Sports and Entertainment
Hockey Teams Upgrade the Fan Experience
Arena Improvements Add Excitement and Entertainment to a Night at the Rink
When the Tampa Bay Lightning play at home, team president Steve Griggs walks around Amalie Arena greeting stadium workers and fans, a stroll that is part superstition, part anxiety. The former collegiate hockey player says he interacts with fans to gauge their anticipation for the game.
"Like the players, the fans bring a certain energy that is unique to the event," said Griggs.
For teams like the Lightning and the New York Rangers, hockey is much more than putting players on the ice. To succeed, they have to build close relationships with their fans.
A New Look for Tampa Bay's Arena
Griggs, who grew up as a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, says he once fashioned himself as the next Bobby Clarke, the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers team known as the Broad Street Bullies that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.
"I was much too slow and far too small, but had a tenacious streak in me that resembled him," said Griggs, who played hockey at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. "I have eight missing teeth to show for it, though. Or had."
Dental work eventually covered the gaps, and he applied his on-ice tenacity to making sports franchises successful. Over time, the Toronto native worked his way up into executive positions with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the NHL's Minnesota Wild and the NBA's Orlando Magic before settling in with the Lightning, first as chief operating officer and now as the organization's president.
Griggs has played a large role in renovating and upgrading Amalie Arena, with a $60 million investment that included everything from cushioned seats to an immense electronic pipe organ and innovative Tesla coils in the rafters that generate electrical bolts that look like lightning. The arena is in the heart of downtown, where team owner Jeff Vinik has extensive plans for hotels, an entertainment complex, retail space, a medical school for the University of South Florida and residential buildings.
The renovation also beautified the plaza at the arena entrance, renamed Thunder Alley. On game days it includes features such as an outdoor bar, a live band, interactive games, face painting, the Lightning Girls cheerleading group and the Thunderbug mascot. Statues of former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk and Lightning co-founder Phil Esposito adorn the entrances to remind fans of the team's 2004 Stanley Cup championship.
"The changes Vinik has implemented at the arena and with Thunder Alley have really given the venue character," said Kent Glisson, a third-generation Tampa native who has attended Lightning games since they started playing at the Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds during the team's first season in 1992-93. "When you walk around the arena and then into it, you can tell he cares because all the employees care about your positive experience."
Even the team's executives serve the fans, occasionally stepping into front-line positions.
"I took on the role of being an usher for a game, dressed in an usher outfit and everything," Griggs said. "Doing things like that have made all the employees know we are a team. It also helped us understand the wants and needs of the fans in a different way."
The Lightning's foundation, established by Vinik and his wife, awards a $50,000 check to a nonprofit organization at every home game, including playoff contests. During each game, the Lightning share a story of community members who have made a difference in people's lives.
"I've had conversations with [Vinik] about how his father instilled in him at a young age the importance of giving back," Griggs said.
Connecting With Passionate New York Fans
After more than 80 years in New York, the Rangers have many fans whose passion was passed from one generation to the next.
Queens native Denine Pagano says the Rangers have been part of her life since her two older brothers coaxed her and her twin sister at the age of 13 into watching Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, when Mark Messier's third-period hat trick led the Rangers to a win. Pagano, now a lawyer, had her sweet 16 party at Madison Square Garden, bought season tickets as her first "big-girl purchase" and braids her hair with multi-colored ribbons while brandishing red, white and blue fingernails on game days.
"Our fans are a huge part of the overall Rangers experience," said Janet Duch, senior vice president of marketing for the Rangers. "The passion they demonstrate for the team on a daily basis helps fuel the Rangers on the ice and is a big part of what drives us in our marketing efforts for the team. Everywhere you go, we encounter fans who have lived their lives with the Rangers to the point that the team is almost a family member to some of them."
Those fans enjoy an improved experience at the Garden, with a recent $1 billion transformation adding "Chase Bridges" seating high above the venue's floor, a new scoreboard and video screens and suites with upscale amenities.
"It is like heaven on earth," Pagano said. "It fits the rest of Manhattan now. It has elevated the overall feeling going there. You feel important attending an event there."
In addition, the organization is connecting with fans outside the arena, from its two-story Hockey House entertainment complex to six-foot-tall letters spelling out RANGERSTOWN placed around the city.
"We're always focused on taking what works and building on it, both in the short term and the long term," said Duch, who began her career with the Rangers in the public relations department. "Last year, during the team's amazing run to the Stanley Cup Finals, our marketing efforts grew around the team and the city. The nature of the playoffs tends to create lightning in a bottle, and our focus is capturing that excitement and interest in the team and building on it."
Chris Girandola is a sportswriter in St. Petersburg, Florida, who has written for ESPN, the Naples News the Tampa Tribune and other media outlets.