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Setting payroll harder than it appears

Here is the juggling act Lightning president Ron Campbell and general manager Jay Feaster faced when they sat down last season to figure out the team's business.

Not only did they need a financial plan that kept the core of the team together, they had to convince owner Bill Davidson that his Tampa operation, which includes the St. Pete Times Forum lease, is not quite the black hole it was before.

Part of the solution: a $33-million Lightning payroll. That is $5-million more than last season to be financed by the $4.5-million increase, to $21.5-million, the team hopes to achieve in regular-season ticket sales. With increased marketing money and the hope of more postseason money, the operation could, for the second straight season, reduce its losses.

Why is this interesting? Because Campbell and Feaster determined this season's payroll, not Davidson or CEO Tom Wilson. The only parameter from ownership was the operation could not lose more than $10-million.

In other words, if Feaster and Campbell wanted a $50-million payroll, they could have had it as long as they could finance it. Considering Campbell has said Davidson's company, Palace Sports & Entertainment, lost about $10-million in Tampa last season, that wasn't going to happen.

Feaster and Campbell are serving two masters; improving the team while controlling an already tight budget $10-million below the league average.

"We're not in the business of losing money," Campbell said. "We want to keep improving the franchise and keep growing the business, and we want to keep getting better. But at what number do you stop the bleeding? What number is acceptable?

Said Feaster: "From my perspective, the balancing act is to do everything I can to assemble a product on the ice that ultimately gets us to the point where we are a break-even or profitable franchise. Mr. Davidson has repeated that any cash it generates in a positive way would go back into the franchise."

How are things going? The Lightning's payroll is $33.6-million, including signing bonuses. And Campbell said season-ticket sales, including partial plans, are up about 1,000 to 10,500.

Palace Sports says its cash losses have been about $48-million since it came to Tampa in June 1999. Last season's loss was said to be $8-million less than 2001-02. The deficit could have been reduced further had playoff ticket prices been raised more than 20 percent. But with the team making its first playoff appearance in seven seasons, a Red Wings-like gouging was not the way to go.

Don't expect that kind of restraint this season. But give Campbell and Feaster credit. They apparently have brought some financial stability to a franchise that since its inception has flown by the seat of its pants. And the team is winning.

The question is, what's next?

No one expects the Lightning to spend like the Rangers (nor is that necessary), but a bit more investment, if done smartly, could make a very good team even better. And the farther the Lightning goes in the playoffs, the larger the financial return.

Given the $10-million loss limit, it is understandable why Feaster and Campbell are careful when it comes to player acquisitions. (What made more sense, spending $6.5-million this season for Vinny Prospal or $2.75-million for Cory Stillman?)

Still, it is not unreasonable to expect pressure to build on Feaster to make a significant acquisition for the playoffs. Trades don't necessarily break the bank because you give up payroll in the exchange. And if it appears the Lightning could be a force in the postseason, it will be difficult to argue against it.

"It's a jigsaw puzzle," Campbell said. "You have to find the right balance. But if we saw something that came available today, and we said, "You know what? The guy is a good character person and it fills a need and we can get a good return on our investment, let's go do it. Call Mr. Davidson.' "

He is, after all, the primary master who needs to be served.

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