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Tampa Bay pro team owners seek to keep fans in the stands

From left, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, Bucs co-chair Bryan Glazer and Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg shared stories and strategies Monday night at the Poynter Institute program “The Business of Professional Sports.”
From left, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, Bucs co-chair Bryan Glazer and Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg shared stories and strategies Monday night at the Poynter Institute program “The Business of Professional Sports.”
Published Mar. 1, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG

Putting a winning product on the field is always a priority for the local pro teams, but the Tampa Bay area's three owners said Monday night that their challenge is also finding ways to keep fans coming to games as technology makes other options more attractive.

"The biggest challenge we're facing obviously is people sitting at home vs. the going-to-watch-the-game experience," Bucs co-chair Bryan Glazer said, speaking on "The Business of Professional Sports" to a group of sports editors and fans at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

"It's very comfortable to be home on your couch, high-definition television, the refrigerator's a couple feet away, the bathroom's a couple feet away.

"We want to make sure the in-game experience is better than that. There's nothing like watching a professional sporting event in person," Glazer said.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg sat next to Glazer and can commiserate with him on attendance concerns. But even Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, whose team is now selling out Amalie Arena with sustained success, remembers more humble days early in his time in Tampa. As he and his wife pulled up to the arena before a game, they found joy in the appearance of a single scalper, working to sell tickets for that night's game.

"You have a scalper!" she exclaimed, a small step toward the Lightning building its current steady following.

With members of the Associated Press Sports Editors convening in town from around the country for their winter meetings, the three owners addressed a wide range of topics, including the globalization of their sports. The Rays hope to play an exhibition game in Cuba in March, the Bucs have played games in Tokyo and London, and Glazer told Vinik that last summer, as he honeymooned in Italy, he was able to watch the Stanley Cup Final on television — in Italian.

Building a fan base is ultimately a local effort, and all three teams say they work to make a trip to the ball game a more personal experience, envisioning a level of interaction and familiarity so that ushers know your name, your favorite drink, whether you prefer a hamburger or a higher-end concession choice.

Sternberg, whose priority is finding a stadium location to help the Rays build their following locally, said annual attendance of 1.5 million is still reaching a lot of people in the Tampa Bay area. Asked about diversity efforts in pro sports — creating an atmosphere accepting of openly gay players, for instance — he already sees important progress.

"I think, quite frankly, it will be very accepting — a dramatic difference even from five years ago," said Sternberg, who is the head of Major League Baseball's diversity committee. "There's no question that's it's not even a matter of time. It's very soon. There are openly gay players in the minors right now."

The three owners got a chance to share a more personal side. Asked whom their favorite athletes were when they were growing up, Sternberg offered Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax (for whom his son Sanford is named), Glazer cited Dolphins running back Mercury Morris and Vinik said he looked up to Yankees great Mickey Mantle.

Poynter, a journalism school and strategy center, owns the Tampa Bay Times.

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com or (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

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