Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Business

The wizards behind the Tampa Bay Lightning's pre-game show made the 2016 season memorable

TAMPA

John Franzone grips a stopwatch in his left hand. Its nylon Timex lanyard is wrapped tightly around his palm.

He's counting the seconds in between videos playing on the 28-foot-tall Jumbotron over the ice at Amalie Arena, making sure the show stays on time. Tampa Bay Lightning players are already on the ice warming up for Game 6 of the NHL Eastern Conference final, and the seats are filling up with fans. Franzone and his team of 12 are in place all over the arena.

They're gearing up for their big show — the eight minutes or so before the puck drops at the start of the first period.

Franzone, the vice president of presentation at Amalie Arena, is in charge of creating inspiring material to pump up the sold-out crowds. He grits his teeth as he points to the disc jockey seated next to him, signaling Thunderstruck by AC/DC to begin. A lightning bolt is projected onto the ice and follows a young hockey player who hoists a lit-up hockey stick to the beat of "Thun-der."

"We didn't have any of this when we won the cup in 2004," Franzone said. "We didn't have any of this five years ago."

A small smile cracks Franzone's lips when it's all over — after the Tesla coils fire off bolts from above and the lasers from atop the impressive organ go dark against the arena's ceiling. Nearly every fan is out of his or her seat cheering.

The Lightning would go on to lose 5-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins that night and eventually lose the series in seven games a couple of nights later.

For Franzone and his crew, it capped off another exciting season in which Tampa Bay once again gained attention across the sports world for its fan experience, especially the rocking pregame show.

"The only thing we can't control is if we win," he said. "But when we win, when we make the playoffs three years in a row, people start to notice all this. What we do."

This was Franzone's eighth season working for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Over the years, the tools he has to create unique videos, intermission fan games and ice projections have advanced immensely. In 2011, under the new ownership of Jeff Vinik, the team installed a new $1 million organ — the largest in the NHL — at the south end of the arena. The next year, the Bolts installed the $5 million, 50-foot-wide Jumbotron, the massive center-hung system, also the largest in the league.

But it's the presentations Franzone and his team have put together that have drawn the interest of sports teams from all over the country. Several other NHL teams, including the Buffalo Sabres, Dallas Stars and New York Rangers, have sent representatives to Tampa to learn how the Lightning does it. NBA teams have visited, too.

"The first question they ask is, 'Have ticket sales gone up in the 300s because of the ice presentation?' " Franzone said, referring to the "nosebleed" seats that are the best spots to view the displays.

His team beefed up for the playoffs, too. A total of 14 projectors were placed around the arena and there were 16 additional moving lights to create the "premier feel," Franzone said. There are 80 strobes and LED tube lights that create a "chandelier" above the Jumbotron and more lasers at the organ deck. There are four vertical scrim sheets that dangle on the sides of the Jumbotron, where images and videos are projected.

"It's all about creating a cinematic experience," he said.

Franzone is a graduate of New York University's film school. Though he has never made a movie, he takes a cinematic approach with the displays and experiences he creates for sports teams. He started working for the New York Yankees, then the Tampa Bay Rays. He also had a brief stint at Disney.

"Hockey is so much more fun to work because it moves so fast. There's no time to think in between plays like baseball," he said.

But the preparation begins months ahead of time. Franzone, 50, and his team of producers film and edit videos in advance. They can range from preshow cuts to the Lightning's master of ceremonies, Greg Wolf, and the Lightning Girls cheerleaders, or the nightly "community heroes" segment, where a local person is honored for his or her charitable work.

The job doesn't come without its challenges, though.

Vinik instills a high standard in his staff to create a "world class" experience for fans who spend money for a seat at the game.

"It's really his vision," Franzone said.

It's up to the presentation staff to come up with traditions unique to the Lightning, which Franzone admits has been tough in Tampa Bay, which is a relatively young team in a market that has never been known as a hockey town.

"Be the Thunder" has become the Lightning's mantra, though. The young hockey player who skates on the ice during the pregame show is another.

That's part of the reason Franzone is so precise. Most games are scripted from start to finish, but during the playoffs, there's more wiggle room.

"He's the best at reading the crowd and knowing how to get them going," said Andrew Samel, who has been working with the presentation team for six months.

Last year, Franzone remembers working until 2 a.m. or later after playoff games to come up with fresh material for the next home game.

"I know some of the staff would just sleep here," Samel said of last year's playoff run.

On a game day, presentation staff members start at 8 a.m. and work long after the fans have left the arena. They test the ice displays, audio and equipment for hours in the afternoon.

"They call me the prince of darkness," Franzone said. "Hockey is unique because I'm able to create a whole new experience in the dark that you won't see at any other kind of sports game. The lasers, the organ, the Tesla coils, those are nice secret weapons to have."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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