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A decade after buying the Lightning, Jeff Vinik looks to expand

The creation of Vinik Sports Group is an “evolution” in the business, he says.
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik [Times staff]

TAMPA — Almost 10 years to the week after he bought the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jeff Vinik is expanding his business that manages the team’s operations, events at Amalie Arena and more.

The company that’s been known as Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment is changing its name to Vinik Sports Group. It’s also expanding its focus to provide event, facilities management, sales and fan experience services on a more regional basis.

Vinik describes the change as an evolution of his growing sports and entertainment portfolio. Without going into detail, he acknowledged that he could see the company forging partnerships to manage everything from minor league baseball team ballparks to event venues the size of Ruth Eckerd Hall.

To start, the company will look close to home.

“For the foreseeable future, I believe our activity will be in the Tampa Bay area,” he said, The company is in some discussions with potential partners but has no new deals ready to announce. “If we’re successful with some of these activities around here, can we expand further than that? Yes, but we’re taking it one step at a time. We’re not in a hurry.”

Vinik Sports Group, which has 230 employees, will consist of three divisions:

• VSG Live, led by Kevin Preast, which will book, manage and market concerts and other live events.

• VSG Facilities, led by Darryl Benge, which will manage, secure and provide guest services at sports and entertainment venues. Along with Amalie Arena, it already does this at the Yuengling Center, formerly the USF Sun Dome, at the University of South Florida, and at the recently opened Embarc Collective innovation hub.

• VSG Commercial Sales, led by Jarrod Dillon, which will develop partnerships to drive revenue through ticket sales, consumer marketing and analytics.

Lightning chief executive officer Steve Griggs, 52, will be the CEO at Vinik Sports Group, the parent company for the Lightning, the team’s lease at Amalie Arena, the operations contract for the Yuengling Center and the management of multimedia rights for USF athletics. Its assets also will include The Identity Tampa Bay, an online sports and lifestyle hub launched in 2018, and Tampa Bay Sports, which sells sports apparel through an e-commerce platform and from two brick-and-mortar stores at Amalie Arena and International Plaza.

Related: Yuengling secures USF Sun Dome naming rights

Griggs joined the Lightning as the team’s chief operating officer in 2010 and was named CEO after Tod Leiweke left to become chief operating officer of the National Football League in 2015. Prior to the Lightning he worked in leadership jobs for the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Wild.

Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Steve Griggs high-fives a young fan at Amalie Arena. [SCOTT AUDETTE | Tampa Bay Lightning (2011)]

The goal behind the expansion of the Vinik Sports Group is to build on strengths that Vinik’s business team already has developed, Griggs said.

For example, the company already has used its knowledge of data about the ticket market to help put fans in seats at the Pro Bowl in Orlando this year. It also has worked with WWE to sell more than 10,000 tickets for WrestleMania on April 5 at Raymond James Stadium.

“We’ll do the same thing with the NCAA,” Griggs said, for the first- and second-round games of the men’s college basketball tournament at Amalie Arena next month.

Vinik said the sports group will be open to working with all kinds of events, activities and venues where fans and patrons visit.

“I do think we are particularly good at managing the fan experience, the customer experience, at events," Vinik said. Based on fan surveys ESPN named the Lightning the No. 1 team in its Ultimate Standings in 2016 for the fan experience across the National Hockey League, National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The team has sold out more than 200 consecutive regular season home games and says its revenues are at an all-time high, though executives won’t say what those revenues are.

Related: Lightning scores! Why the Bolts thrive and Bucs suffer in ESPN rankings

Along the way, Vinik has brought the community together as a team owner, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said.

“If you can make a 60-year-old Tampanian who’s never been on ice skates a rabid hockey fan, you’re doing something right,” she said.

That said, the possibilities going forward do not appear to include getting involved with efforts to shape the future of the Tampa Bay Rays. Asked what role, if any, the company could play in the Rays’ future and whether it could have a role in helping to build a ballpark, Vinik Sports Group spokesman Bill Wickett said, “while we believe baseball is important to our growing region’s vitality, respectfully, that’s not our business.”

Vinik does not put his name on everything he’s involved in. Notably, he was less than thrilled when Tampa locals, such as occasional Tampa Bay Times columnist Dan Ruth — used to refer to his development plans near downtown Tampa as “Vinikville.”

So why did he agree to Vinik Sports Group?

“Steve Griggs kept asking, and I finally gave in,” he said.

“His name and his brand is so strong it just creates the opportunity to build a premier sports entertainment company,” said Griggs, who lobbied for the name for about a year.

Apart from his businesses, Vinik and his wife Penny have given $5 million to USF and helped launch a dual-degree graduate program, now called the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program, at the Muma College of Business. (Vinik also is a member of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who have loaned $15 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Tampa Bay Times.)

Like a lot of what Vinik has done over the past decade, the reorganization that’s creating the Vinik Sports Group includes a degree of improvisation as new opportunities begin to emerge.

“There’s been an evolution over the last 10 years,” said Vinik, who closed on what is estimated to be a $110 million purchase of the Lightning on March 3, 2010. The team came with 6 acres of land near the arena, and over time Vinik bought more. At first he simply thought it would be good to control what happened around the arena. Later he began to buy more strategically.

Vinik eventually partnered with Cascade Investment, the personal holding and investment company of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, on $3 billion worth of development, including high-rise apartments, hotels, office towers and amenities, in the 56-acre Water Street Tampa redevelopment project.

“I had no idea that we would be doing something so huge, frankly, when I bought the team,” he said. Nor did he imagine investing more than $10 million in building the Tampa Bay area’s tech ecosystem, or putting nearly $800,000 into the campaign for Hillsborough County’s All for Transportation sales tax, now being challenged in the Florida Supreme Court.

Related: Jeff Vinik bought the Lightning. Then his influence spread over the Tampa Bay area

So exactly where this change with Vinik Sports Group is headed in the long run, he can’t say.

But more evolution is likely:

“Just as in 2010, when I had no idea what we’d be involved with in 2020, I guess even I don’t know some of the things we may be doing over the next 10 years.”

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