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

ESPN ranked the Tampa Bay Lightning as the third best franchise in American sports, citing winning, affordability and stadium experience as key factors. The Tampa Bay Rays ranked 45th and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came in 91st. In this photo, Tampa Bay Lightning fan Rashelle Hill, 21, from Clearwater, celebrates along with her little sister Amy Hill, 10, as the Lightning score the first goal against the Nashville Predators during second period preseason hockey at the Amalie Arena in Tampa last month. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
ESPN ranked the Tampa Bay Lightning as the third best franchise in American sports, citing winning, affordability and stadium experience as key factors. The Tampa Bay Rays ranked 45th and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came in 91st. In this photo, Tampa Bay Lightning fan Rashelle Hill, 21, from Clearwater, celebrates along with her little sister Amy Hill, 10, as the Lightning score the first goal against the Nashville Predators during second period preseason hockey at the Amalie Arena in Tampa last month. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Oct. 15, 2015

An in-depth look at fan favorites among all 122 pro teams in football, baseball, hockey and basketball sheds some revealing light on why the Tampa Bay Lightning is considered not only today's top team among fans in the NHL but also ranks No. 3 among sports franchises in all four major pro sports.

What makes the Lightning's overall fan experience so strong? "The team really focuses on appealing to local fans," says Peter Keating, ESPN's sports writer who analyzed this year's "Ultimate Standings" rankings. The Lightning keeps prices cheap and even restricts ticket sales to local fans to enhance the local fan base at games, he says. And the team excels at social media, citing the popularity, for example, of hashtags like #stammertime to promote fan favorite and Lightning star Steven Stamkos.

The Lightning is the only Tampa Bay or Florida team in any sport to make the top 10 fan favorite rankings in ESPN's annual "Ultimate Standings." Only the NBA's San Antonio Spurs at No. 1 and Memphis Grizzlies at No. 2 outperformed the Lightning in this year's standings.

The Tampa Bay Rays ranked 45th overall but a very respectable ninth among MLB teams with ESPN crediting affordability for the Rays remaining well positioned. As for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team remained a bottom dweller, ranking No. 91 (just above the Miami Dolphins) overall and a middling No. 22 among the 32 NFL teams.

The rankings across all four sports and 122 franchises are fascinating because they help spotlight what complex factors can create a competitive, affordable franchise that fans of any major sport would want to rally around. To come up with its annual ranking, ESPN in July (baseball season was still in full swing) worked with Chicago consultants Maddock Douglas to survey 1,014 sports fans to find out what they most want in return for the emotion, money and time they invest in MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL clubs. The poll covered 25 topics, from "has honest ownership" to "connects me to information I want about the team online or via mobile devices." ESPN also used a Seattle opinion research company to ask more than 100,000 fans to rate their favorite franchises in each of these 25 areas.

In a closer look at the Lightning, ESPN found the team's strongest attributes — other than going to the Stanley Cup finals this past season, of course — were affordability, stadium experience and ownership. That last component credits owner Jeff Vinik's outsized role in building a strong franchise and distinguishing himself in the eyes of the greater community as one of Tampa Bay's biggest advocates. His plan to commit more than $1 billion to develop the area around Amalie Arena near downtown Tampa is testament to putting his money where his mouth is.

Since ESPN has conducted its Ultimate Standings for at least a dozen years, it's also important to look back and see how sports franchises have ranked in the past. Are they consistent? Are they improving or falling in the ranks?

The Lightning, clearly, is on a roll after ranking 70th among all 122 sports franchises in ESPN's 2010 poll. The team gained three spots in the past year.

The Rays fell 10 overall spots from last year, no doubt a reflection of the loss of general manager Andrew Friedman and, especially, manager Joe Maddon who is now basking in the adulation of Chicago for bringing the Cubs far into the current playoffs. The Rays ranked as high as No. 6 overall in 2010 (the Rays went to the World Series in 2008), vastly improved from No. 73 in 2005 as the hapless Devil Rays. Imagine what an additional boost the Rays might enjoy if the very likable New York owner Stu Sternberg lived — like Vinik — in Tampa Bay. (I'm just saying.)

The Bucs ranked as high as 36th back in 2005, not long after winning a Super Bowl, among all sports franchises but have fallen badly since then. ESPN, whose poll was conducted before the start of this NFL season, says there is renewed hope with the arrival of quarterback Jameis Winston. The latest ESPN poll found the Bucs finished 98th in player likability, which may also improve if Winston delivers a winning season.

"The Bucs can't really argue their low ranking in bang for the buck (104th)," ESPN says. "That's based on wins last year compared with fan dollars spent. It's hard to do well in this category when you win only two games," the prominent sports site says. That portion of the Bucs challenge may soon improve, but the franchise has a long way to go to rise out of the ESPN rankings cellar.

Contact Robert Trigaux and trigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @VentureTampaBay