LT 2016: Sports Day

By Tim Ford, Shareholder, Hill Ward Henderson

Tim FordLT 2016 Sports Day can probably be summed up as “how to keep fans in the stands” day. This theme permeated our conversations with Tampa Bay Rays president Brian Auld, Tampa Bay Lighting president Steve Griggs, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers COO Brian Ford. While each of the region’s professional sports franchises appears to provide tangible economic and social benefits, the focus of the day was on the future. The Rays’ optimistic future seems to rest, in part, on a new stadium. The Lightning’s resurgence is no longer limited to success on the ice, but is now impacting the redevelopment of Tampa’s urban core. Finally, the Buccaneers’ stadium renovations are poised to usher in a new fan experience at Raymond James Stadium.

On the rainy morning of February 24, 2016, LT 16 traveled to Tropicana Field to visit the Rays. After visiting the field for a photo op, we sat down for an interesting discussion with Brain Auld to discuss “The Rays’ Unique Formula for Success.” We, of course, associate Rays and success with winning on the field, but Brian Auld had a different message. His vision is focused on an employee-driven corporate culture that concentrates on team work within the organization and volunteerism outside the organization. The Rays have always had to do more with less, and Mr. Auld believes the people–the employees–are the differentiators. That said, the Rays are still a business that has to put a good product on the field that competes and people in the stands that will choose to visit the ballpark for a game rather than watch it on their flat-screens at home. The trick to attendance, according to the Rays new Chief Business Officer, Jeff Cogen, is demographics. So the Rays’ latest efforts are focused on getting folks that may only come to a couple of games a season to come just a couple more times. Promotions like “Military Monday”, “2 Kids Tuesday”, $2 Hot Dog Wednesday” and “Thursday Senior Special” are designed to increase mid-week attendance. Again, the goal is not a capacity crowd–at least not right away–but simply getting a few more folks to a game at Tropicana Field each day, each week, each year. If that happens, maybe the son that tags along with dad will want to come back next week, and maybe someday bring his son to a game.

Obviously, the elephant in the room at Tropicana Field was the looming stadium deal. Brian Auld did not reveal anything you haven’t already read in the paper or online, but he made several points very clear. The Rays want to stay in Tampa Bay. The Rays need a new stadium. And it will take a public-private partnership to not only get a new stadium built, but a stadium that rethinks the traditional ballpark model. A stadium that can accommodate other events, festivals, and community programs. Rays games only use the stadium 81 times a year. The Rays know a new stadium needs to offer a good return on investment the other 280 days of the year. More to come on this issue.

Next, we heard from Rob Higgins, Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which is a nonprofit organization that serves the entire Tampa Bay area to lead our region’s efforts to bid on and host premier sports and entertainment events. His talk titled “The Economic Impact of Sports on the Tampa Bay Community” gave us all an appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes to land big events like the 2001 and 2009 NFL Super Bowls (Tampa remains a finalist to host another Super Bowl), the 2015 NCAA Women’s Final Four, the 2016 Men’s Frozen Four, and the 2017 College Football National Championship. Mr. Higgins also revealed the significant economic impact that minor league, college and local tournaments bring to Tampa Bay each year.

We then traveled across the bay back to Tampa and toured Amalie Arena. If you haven’t been to a Lightning game recently, Jeff Vinik and his ownership group, in conjunction with Hillsborough County, recently poured $25 million into Amalie Arena to completely reconstruct the club level, along with new concession stands. After our tour of the renovated facilities, LT 16 had lunch with Steve Griggs, President of Tampa Bay Lighting, on “Transforming the Lightning Brand.” Mr. Griggs’ presentation focused on the Lighting’s pillars of success that culminated in “Go Bolts” fever during the 2015 playoffs–something the Lightning hope to repeat this year. You don’t have to have been in Tampa long to remember a different Lighting team, crowd and brand. Under Mr. Griggs’ leadership, along with Jeff Vinik’s long term vision and commitment to Tampa, the Lightning are winning and delivering a great fan experience. While Amalie Arena enjoys sell-out crowds, the Lightning organization and related development team are busy reinventing and reinvigorating the Tampa downtown urban core. Truly exciting times for the Lightning and Tampa.

Leaving downtown, we traveled to our final sports destination of the day, One Buc Place, to visit with Tampa Bay’s NFL franchise, The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After visiting the Bucs cafeteria, locker room, and world-class weight room facility where the likes of Jameis Winston and Vincent Jackson work and train much of the year, we met with Chief Operating Officer Brian Ford to discuss the Bucs upcoming $100 million Raymond James Stadium renovation. It was easy to appreciate the Bucs optimism about the upcoming 2016-2017 season and beyond. The most noticeable change coming to Raymond James stadium is the addition of three new state-of-the-art HD video boards in the end zone measuring a combined 28,416 square feet, which we are told will be the third largest in the NFL. Stadium renovations also include a new HD video ribbon board, a new sound system, concession upgrades, and all-new luxury box suites. As Brain Ford reiterated, the Bucs need to offer a better fan experience that is highlighted by an improved game-day atmosphere that the new video boards, HD ribbon boards, and sound system bring to the table. We next heard from Chief Partnership Officer Jim Frevola, Chief Ticketing Officer Ben Milsom, and Chief Marketing Officer Brian Killingsworth on the demographics of the changing Tampa Bay fan, the value of strong corporate partnerships, and the stats and marketing efforts that drive much-needed ticket sales. The Bucs (along with the Tampa Sports Authority) are investing in Tampa Bay with the hope and optimism that their investment will pay off.

While we learned a lot about the different sports franchises in Tampa, the varied conversations all seemed to have a common theme–success in the future depends on delivering an outstanding fan experience. Whether it’s a new baseball stadium with a retractable roof, a “charged” fan experience at Amalie Arena, or watching the Bucs score touchdowns on new HD video boards at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa’s professional sports franchises all agree their stiffest competition is your comfy couch and 65″ flat screen HDTV at home. To drive attendance and ticket sales, they have to offer an inviting and entertaining fan experience. It appears the Lightning have set the stage, with the Bucs and Rays following suit.

Finally, a special thanks to Scott Garlick (LT ’10), Josh Bullock (LT ’12), Suzy O’Malley (LT ’09) and Eileen Sweeney (LT ’14) for shepherding us around Tampa Bay to visit the Rays, Lightning and Bucs.

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