TAMPA — The Lightning is fighting this season to hoist the franchise's second Stanley Cup. But this week Tampa Bay has the chance to win its first championship in a different kind of contest: the business of professional sports.
The Lightning has been nominated for the annual Sports Business Awards' Sports Team of the Year by SportsBusiness Journal.
The Tampa Bay Lightning is the only NHL team vying for that award against the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, Major League Baseball's World Series champion Kansas City Royals, Major League Soccer's champion Portland Timbers and the NFL's Carolina Panthers, which lost Super Bowl 50.
It's the first time the Lightning has been nominated by the sports business industry publication. Team CEO Steve Griggs said it's the culmination of years spent building a passionate fan base in a region that was never known as a hockey town, even after Tampa Bay won its first Stanley Cup in 2004.
It would also be the franchise's latest accolade in the Jeff Vinik era. The Lightning was ranked No. 1 in the ESPN Ultimate Sports Rankings last year for stadium fan experience and the No. 1 overall team in the NHL. The team came in third among all professional sports teams.
"When Jeff Vinik came to Tampa he made a commitment to build a world-class organization both on and off the ice," Griggs said, "and we've worked really hard to live up to that."
Vinik purchased the Lightning in 2010. Since then, he spent millions rebuilding the team's roster, has poured nearly $80 million into improving Amalie Arena and is planning a major redevelopment of the 40 urban acres he owns around the arena.
"When Jeff Vinik bought that team, he changed the entire culture from top to bottom," said University of South Florida sports marketing professor Mike Mondello. "The fact that they've raised so much awareness for the sport in a nonhockey market sends a huge message. You go to any grocery store or mall and you see two times more Lightning merchandise than the (Tampa Bay) Rays or (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) combined, and that's no accident."
Lightning officials said they expect the team to generate a profit for the first time in years thanks to last season's postseason run to the Stanley Cup Final. That season, Tampa Bay sold out 13 of its last 17 regular season games.
This season, the Lightning sold out all 41 home games. The team said 97 percent of its full season ticket holders renewed for this season. It also added an extra 3,500 season ticket holders. All 69 suites were sold out this season and there's a waiting list for next season.
Forbes magazine valued the Lightning at $260 million as of November 2015, with $121 million in reported revenue — a 23 percent jump in annualized value change, according to Forbes.
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But there's more to being the SportsBusiness Journal's Sports Team of the Year than just winning games. The winning franchise must also show innovation in fan and client services, growth in revenue, social responsibility and enhancement of the brand.
Griggs pointed to innovations like season ticket holders' custom Lightning jerseys, which debuted in 2011 and let members receive discounts at concessions by scanning a microchip in the cuff of the jersey. He also noted the growing fan base, which last year drew more than 18,000 to Amalie Arena to watch a Stanley Cup road game.
The Lightning marketing team has come up with clever social media campaigns that went viral during the Stanley Cup run, and increased merchandise sales with playful T-shirt slogans such as "Bish Please" and "Stammer Time."
"For years, sports teams were fighting to get the fan who would rather watch it on their HDTV from home, so they've really ramped up the experience," Mondello said. "When people leave a Lightning game, no matter their age, they're not talking about a play or the score, they're talking about the experience they have there."
Concessions options have grown, too. Local restaurants, from Holy Hog BBQ to the upscale Mise En Place, have set up shop in Amalie Arena. This season, Ontario-based Smoke's Poutinerie opened its first restaurant in the Southeast inside the arena.
The Lightning Foundation, the charitable arm of the team, has committed to give $10 million to the community. The donations are made by Jeff and Penny Vinik, and honors a community hero at each home game by giving $50,000 to the charity of the hero's choice. Last season, the foundation donated $3.1 million to 100 nonprofits.
"There are very few other owners I can think of that have created a fan base in a nonhockey market like this," Mondello said. "Vinik has created a new standard. It's something you're just starting to see the Bucs and Rays pick up on now."
Griggs will miss Wednesday night's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final — the Lightning's first home game of the series in Tampa — so he can be in New York City for the SportsBusiness Journal award ceremony.
If the playoff schedule were different, he said, Vinik would be in New York City, too.
Contact Justine Griffin at email@example.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin.