Improve access to grow Lightning fan base in Tampa Bay

A kid's zone at the 2014 Lightning Fan Fest was expanded this year into the lower bowl. Photo by Charles Schelle

A kid’s zone at the 2014 Lightning Fan Fest was expanded this year into the lower bowl. Photo by Charles Schelle

The new community outreach effort, Lightning Made, had a noticeable presence at Fan Fest and not by way of T-shirts and flyers—but through experiences.

The staff smartly pushed up the lower bowl seats near the Lexus Lounge allowing parents and kids to walk down onto the floor for a kid’s zone that was also a bit of a hockey fair. Ice rinks from Brandon, Oldsmar, Kissimmee and Tampa’s X-tra Ice were all there with a few other organizations. It was a great way to connect families to hockey at a free event with youth hockey organizations on hand to answer any questions.

You could see the smiling faces as kids and parents got a close-up experience to stand along the glass at Amalie Arena, which is kind of funny because at every community rink you typically find a few parents standing along the glass instead of heading to the bleachers. Either way, it was hard to move because of how popular the area was. Hopefully that experience created some new fans and new hockey players.

Jay Feaster’s Lightning Made team has done a commendable job in such a short timeframe of assembling some hockey outreach upgrades—especially during Fan Fest.

More can be done to bring in new fans and youth players, too. Some of this is particularly on a focus of selling more tickets for the October through December games, a challenge ownership and management acknowledged Saturday to fans. These aren’t entirely original, but I believe are worth trying.

Free pre-season game

Lightning officials told the 8,000-plus at Fan Fest on Saturday that the beginning of the season is the hardest time for them to sell tickets. It’s great that the season ticket base tripled since Jeff Vinik took the team over, but he still has plenty of single game tickets to drive.

When Ted Leonsis took over the Washington Capitals, the season ticket base was horrendously low, attendance wasn’t that great and the team wasn’t all that great either. A little AOL marketing magic (when that meant something) someone whipped up online created Ted’s Army. I don’t know if his people were at first directly involved creating Ted’s Army, but he embraced it in a guerrilla marketing kind of way. He did a one-time deal where if you emailed his Washington Caps AOL account or showed up with a Ted’s Army pin at the box office that night, you’d get a free ticket to that night’s pre-season game. They weren’t nosebleed seats either. He gave away thousands and it created a pretty good atmosphere. People were genuinely happy that not only was there was good attendance at a Caps game, but better things were to come with Leonsis at the helm.

The fan base in Tampa felt the same way when Vinik assumed ownership and you’re seeing a great response. But that response seems to be better in the second half of the year.

This isn’t about making money on a pre-season game because no pre-season game is a moneymaker. This is about creating fans for life. This is pulling in a family that might not otherwise afford a hockey game, and the kids get hooked on the game in person. So do the parents, as they discover the Bud Light Party Deck. They come back for a couple of games and start buying merchandise. Make a hard push for single game tickets at the game.

The team offered a Groupon for a $10 ticket this preseason, so that’s a start. Pre-season tickets are affordable anyway, especially on StubHub, but there’s something about free. Maybe even consider if you buy a ticket to one of the first three games of the regular season, you get one pre-season game for free.

You might have season ticket holders complain, so give them $10 Bolts Bucks as a thank you. Besides, there are other benefits to being a season ticket holder to make sure are held up—maintaing value of your pre-season ticket is not one of them.

Televise/videostream pre-season games

I’m not advocating this to be a full spectacle broadcast, but a pre-season broadcast can be done to expose the game here. Last year, Raw Charge discussed why it’s OK that the Lightning pre-season games aren’t televised and I’d have to disagree on different points.

Much like the idea to do a one-time free pre-season game offering, this is a good way to expose the game to new fans and to drive ticket sales for the hardest part of the season—the start.

What they can do is at least stream the arena cam footage and overlay that with the play-by-play from the Lightning Radio Network, making that available on the site. Even the Florida Panthers, who need all the fans they can get now, streamed both games against Nashville on the team’s website Saturday. As we saw at Fan Fest, there was recorded video of the Stars-Lightning pre-season game with multiple camera angles (yet not made available on the Lightning website). Coaches still need video of the pre-season games and they’re not gonna stick a GoPro on the boards and call it a day because TV isn’t airing the game. They get the arena tape from the Jumbotron production.

Pre-season games aren’t marketed for viewership and tickets like in baseball and football, but there’s still some value if they’re used strategically to build a marketing campaign during the pre-season games to push ticket sales for October and November games. If you’re waiting until the first game of the season to push ticket sales on air, you’re too late.

Ideally, it would be nice to have the games on TV and even the GameCenter Live apps. There are more roadblocks there, but the streaming would be a stop-gap measure.

I don’t know the actual TV agreement between the Rays and Lightning in relation t Sun Sports, if one exists, but I’d love to understand it if it’s out there. I’ve heard rumors from guys at area rinks about one, but there ought to be bandwidth somewhere to provide either on CW 44, Fox Sports Florida or create a Fox Sports Plus channel like CSN and MSG does for certain games they want to make room for.

Bolts Convention

I’ve hammered this ever since I moved down here three years ago. I’d be met with dissent from others in the online community where they’d be like, “Oh, well, we have Fan Fest and we do a lot of that.”

Unless you’ve been to either the Chicago Blackhawk’s weeklong convention or the single-day Capitals Convention, no, you don’t understand.

I’ll talk about the Caps Convention for a minute because I’ve been to two. The Caps organization took up a good portion of the Gaylord National Harbor Convention in Ft. Washington, Md., to cover all things hockey. They then moved it to the convention center in D.C.

Joe Reekie Tampa Bay Lightning Fan Fest

Lightning alumnus Joe Reekie hangs out playing street hockey at Fan Fest.

Every single NHL trophy possible was brought in. A locker room mock-up was set up in one area for photos with the player’s equipment. A street hockey area was set in an another. Hardest shot booth, accuracy shooting booth, massive equipment sale, massive regular merchandise sale and oodles of sessions.

These sessions aren’t just general like “Broadcast roundtable” or a STH-only Q-and-A on the Club Level.

Gary Betttman and Bill Daly will come into town. The minor leaguers talk about what life’s like on a bus. Mike Green showed us how he started cooking healthy. Another was an entire session with Assistant GM Don Fishman about what he does as capologist and how he manages the CBA with the cap. And the best—one session with ridiculous questions asked by kids.

A lot of autograph sessions are spread out from both alumni and current players and usually some sort of major announcement is made. Typically this is held during the last weekend of training camp to introduce this year’s team to the fans.

Sure, it does help that hockey fan and longtime morning drive DC101 host Elliot Segal helps move things along and keep things light during the convention. I don’t know if we have someone with that Elliot’s edge here—someone a little less buttoned up than our Sun Sports guys with a bit of an animal side.

It is the best way to learn about the minutia of the game, educate fans better and have tremendous access with the players. Unfortunately, Washington didn’t do it this year because they wanted to focus on the Winter Classic.

In addition, the Caps would host a smaller fan fest during the summer prospects camp earlier in the summer at its practice rink, Kettler Capitals Iceplex. A couple of carnival type games would be featured, a small selection of autograph sessions and on some years, the gear sale would be moved from the convention to the festival.

The gear sale typically had a great selection because they would only hold one during the year instead of multiple. And it was clear that ownership wouldn’t skimp on providing equipment, T-shirts, sandals or any accessory to its players. I mean, you could buy team laundry bags of all things at these sales.

The Tampa Convention Center is steps away from the arena and I’m sure one day Vinik might build himself a new hotel with convention center space that could handle some of this. Check out this recap video of the 2011 convention and 2013 edition where Leonsis announced the Winter Classic is coming to Washington. For logistics folks, read this FAQ on how the team built some parameters. 

HockeyBay Program

Update: NHL and Kraft announced Sept. 29 that Hockeyville is coming to the U.S. for 2015.

Original: You’ll have to wrestle with the HockeyBay blog for the name, I guess, but this would be a smaller, regional version of the Kraft Hockeyville program that CBC helps put on in Canada.

This could be a one-time series because there are only so many arenas from Orlando to Estero.

The point of this program would be to help fundraise repairs and upgrades for Tampa Bay ice rinks. The facilities here are good, but they could be better. TBSA’s south rink constantly has issues with its ice getting dangerously low on the one end and has Zambonis that tend to break down. Clearwater Ice Arena has expansion plans that haven’t been realized, but at the same time, its current sheet of ice has a couple dangerous spots along the boards and the ice surface has a ribbed effect on some nights. In Ellenton, I can’t remember the last time they melted down the sheets of ice to be rebuilt—it’s impossible to see the lines clearly.

Those are just a few of the things that need fixed and anything ice-related is a hefty expense to fix because of the plumbing involved. If we want to grow youth hockey in Tampa, we have to make sure our facilities are clean and safe. Not safe as in fear of having your gear stolen but safe ice conditions and clean showers, etc.

Try to cycle through each rink and once you’ve hit the end, either end it or figure out how to continue.

A centerpiece of the fundraising efforts could be assembling a Lightning Alumni team to come to the rink for a game or two. Maybe one against a youth team and another against some hacks from the beer league, paying a fee to participate to fundraise.

I don’t see how a regular preseason game could be held in any of the rinks like they do with Hockeyville, but anything is possible, I guess.

I would think $50,000 to 100,000 would be doable each year, but any amount would do for these rinks. A sponsor could come in and give matching funds while another foundation provides a baseline amount.

If you want to up the pot of money and make things a little more competitive, get the Florida Panthers involved for rinks there to compete. Growth of Florida hockey can’t be done without the Panthers because you need enough homegrown top-tier players from both ends of the state to make youth hockey what it is up north. Also, they sure could use some fans, too.

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2 thoughts on “Improve access to grow Lightning fan base in Tampa Bay

  1. Pingback: Hockeyville 2015 nominations to include U.S. ice rinks | hockeynutsandbolts

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