TAMPA — As the Lightning closed in on a Stanley Cup title last year, Tampa’s movers and shakers gathered in a room — check that, a Zoom room — in September with the tall task of devising a proper and safe way to celebrate a championship team.
The idea of people crowded on sidewalks, elbow to elbow, several rows deep and pressed up against steel barricades seemed irresponsible in the middle of a pandemic. Even the notion of sharing objects, such as throwing beads, made everyone uneasy.
But what was born and later executed — the boat parade — has come to be emblematic of the area’s new “Champa Bay” moniker as much as the titles its professional sports teams have brought home.
“I think being in Florida and in Tampa, we were in a unique situation that we’re able to do it on boats,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “And I think once we did it on boats, a lot of us thought, why would you have done it any other way than this way? And maybe it took COVID for us to kind of realize how cool it was.”
And with the Lightning winning their second straight Stanley Cup title last week, Tampa hosts its third boat parade in 10 months today. The Bucs also celebrated their Super Bowl 55 victory in February on the water.
But today’s celebration will be much different from last year’s for the Lightning.
Last year’s boat parade was spread out, ending with fans socially distanced at Raymond James Stadium. Today’s will include a rally at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park that organizers believe could draw a crowd of 30,000.
In September, that wasn’t possible as the coronavirus pandemic continued. Organizers had to be more creative, unable to duplicate 2004, when the Lightning won the team’s first Cup and players rode in a downtown parade in convertibles.
“We were in a nontraditional way of doing things, so we needed a nontraditional solution,” said Tony Mulkey, superintendent of Tampa’s Office of Special Events. “We weren’t going to do anything that created those gathering points. The idea was really smart. It was to provide an opportunity for the fans to interact with the team, to see the Stanley Cup, to see the trophies, see all the players and get out and do something fun, which I think everybody was starving for.”
They decided to use one of Tampa’s best assets, its waterways, as well as the waterfront — highlighted by the downtown Riverwalk — to create an environment that would make people feel protected from the virus but also allow them to revel in the celebration.
“Looking back on it, it was a group of special-events scientists,” said Ashley Bauman, former communications director and spokesperson for Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, “a very small and mighty team that got together and looked at the lay of the land on where we were with COVID and knowing that we’re a celebratory town and had to celebrate. We knew we had to do something unique that would keep our residents safe.”
Weeks went into the planning, though in a sport as superstitious as hockey, the Lightning didn’t want to mention the “P” word until they won. There was a quick turnaround of about 36 hours to finalize everything once the Lightning captured the Cup.
“The challenges are getting so much done in such a short period of time,” said Bill Wickett, the Lightning’s former executive vice president of communications. “You work behind the scenes on a lot of it, but then once your team wins, it’s a whirlwind getting all the details put together.”
Tampa holds the Gasparilla flotilla, but organizing a championship boat parade was different. Hungry for an opportunity to get out and celebrate after staying in their homes, fans came out in different ways: boats, personal watercrafts, wakeboards, kayaks. The late September weather was perfect.
Leading up to the Bucs winning the Lombardi Trophy, virus restrictions had begun to loosen and the city was already formulating ways to integrate more fans as the Super Bowl’s host city through events such as the NFL Experience.
“We started with the events in the parks, and they were very much controlled and structured after months and months and months of discussion on how to produce events that people could attend safely,” Mulkey said. “And honestly, who really knew that (the Bucs) would be playing at home?”
The parade-party-on-the-water format also created memorable moments that attracted national and worldwide attention to the city and the bay area.
During the Lightning’s boat parade, Killorn took to his Sea-Doo, with captain Steven Stamkos lifting the Cup in the seat behind him, closer to the banks of the Hillsborough River to give fans a closer look at it.
The Bucs’ parade had an iconic moment when quarterback Tom Brady tossed the Lombardi Trophy from his boat to another as they made their way down the river. Watching the parade from a perch near the Tampa Convention Center, Whitney Holtzman — owner of Tampa’s Social Victories, which represents pro athletes with their marketing and social media strategies — caught the moment on camera and quickly posted it on social media.
Within minutes, Brady’s toss had gone viral.
Holtzman spent nine hours doing interviews that day as media outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the Today show reached out to her. Brady’s team also purchased licensing rights for the video to use it on his social media platforms.
“It was like a sonic boom,” said Holtzman. “This doesn’t happen in other cities. We want to allow people to be themselves and give them the ultimate support, and that’s elicited these kind of moments. I just don’t think there’s that interaction between sports teams and their fan bases in most other cities.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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