Michigan billionaire Bill Davidson did more than put a good team on the ice during his eight years as owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He treated this community with a sense of fair play, his players were active in civic causes and the franchise played a major role in reshaping Tampa's downtown waterfront. On Tuesday came the surprise announcement that the team has been sold. At a hastily arranged news conference, the new owners said all the right things to reassure Tampa Bay fans of their commitment to the team and the community. That commitment will be tested soon enough.
Davidson's Palace Sports & Entertainment agreed to sell the team, the franchise's lease at the St. Pete Times Forum and two pieces of adjacent land to Absolute Hockey Enterprises. If approved by the National Hockey League, the new owners will include Doug MacLean, a former coach of the Florida Panthers and other professional teams, South Florida real estate developer Jeff Sherrin and Hollywood film and television producer Oren Koules. Up to seven additional part-owners will be announced in the coming weeks.
The trio made a good impression Tuesday speaking to the news media only hours after the sale was announced. All three seem to appreciate the groundwork Davidson laid, the challenges to making money and the importance of projecting stable ownership. Beyond declaring "absolute zero" interest in moving the team, the new owners were short on specifics. They made a point to play up their Florida ties and their plans to buy homes in the bay area. For a group that wrapped up the purchase in six weeks, they also took pains to downplay concerns over any rash changes in Lightning operations. As Koules said: "This isn't a toy for us. This is our jobs."
Their varied backgrounds in hockey, land and retail development and entertainment should bring a rounded perspective that could help the team improve its performance and grow the Lightning brand. But these owners are still unknown. Do they have the pockets and the willingness to buy talent and keep the Lightning competitive as the salary cap continues to grow? How will they balance spending on players with improvements in the fan experience? Will ticket prices increase? How do they plan to wring more revenue out of the Forum, a county-owned facility, especially as governments cut back spending?
Taxpayers have a vested interest in who owns the Lightning and how an ownership team would manage the club and the venue. The new owners declared that making a profit hinges on fielding a competitive team; indeed, according to Lightning officials, the team posted a profit only once under Davidson - in 2004, when it won the Stanley Cup. But the new owners will feel financial pressure almost immediately. After all, Palace Sports claimed the Lightning, which made the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, has lost at least $67-million since Davidson bought the operation in 1999. Short of winning the Cup every year, the owners will need to find new revenue and build the fan base. It is also unclear what the buyers intend to do with the 5.5 acres of land adjacent to the Forum that is part of the sale.
The city has a number of pending and potential issues with the Lightning - whether to give the franchise added revenue from nearby parking, how the team may develop its downtown site and what improvements at the Forum warrant public funding. But more broadly, the community needs the owners to continue playing a positive role in civic affairs, whether attracting investment to the channel district or raising the area's profile nationally. We hope the new owners build on the solid foundation Davidson left the Tampa Bay community.