Thursday, February 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

For second time in eight years, NHL lockout costs Tampa Bay Lightning a significant marketing opportunity

It was interesting Thursday to hear Tod Leiweke talk about the NHL's current lockout, because it is exactly how the Lightning viewed the 2004-05 version.

"Hopefully it gets resolved," Tampa Bay's chief executive officer said. "We've worked so hard to grow and maintain. We don't want the wind out of our sails."

So today, the day the Lightning was supposed to open training camp, think about this:

For the second time in eight years, players are locked out in a labor dispute, and both times — in a stunning display of either bad timing or bad luck — it has disrupted the Lightning's chances to make even more inroads, competitively and economically, into its nontraditional market.

In 2004-05, the lockout interrupted the Lightning's drive to defend the 2003-04 Stanley Cup title. After the season was lost and a salary cap established, the team decided it could not keep goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. Eight years and 18 goalies later, it still is looking for a No. 1.

The 2012-13 season was supposed to be marketing gold, with the celebration of Tampa Bay's 20th anniversary season to be the thread that tied together an expected on-ice resurgence led by 60-goal scorer Steven Stamkos and newly acquired goalie Anders Lindback.

It still might be if the season is played, and no regular-season games have yet been lost. If the season isn't played, it's just a lost opportunity.

And those opportunities are important, said David Carter, a professor of sports business at the University of Southern California and executive director of the school's Sports Business Institute.

"It's important to cultivate that fan base because it's a scenario where you eat what you kill in the National Hockey League on a local level," Carter said. "In a sport like hockey that among the four major sports leagues shares the least amount of revenue, it's beholden on the local franchise to connect with fans and corporate sponsors."

To the Lightning's credit, community outreach is at an all-time high under Leiweke and owner Jeff Vinik, who has put $47 million of his money into upgrading the Tampa Bay Times Forum and its scoreboard, and in 2011 pledged $10 million to local charities over five years.

Player appearances are ubiquitous, and the team is continuing its Rolling Thunder tour of fan events even though locked-out players cannot participate.

That kind of outreach can help teams "limit their downside" in a business atmosphere soured by a work stoppage, Carter said.

"Now, if this thing goes on for a year, no amount of proactivity is going to save you from the onslaught of negative press and fan resentment," he added. "But if you've demonstrated a bit of goodwill, a lockout is certainly a time you can expect to spend some of that goodwill you have built up in the community."

That wasn't as much of a concern during the 2004-05 lockout because Tampa Bay had a built-in marketing tool: the Stanley Cup.

"We got to carry it around not just for six months but for 18 months," said Ron Campbell, the Lightning's president from 1999-2008. "In the case of a Stanley Cup champion, you're on cloud nine, and all your fans are on cloud nine. We came back (in 2005-06) and sold out every game."

Still, had the Lightning won in 2004-05 as well (and it had the team to do it), who knows how the marketing/ticket/sponsorship bonanza would have changed the long-term course of the franchise. It certainly would have given the 20th anniversary celebration another hook.

"What they're trying to do with the anniversary is find an emotional connection with the fans," said Campbell, now an executive vice president of a local real estate investment firm. "Next year they'll come back and say it's the 10th anniversary of the Stanley Cup champion. You work with what you're dealt."

Especially during a lockout.

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