Tampa Bay Lightning ticket, apparel restrictions frustrate Chicago Blackhawks fans

Stickers supporting the Tampa Bay Lightning during the Stanley Cup playoffs have been placed along the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa. SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times
Stickers supporting the Tampa Bay Lightning during the Stanley Cup playoffs have been placed along the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa.SKIP O'ROURKE | Times
Published June 2 2015
Updated June 2 2015

TAMPA — Ashley Iovinelli of Woodridge, Ill., recently joked that she would do whatever it takes to see her beloved Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are making sure she has to do just that.

To keep Amalie Arena blue all playoffs, the Lightning front office has pursued an aggressive ticket strategy that blocks people with out-of-state credit cards from purchasing tickets through the team's Ticketmaster portal. Only Floridians, who are presumably Lightning fans, can buy tickets directly.

"We've done everything we can to preserve a hometown environment, and we're relatively happy with what we've done so far," said Bill Wickett, executive vice president of communications for the Lightning.

The policy has irked opposing fans all playoffs, and Chicagoans are the most recent victims.

"It's bad sportsmanship," said Iovinelli, who has family in Florida and is planning to attend Game 5 (if necessary) on June 13 with her husband and parents. "This is big. This is the playoffs. It's not this competition to see who can get the most fans. It's about watching hockey, so it's very frustrating."

The Lightning first tested the strategy last year when it restricted international ticket sales during the playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens.

In addition to the ticket rules, anyone who sits in the pricey Chase Club and Lexus Lounge, about 1,400 seats, is prohibited from wearing opposing team apparel. If they do, they'll be asked to change clothes or will be moved into another area of the arena.

The policies follow a trend of professional sports teams, particularly in smaller markets, taking steps to ensure their fans have first dibs on home tickets. The rules were stated on Ticketmaster and have been in place for all four rounds of the playoffs.

But word of the policy made its way for the first time to Chicago on Monday, where it was met with outrage and accusations of foul play. The policy wasn't created to specifically target Chicago's faithful, who travel as well as or better than any NHL team's, but it was taken as a slight by their fans.

It's particularly vexing in Chicago because fans there have experienced this before. For years, the Nashville Predators have adopted similar strategies to keep red and black sweaters out of their arena. Anyone looking to get into a regular season game against the Blackhawks had to purchase an additional ticket to another game. The two teams clashed in the playoffs this year. The Predators blocked Illinois ticket sales, too.

Longtime Chicago sports talk radio host Dan Bernstein slammed the Lightning's ticketing strategy in a column that went viral among incensed Blackhawks followers on social media.

"This kind of ridiculous behavior ignores the speed and power of the secondary market to get tickets in the hands of those most motivated to attend, which in the end will be a contingent of Chicagoans large enough to unsettle the nervous Mr. Wickett and others," Bernstein wrote.

Bernstein is a well-known agitator in Chicago, but, in regard to the resale market, he might have a point.

The Lightning can't restrict who buys tickets using online resale websites such as eBay, StubHub or Craigs­list.

Illinois residents so far make up 20 percent of all tickets purchased for Game 1 on StubHub, said Cameron Papp, spokesman for the online ticket exchange. That far outpaces the norm; the home state of the visiting squad usually accounts for only 5 to 8 percent of sales, Papp said.

The markup on those sites is considerable — the cheapest seats run for $335 on StubHub, while it costs nearly $5,000 to sit right behind the glass — but it appears Blackhawks fans are willing to pay it. Iovinelli, who already booked flights, is expecting to pay up to $500 each for tickets.

Restricting direct ticket sales can lead to a boost in out-of-state purchases on sites such as StubHub, Papp said, particularly when a committed fan base is on the other end.

Ticket sales on StubHub during the series are expected to be the highest ever for Lightning games, fueled mostly by interest within Tampa Bay, but from Chicago, as well.

"The Blackhawks are one of those teams in the NHL that give us a bit of a boost," Papp said, noting that the five other Original Six franchises typically do as well.

Chicago is the fourth Original Six team the Lightning will face these playoff. It's a fact not lost on Wickett.

"It's a challenge we worked through for the first three series," Wickett said. "There's lots of traditions and lots of big followings."

One tradition of the Blackhawks is to cheer and clap loudly during the national anthem — a display that creates a unique atmosphere in Chicago's United Center, but a custom that annoys when tried in other arenas.

Nashville, whose president and COO is former Lightning executive Sean Henry, has opted at times to play God Bless America instead of the anthem or to conduct a crowd sing-along to keep Blackhawks fans from yelling.

Wickett said the Lightning may take a similar approach.

"We've done some sing-alongs during national anthems, so we would look to do that again," he said.

There's one local industry that doesn't mind if there's an influx of flights from Chicago to Tampa: tourism.

Bob Morrison, executive director for Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association, said hotels were happy to see Chicago defeat Anaheim because of its proximity and fan base. But he also said he expects most of the increased hotel stays will come from media, NHL officials and production crews already slated to arrive for the series, while Blackhawks fans will make up a smaller share.

Iovinelli said she doesn't understand why Tampa would not welcome the visitors and their pocketbooks.

"The Chicago fans bring their cities a lot of money because we travel heavy and we go out," she said. "I just don't know how the NHL is allowing this to happen."

For Wickett, it's simple: "We're really excited about all the Tampa residents and the way they've supported the team."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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