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Tampa Bay Lightning reverses declining attendance trend

Tod Leiweke counts season-ticket holders like some people count sheep.

So when the Lightning's chief executive officer, whose primary duty is to turn Tampa Bay's bottom line from red to black, ponders 900 new subscribers he said signed up in the past month, "It puts a smile on my face when I go to sleep at night."

Ticket sales are the lifeblood of NHL franchises. Without the big-money national television contracts that support the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, getting fannies in the seats and selling merchandise, food and beverages are paramount.

Leiweke's anecdotal numbers aside, there is real evidence the Lightning, after three seasons of declining attendance, is reversing the trend.

Announced average attendance — the number of tickets sold and distributed, not necessarily people in the St. Pete Times Forum — is 17,216, up from last season's 15,497.

More meaningful, though, is the increase in actual average attendance at the 19,758-seat arena; that is, the turnstile count, which Hillsborough County reports was an average 13,443 in 31 games through February, the latest data available. At the same time last season, the average was 11,081.

That is an increase of 2,362 (21.3 percent) and does not count announced March sellouts of 20,274 with the Canadiens and 19,912 with the Blackhawks.

"Of course we notice," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "The crowds are into it, definitely louder. It's been fun."

"It's encouraging," Leiweke said, "how the market has reacted."

It has reacted to several things, most notably a winning team, which, barring a complete collapse, will make the playoffs for the first time in four years.

The organization also is rebuilding community ties torched by the previous owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, who seemed more determined to tear each other down than build partnerships with fans and sponsors.

The centerpiece is a $35 million makeover of the Times Forum, and owner Jeff Vinik's pledged a $10 million charitable contribution over five years to the Lightning Foundation.

There also is an ongoing effort to cultivate season-ticket holders. And that, Leiweke said, means giving fans, even in tough economic times, reasons to buy in.

Season-ticket prices were frozen for next season, and season-ticket holders will receive a Lightning jersey with a microchip in the shoulder programmed for food and product discounts.

"Those are responses to people who say, 'I'm willing to spend money, but I want to make sure the value is there,' " Leiweke said.

"The priority is to rebuild our season-ticket base," he added. "That way, you've got a base from where you can push for sellouts. It's just a fundamental principle."

The Lightning sold only about 8,000 season tickets this season, so Leiweke's glee at 900 new subscribers is understandable.

Still, he can only dream about the years after the 2003-04 Stanley Cup season, when Tampa Bay was second and third, respectively, in the league in average announced attendance — 20,509 in 2005-06, 19,876 in 2006-07 — and the joint always was rockin'.

"Everybody that came in and played us talked about it in the summer when I saw them," Lecavalier said. " 'You guys have a loud building.' It was fun to play in."

"We have great fans," defenseman Pavel Kubina said. "We just have to win games."

A good playoff run would be the best advertisement.

As Leiweke said, "More important than anything is a team people believe is going to be a long-term winner.

"The foundation has been put in place. We have a great story to tell. That's just what we've been doing."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

Fewer seats available

The Lightning's average announced home attendance (tickets sold and distributed rather than people in the seats) since the 2003-04 Stanley Cup season with league ranking:

Avg. Rank

2010-11 17,216 18

2009-10 15,497 26

2008-09 16,497 21

2007-08 18,692 8

2006-07 19,876 3

2005-06 20,509 2

2003-04 17,820 12

Note: The 2004-05 season was cancelled by an owners' lockout.

Tampa Bay Lightning reverses declining attendance trend 03/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 20, 2011 9:55pm]
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