How Jeff Vinik became a ‘Florida Man’ and face of this sports market

The face of Tampa Bay sports: The Lightning owner’s name has become synonymous with one of the NHL’s most successful franchises, and the hopes and future of Tampa.
JAMES BORCHUCK  |  TimesTampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is excited for the NHL playoffs to begin and said he reads at least four hours a day.
JAMES BORCHUCK | TimesTampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is excited for the NHL playoffs to begin and said he reads at least four hours a day.
Published July 8

The Wall Street Journal headline said it all.

“Florida Man Turns City Into America’s Unlikeliest Hockey Hotbed”

Forget for a moment the headline’s meaning and focus on the first two words. That Jeff Vinik can accurately be described as a “Florida Man,” even with tongue firmly planted in cheek, speaks to how much he has achieved since purchasing the Lightning in 2010 and moving to Tampa Bay from Boston.

In the first year of his ownership, he made several key decisions, starting with the hires of general manager Steve Yzerman and team CEO Tod Leiweke. Yzerman and Leiweke helped create a foundation for success in their first year, and then Vinik nearly a year later made three significant announcements: he was enhancing the experience for season-ticket holders, investing $35 million in renovations for the team’s arena and launching the Lightning Community Heroes program.

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At the time, Vinik looked at the mission statement of the team’s foundation and said the effort needed to go beyond youth sports, health and wellness — standard focuses for most pro teams — and support people giving back to the community.

The Lightning Community Heroes program rewards $50,000 at each home game to an individual to donate to the charity or charities of their choice, with the added goal of inspiring fans to do more and give more. Seven years and more than $18 million later, it remains one of the team’s strongest bonds to its fans.

Tampa Bay’s other team owners can point to philanthropic efforts and community programs, but they haven’t matched how Vinik has personally branded his altruism.

It helps that Vinik still meets with the winners and gives them a pregame tour. He remains as excited about each recipient as he did in 2012. The program, Vinik’s other philanthropic efforts and a community presence underscored by him being the first Lightning owner to live in Tampa all play a role in his rising prominence.

As a consequence, when fans talk about the 26-year-old franchise, his name inherently comes up. It’s not coerced or prompted. It’s natural.

Vinik is the Lightning as much the players and coaches are.

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The players know the foundation of their club starts at the top, and they give Vinik credit for how far the franchise has come and the plans they know he has for its future.

Vinik’s $3 billion Water Street Tampa project, along with the rejuvenated Sparkman Wharf adding some flair to the district near Amalie Arena, has only added to the sense that Vinik embraces the area as much as it embraces him.

Full disclosure: Vinik is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.

In the final assessment, the former Boston resident is not only a Florida man, he’s a Tampa Bay man. And in this area, that matters.

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow @hoop4you. Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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