Jeff Vinik is still an unknown in the bay area, but he is saying all the right things as the presumptive new owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Boston hedge fund manager will need to reach out and demonstrate to the community that he views the professional hockey franchise as more than another investment. As team owner, operator of the St. Pete Times Forum and owner of prime land near the arena in downtown Tampa, Vinik will be a major player in shaping the local economy, the look and feel of Tampa and the region's national image. The community has an enormous stake in his success.
Vinik signed a deal Friday to purchase the team, the Times Forum lease and 5 ½ acres around the arena for what is believed to be about $110 million. That is substantially less than the $200 million that the departing ownership group, OK Hockey, paid in June 2008. Vinik concedes that the sale price and his background as a money manager may cause people to be skeptical about his intentions. But Vinik says he has a genuine passion for hockey and vows to do everything he can to make the Lightning a "world-class organization," both on and off the ice. The 50-year-old also says he plans to buy a house and eventually move his family here: "I'll be a big part of the community."
The terms of the deal and Vinik's ability to pay cash should bring some stability to an organization that has struggled with financing. Having a sole owner instead of the two-headed management structure under OK Hockey's Oren Koules and Len Barrie also will be better for the organization. Koules and Barrie brought drama to the front office that more often served to distract than entertain. The players, fans and corporate partners need a dose of stability. Vinik went a long way already by declaring he would bring on an operator with the full authority to run the team.
Beyond its performance on the ice, the Lightning is also a key player in downtown Tampa tourism, through its property in the channel district and its lease at the Times Forum (the St. Petersburg Times has a naming rights agreement with the facility). Vinik will need to appreciate that taxpayers have invested heavily to make the channel district appealing. He also needs to be open and accessible. His team's success depends on a good public-private working relationship.
If Vinik can bring victories on the ice, order to the front office and a vision for downtown Tampa, then this latest chapter for the Lightning will be something to watch.