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Lightning, Rays and Bucs are flying high, but Tampa Bay businesses are missing out

Playoff runs and Tom Brady make for good TV, but bars and restaurants that rely on fan traffic and watch parties are still struggling.
Dave Andreychuk waves a Tampa Bay Lightning flag moments before entering the main aquarium to swim with the sharks in a show of support for the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sept. 3 at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
Dave Andreychuk waves a Tampa Bay Lightning flag moments before entering the main aquarium to swim with the sharks in a show of support for the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sept. 3 at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 4, 2020
Updated Sep. 4, 2020

In another world, it would be a dream scenario for Roger Perry: The Tampa Bay Rays, leading a pennant race, playing right across the street from his St. Petersburg restaurant Dr. BBQ.

“The parking lots fill up and people come in for a drink after, or dinner after the game, or drinks before,” he said. “We’re sitting right there.”

On pre-coronavirus game days, Dr. BBQ “would see a couple-thousand-dollar uptick, depending on whether it was a noon game or a night game,” Perry said. Now he’s just happy to fill the spaces he rents from the team’s empty parking lot.

“Thank god they’re not charging me for them right now,” he said. “I couldn’t afford it, because there’s nobody there.”

It’s like that around every stadium. The Rays are leading a pennant race with the best record in the American League, but playing home games before an empty Tropicana Field. The Lightning are in the Eastern Conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but locked in a bubble in Canada. Tom Brady is about to play his first game for the Buccaneers, but fans won’t be allowed at the team’s Sept. 20 home opener.

All of this is a problem for local businesses.

“It has definitely helped with the sports on TV, but it’s not anywhere close to having home games,” said Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg’s Sports Bar in St. Petersburg, which closed for two months early in the pandemic, but is back to about 75 percent of its normal staffing. “They come out and spend money, everybody’s in a great mood, it really helps the community come together. It helps all the businesses downtown.”

The lack of fans at Rays and Lightning games has already impacted at least 1,000 local jobs. Over the summer, Delaware North, the food and beverage company that handles concessions at Amalie Arena, notified the state it would extend layoffs for 592 workers at the venue, most of them part-time employees who hadn’t clocked in since March. Levy Restaurants, which operates restaurants and shops at Tropicana Field, laid off 16 employees there, and reduced hours for 400 more.

Downtown Tampa hotels have also laid off hundreds of workers, as have bars and restaurants. That’s not attributable solely to a lack of Lightning game nights, said Tampa Downtown Partnership president and CEO Lynda Remund. But with 19,000 fans suddenly not coming downtown several times a week, it was a factor.

“Our restaurants, especially around the perimeter of Amalie Arena, were full on game night,” Remund said. “People are parking north of Kennedy Boulevard and walking to the Arena; I’ve seen that many times. So it stretches pretty far into downtown.”

Dave Andreychuk, left, and Thunderbug, right, reveal a Tampa Bay Lightning mask on the Florida Aquarium's stingray monument during a ceremony on Sept. 3 in Tampa.
Dave Andreychuk, left, and Thunderbug, right, reveal a Tampa Bay Lightning mask on the Florida Aquarium's stingray monument during a ceremony on Sept. 3 in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It’s tricky to ascertain the local economic benefit of a regular-season home game, said Michelle Harrolle, director of the Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program at the University of South Florida. Local fans going to games keeps cash in the region. But it’s outside fans coming in for big events like the playoffs who really create an economic boon.

“If you’ve been downtown during the playoffs, it is huge, the number of people who are coming to the venue itself, and just sticking around downtown to be a part of the atmosphere,” Harrolle said. “They’re buying merchandise. They’re sticking around, potentially staying in hotels as well. It’s a lot.”

Related: Losing big sports events cost Tampa Bay some $360 million in economic impact
Chelby Clark, 45, of Palm Harbor, right, points to ThunderBug along with her 5-year-old son Alex, as Clark's 10-year-old son Austin, left, watches. They were waiting in line for a Tampa Bay Lightning giveaway at Westfield Countryside shopping mall in Clearwater, where the team offered fans free gear, including a yard sign and street hockey ball, on Sept. 3.
Chelby Clark, 45, of Palm Harbor, right, points to ThunderBug along with her 5-year-old son Alex, as Clark's 10-year-old son Austin, left, watches. They were waiting in line for a Tampa Bay Lightning giveaway at Westfield Countryside shopping mall in Clearwater, where the team offered fans free gear, including a yard sign and street hockey ball, on Sept. 3. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The Lightning are always popular, having sold out 234 consecutive regular and postseason home games. But a deep playoff run helps convert casual viewers to dedicated fans through viewing parties across Tampa Bay. Invariably, bandwagoners end up purchasing ticket packages for the following season.

The two other times the Lightning made the Stanley Cup finals pushed the team’s budget from red to black. The team played 13 extra home games during their Cup-winning season in 2004, yielding a profit of $3.6 million, according to financial documents later filed during a tax dispute with the Hillsborough County property appraiser. When they lost in the finals in 2015, team officials said the fan interest and season-ticket sales helped the franchise turn a profit once again.

“That’s really where the bread and butter is for a sports organization,” Harrolle said.

Brayden Sammel, who turns 1 on Saturday, reaches for a street ball stick and ball while his mother Alisha, 28, of Dunedin, holds his hand during a giveaway event at Westfield Countryside shopping mall in Clearwater on Sept. 3. The Tampa Bay Lightning offered fans free Lightning gear, including a yard sign and street hockey ball and stick. Brayden was named after the Tampa Bay Lightning's Brayden Point.
Brayden Sammel, who turns 1 on Saturday, reaches for a street ball stick and ball while his mother Alisha, 28, of Dunedin, holds his hand during a giveaway event at Westfield Countryside shopping mall in Clearwater on Sept. 3. The Tampa Bay Lightning offered fans free Lightning gear, including a yard sign and street hockey ball and stick. Brayden was named after the Tampa Bay Lightning's Brayden Point. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Raymond James Stadium, which is slated to host the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, will see no fans in stands for Buccaneers or University of South Florida football games until at least October. The Tampa Sports Authority has projected that between the Bucs, Bulls and college bowl games, football revenues will fall nearly $887,000 below budget. Concessions, parking and ticket surcharge revenues are all down from 2019.

USF has not settled on next year’s athletics budget, although athletic director Michael Kelly has said his department must trim it by up to 15 percent. The University of Florida has estimated a $50 million loss if attendance at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is limited, while Florida State University has slashed its athletic department budgets by 20 percent, cutting 25 full-time positions and instituting pay cuts.

Related: Gainesville, Tallahassee businesses agree: 'God help us all if we don't have football'

Among homebound fans, interest in local teams remains high. According to Fox Sports Sun, viewership of Rays games is up 14 percent year over year, with a Sept. 1 game against the Yankees coming in as the night’s highest-rated cable program in Tampa Bay. Fans still file into sports bars on Lightning game nights — at a limited capacity, of course, but still.

“The fans that get here and watch the game with us, we enjoy them,” said David Mangione, general manager of downtown Tampa hockey haven Hattricks Tavern. “It’s not what we want, but it is what it is.”

If not for nearby residents coming to watch Lightning games, Yeoman’s Cask & Lion in downtown Tampa would be struggling even more, said Larry Schuler, vice president of supply chain management for ownership group 23 Restaurant Services.

“We are glad they’re playing hockey — really glad — because it is pushing business,” Schuler said.

Lurna Borghese, Lisa Ulrich, and Joel Bridges enjoy food and drinks whle watching the Tampa Bay Rays take on the New York Yankees at Ferg's Sports Bar in St. Petersburg on Sept. 2. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, sports fans watch their favorite teams on television instead of being in the stands.
Lurna Borghese, Lisa Ulrich, and Joel Bridges enjoy food and drinks whle watching the Tampa Bay Rays take on the New York Yankees at Ferg's Sports Bar in St. Petersburg on Sept. 2. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, sports fans watch their favorite teams on television instead of being in the stands. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Operating at half capacity isn’t ideal for bars and restaurants. But if stadiums remain fan-free, Ferguson said more of them might come to his bar to watch games, which would improve his business.

“With football, people won’t be going to the games, so I think they’ll be coming with their friends and hanging out,” he said. “We’ve added TVs and put up little dividers so people can have their own space.”

Ferguson hopes Major League Baseball will find some way to open its doors for the playoffs — especially in Florida, which has begun allowing limited numbers of fans into select events like wrestling matches and concerts.

“The owners want to get people in the stadium,” he said. “And you can social distance in a stadium.”

When stadium gates do reopen, the experience will feel different, said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which works on recruiting major sporting events like the Super Bowl to the area.

Hillsborough County has authorized more than $10 million in discretionary Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for safety measures at Raymond James Stadium, as well as $2.4 million for Amalie Arena. The money will go toward items like plastic barriers, sneeze guards, sanitizing equipment and a contact-free retail system.

“Sporting events have utilized this time to continue to reimagine the way they do business in a lot of ways,” Higgins said. “When events with fans return, in addition to added creativity and value for the fan experience, there’s no doubt that you’ll find a much safer experience than before the pandemic.”

Related: Hillsborough okays aid to help cultural venues waylaid during pandemic

Until then, with home games and watch parties out, most fans will have to make do at home.

“We all know the Lightning are playing, but to not have that tangible experience downtown is detrimental, not only to the organization, but to the community,” Harrolle said. “There’s a sense of community that’s being lost because it can’t be here.”

Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report.

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