team is still winning games.

Bolts banners appear on municipal buildings in downtown Tampa, on the side of an office building on Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg and at the helm of the pirate ship off of Bayshore Boulevard.

Once a location is identified, either by the Lightning or a property owner, the Lightning's marketing department calls one of a handful of printing companies. This season, it has been American Visual Brands in Carrollwood, which has been responsible for about half of the signs that are in the city. The Lightning is their biggest client.

A Lightning representative and AVB's vice president of sales, Cristina Cubas, will meet with the company and asses the site. The lightning makes the design. Then over several hours, AVP uses a machine to print the design onto 6-foot wide rolls of mesh vinyl. Another machine sews the panels together, grommets are added, sometimes slits are cut to prevent the banner from being turned into a parachute. Finally, the whole thing is hemmed and corners are reenforced.

Before it goes out for installation, AVB does a quality control check in its loading dock — the only place big enough to do it.

The installation often happens at night, when there is less traffic, and big signs can take six or seven hours to hang. Some projects are easier, and the contractor doing the installation can drill into the side of the building. If not, the signs are often suspended from the roof, stabilized with sand bags and cinder blocks. A bucket truck is sometimes needed and police officers are often hired to redirect traffic.

"Every location is different," Cubas said. "We have to reinvent the wheel every time on how we're going to install it."

Once the banner is unrolled, the installers eliminate wrinkles by adjusting the tension on the corners or sides.

"We're turning it around so quickly due to the circumstances for the team," she said. "For our standard client, it would take five to ten business days for something that large."

In the case of the parking garage off of Veterans Expressway, installation that had been slated for Thursday evening has been put on hold to see if the team will continue in the playoffs after tonight's game.

"This is a moving target," said Blankenship.

This whole system costs from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000.

For some businesses, like those that are Lightning sponsors, the team foots the bill. For companies or organizations who don't have close ties to the organization, the Lightning will work with them but they ultimately pay. And for others the cost is shared.

"It instills a sense of pride in the community. Everyone likes a winner and right now we're very fortunate to be winning some games," Blankenship said. "If you're a Lightning fan you love jogging by and seeing a big banner. You're part of the tribe."

Contact Alli Knothe at Follow @KnotheA

The story behind all the Tampa Bay Lightning banners hanging around town 05/26/16 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2016 3:48pm]
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