Florida Panthers: How the Franchise Can Improve From a Rival

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 21: Steven Stamkos #91, Ryan McDonagh #27 and Yanni Gourde #37 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate after scoring against the Florida Panthers in the third period at Amalie Arena on November 21, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 21: Steven Stamkos #91, Ryan McDonagh #27 and Yanni Gourde #37 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate after scoring against the Florida Panthers in the third period at Amalie Arena on November 21, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images) /

While the Florida Panthers struggle for attendance, there’s a perfectly good explanation on how to build a fanbase on the other side of the state.

This past Friday, while the Florida Panthers were losing 4-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes, I was across the state at Amalie Arena, where the Tampa Bay Lightning held a sold-out crowd in their 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

Tyler Johnson’s early brace led the way as the Lightning scored 3 of their 4 goals inside the first six minutes.

The goals set off the noise in the arena, carrying the Bolts throughout the last two periods in which the Blackhawks outshot and had more time of possession than Tampa Bay.

They were only able to beat backup goaltender Louis Domingue once, through a Jonathan Toews rebound.

Despite the game being a massive let-down after the 1st, the atmosphere was as good as any Panthers game I’ve gone to at this stage in the year.

Yes, regaining a one-point lead atop the Atlantic Division was at stake, but with over half of the season to play, the result would still likely be indifferent to a team like the Lightning, who are heavy contenders to qualify for the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.

In my conversations with Lightning season ticket holder Doug Wycoff, this wasn’t even the best atmosphere of the season.

So what about the Lightning brings in such a crowd? The basics of it are easy: a consistent winning franchise earns the faith of the fans.

The Lightning have been just that in the past decade, multiple playoff appearances, series wins, and even a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, in which they were up-ended by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

Even though it’s a key component, saying that winning has brought in the fan support would be such a disservice to talk about the Lightning’s strides towards building a fanbase.

Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena is unlike any NHL arena, directly next to a large body of water. Banked on Hillsborough River on the Southwest side of downtown Tampa, Amalie Arena is centered around the city.

Downtown Tampa lies just north, with signs of pride for the team splashed around walls, even the Suntrust building illuminates Tampa Bay’s bolt logo on the top of their complex on game nights.

Downtown Tampa also provides the TECO trolley line with direct service to Amalie Arena, making the team more accessible and able to spread out parking across the city.

To the west lay a lot of tourist complexes including three hotels and a massive shopping center. What isn’t known about that side of town is that a lot of the area is actually purchased by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

Vinik has a very high opinion from the fans for what he’s done for the city of Tampa. He’s recently given $700,000 to transportation and is now working on a project with the University of South Florida to build a waterfront complex known as Water Street, including more homes for residents and USF’s Morsani College of Medicine.

Vinik’s initial process of buying the Lightning focused on changing the franchise around from the team it was in 2009.

When he bought the team, the Bolts were 21st in attendance, bottom of the South Eastern Division. They hadn’t won a playoff series since 2004 and were losing millions of dollars.

Vinik, a boyhood New York Rangers fan, put loads of money into the franchise to rebrand and redevelop Amalie Arena into the hockey hub it is today.

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He took a risk and brought in Steve Yzerman as general manager, a man experienced with the winning culture of the Detroit Red Wings, but had never been the man in running a hockey club.

So far, the risk has paid off, bringing in high-end talent such as Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tyler Johnson, Yanni GourdeRyan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, and Brayden Point, all players that could be considered franchise guys on other NHL teams.

You can see in how far Vinik’s boyhood passion approach to the Tampa Bay Lightning has gotten him.

He’s connected the team to the city and the city to the team built massive infrastructure to further bring in fans and hired and fired the right people to help revolutionize the franchise from a lucky champion with just five series wins in eighteen years to a legitimate cup contender for the past decade.

In comparison, let’s look back at our franchise. Our arena may be state of the art, but it’s nowhere near any key infrastructure and only accessible by car.

The Panthers’ contributions to the City of Sunrise haven’t seen much built around the arena and hasn’t built too much of a fan relationship with the team.

Next. Panthers Blow Three-Goal Lead to Tampa Bay. dark

The owners haven’t given nearly as much into the franchise as Vinik has in Tampa, and for that, we can see why one franchise has recently been much more successful than the other.