How The Tampa Bay Lightning Went From One-Of-The-Worst To First

How The Tampa Bay Lightning Went From One-Of-The-Worst To First

How the Tampa Bay Lightning grew to become the Number One Franchise in North American sports.
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Tampa Bay Lightning

From below-average fan attendance, up to Number 1 Franchise in North America.

"Be the Thunder."

The statement marks the conclusion of nearly every other mid-game commercial on Fox Sports Sun, and finds itself branded upon bulletin boards sprinkled throughout the Bay Area. It is mixed in with footage of ravaging hits, soundtracks of boisterous applause, and... the fans. In fact, the commercials rarely depict the players, preferring instead to depict the heartache, the excitement, the goosebumps involved in being a fan of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The subject of the commercial is not about the hockey team, rather the city that hosts the team itself.

To truly appreciate how far the Lightning have come as a franchise over the past decade, one must first understand just how low the franchise had fallen in the former years. In the 2007-2008 season, the Lightning found themselves in the cellar of the Eastern Conference, dead last in points at the All-Star Break. They earned the first overall pick that year, and used it to bring in Steven Stamkos, who was eventually named the 10th captain of the team. The Lightning fired John Tortorella, the coach of their 2004 Stanley Cup winning team, but fared no better the following season under Barry Melrose, who was released after only 16 games. After finishing the 2008-2009 season with their lowest point total in eight years, the Lightening secured the second overall draft pick, and proceeded to acquire star defenseman Victor Hedman.

Steven Stamkos (right) and Victor Hedman (left) were the Lightning's number one draft picks in 2008 and 2009, respectively. They both signed contract extensions in 2016 to remain in Tampa through 2024. (Photo by Jim McIsaac via Getty Images)

"Be the Thunder."

The statement is the motto of a Tampa Bay Lightning fan-retention campaign, aimed towards amassing a following so - dare we say it? - thunderous that a southern, warm city would actually be able to host a sport that is dominated by cold weather northerners. Its arrival coincided that of a new era in the franchise, bookmarked by the Bolts being purchased by Jeffery Vanik in February of 2010. Vanik immediately got to work, appointing Hall of Fame player and former Detroit Red Wings vice president Steve Yzerman as the general manager, then hiring Guy Boucher to serve as the head coach.

According to the ESPN NHL Attendance Report for 2010, the Lightning ranked 18th out of 30 teams in regards to their attendance. With less than 90% attendance, the Lightning set goals for themselves to increase fan attendance, television viewership, and most importantly, get the community connected to the team, despite what the record is in a given season.

Two months into the 2010-2011 season, following the change of ownership and hiring of Steve Yzerman, the Bolts found themselves in a completely new position. They were atop the Eastern Conference, and managed to qualify for playoffs for the first time in four years. Making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Boston Bruins, the playoff push marked a window of opportunity for the franchise to reach into the community and strengthen its ties to the fans. Their mission statement included increasing the amount of season ticket holders and sell-out games, and as the Lightning were progressing through the post season, they provided their season ticket holders with over 10,000 free jerseys, each embedded with a microchip that discounted their purchases at Amalie Arena.


Prior to being appointed the Lightning GM in 2010, Steve Yzerman spent his entire NHL career in Detroit before retiring and eventually being inducted into the hall of fame. (Photo by Kim Klement - USA TODAY Sports)

The Lightning did not stop there. As they were utilizing methods to increase the overall fan experience, the franchise was also focusing on strategic marketing. According to a case study by John R. Luecke, an Advertising and Public Relations professor at High Point University, the Tampa Bay Lightning turned to an Atlanta ad agency, 22squared, to help spearhead their mission and reach goals they had laid out for themselves prior to the 2011-2012 season. The franchise invested in digital billboards to advertise upcoming games and events in high traffic areas. They increased their presence on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, growing them 103% and 26%, respectively.

Thus, the statement was born:

"Be the Thunder."

Despite the obvious spin-off of the team name, the three words represent something greater than just a pun. Similarly to Texas A&M University's "12th Man", it provided an identity for the fans, making them feel involved by setting a common goal that any individual could contribute towards: making noise. The Lightning wanted their fans to be loud and to be proud, and the fans did not disappoint.

Despite the Tampa Bay Lightning failing to make the playoffs the next two seasons following the Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Bruins, their ranks in the ESPN NHL Attendance improved each year, all the way up to a high of 8th overall in 2013. After Guy Boucher was replaced by Jon Cooper, the Lightning again managed to see the post season in 2014. Their stay was brief, however, as they were met with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

The Lightning built upon their successes of the previous year, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015 before succumbing to the Chicago Blackhawks. Suddenly, there was a spark in the air, and the Tampa community was walking with a swagger in their step. Lightning decals covered cars, the logo emblazoned upon banners all up and down Bayshore Boulevard. At this point, the franchise was boasting a 96.4% attendance rate, and an increase in the average attendance by over 1,100 fans since Vanik acquired it according to Leucke. Social media exploded during the playoffs, with fans demanding that "Stanley get a tan."

The Lightning's "triplet line" of Nikita Kucherov (left), Ondrej Palat (middle left), and Tyler Johnson (middle right) quickly gained fame during the 2015 season as one of the most dangerous trios in the NHL. (Getty Images)

Following their runner-up year, the Bolts managed to return to the Eastern Conference Finals again in 2016, being bested by the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven game series prior to the Pens' eventual Stanley Cup victory over San Jose. For the third straight year, the community felt a disappointment from the results of a post-season run, and it would have made sense for the support to demand changes be made. It would have made sense for the fans to want their team to build upon their previous shortcomings. It would have made sense for fans to vocalize their displeasure with the results, despite valiant effort by the players to stay afloat.

However, the support did not halt.

In October of 2016, the Tampa Bay Lightning was ranked the Number One Professional Sports Franchise by ESPN Ultimate Standings in a comparison of 122 north american franchises. Their commitment to the Tampa community and the individual fan experience were especially noted, given that the other Tampa sports franchises (Buccaneers, Rays) did not finish in the top half of the polling. The article's author, Peter Keating, explained that the results were "[derived from] fan surveys and financial analysis" in regards to how the fans are rewarded for their emotional and financial investments to the franchise.

On January 8th, the Lightning dropped their fourth straight game in a rematch of the previous year's conference finals against the Penguins. In a year plagued with injuries and defensive miscues, the Bolts dropped to 19-19-4 on the season they find themselves within two losses of last place in the Eastern Conference, and the Tampa community is growing weary of the seemingly incurable ailments that have afflicted the team. The thunder has grown angry and impatient with the efforts being made on the ice.

But angry thunder is still just as loud. Possibly even louder. Halfway through the season, the Bolts are on pace to have a 7th ranked attendance, their highest since 2006. The Lightning have succeeded in what they set out to do 10 years ago, and have cemented themselves so deeply within the Tampa community that even a sub-.500 record cannot stop the growth of supporters.

Throughout the cold streaks of this season, Jon Cooper and his players have repeatedly mentioned overcoming adversity. It is no secret that the team needs to do so in the second half of this season in order to reach the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, and further the cause of bringing the Stanley Cup south for a tan. So long as the franchise continues their efforts of growing the support for the team, and the existing fans continue to be thunderous, there is no plateau that can hold down the Bolts for the foreseeable future.

Cover Image Credit: Chris Urso, Staff at TBO

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30 Things I'd Rather Be Than 'Pretty'

Because "pretty" is so overrated.
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Nowadays, we put so much emphasis on our looks. We focus so much on the outside that we forget to really focus on what matters. I was inspired by a list that I found online of "Things I Would Rather Be Called Instead Of Pretty," so I made my own version. Here is a list of things that I would rather be than "pretty."

1. Captivating

I want one glance at me to completely steal your breath away.

2. Magnetic

I want people to feel drawn to me. I want something to be different about me that people recognize at first glance.

3. Raw

I want to be real. Vulnerable. Completely, genuinely myself.

4. Intoxicating

..and I want you addicted.

5. Humble

I want to recognize my abilities, but not be boastful or proud.

6. Exemplary

I want to stand out.

7. Loyal

I want to pride myself on sticking out the storm.

8. Fascinating

I want you to be hanging on every word I say.

9. Empathetic

I want to be able to feel your pain, so that I can help you heal.

10. Vivacious

I want to be the life of the party.

11. Reckless

I want to be crazy. Thrilling. Unpredictable. I want to keep you guessing, keep your heart pounding, and your blood rushing.

12. Philanthropic

I want to give.

13. Philosophical

I want to ask the tough questions that get you thinking about the purpose of our beating hearts.

14. Loving

When my name is spoken, I want my tenderness to come to mind.

15. Quaintrelle

I want my passion to ooze out of me.

16. Belesprit

I want to be quick. Witty. Always on my toes.

17. Conscientious

I want to always be thinking of others.

18. Passionate

...and I want people to know what my passions are.

19. Alluring

I want to be a woman who draws people in.

20. Kind

Simply put, I want to be pleasant and kind.

21. Selcouth

Even if you've known me your whole life, I want strange, yet marvelous. Rare and wondrous.

22. Pierian

From the way I move to the way I speak, I want to be poetic.

23. Esoteric

Do not mistake this. I do not want to be misunderstood. But rather I'd like to keep my circle small and close. I don't want to be an average, everyday person.

24. Authentic

I don't want anyone to ever question whether I am being genuine or telling the truth.

25. Novaturient

..about my own life. I never want to settle for good enough. Instead I always want to seek to make a positive change.

26. Observant

I want to take all of life in.

27. Peart

I want to be honestly in good spirits at all times.

28. Romantic

Sure, I want to be a little old school in this sense.

29. Elysian

I want to give you the same feeling that you get in paradise.

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Cover Image Credit: Favim

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An Open Letter To The Coach Who Inspired Me Forever

Anyone who's found a love for a sport (or sports) while playing for rec teams, club teams or teams for a local school, can agree.. that somewhere along the way, there was a coach that changed everything.

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When I was five years old, my parents signed me up for my first organized sport. It happened to be the Fall of the year I entered kindergarten and the sport happened to be soccer. Now, at this age calling it, an "organized" sport is quite a reach. We met once a week, put on our colored pennies and ran around in a big field while a volunteer coach really thought they'd have the chance to corral us. That year, I continued through the seasons and got my first glimpse at a number of other sports. Cheering, basketball, and t-ball were all on my to-do list, and soon I was hooked.

Every week I would look forward to games on the weekend and a practice or two along the week. By the third or fourth grade, I believed I had narrowed down the sports I really wanted to play: soccer, basketball, and baseball. I played all of these until the fifth grade when it was first suggested that I switch over to softball.

I absolutely hated the idea of this but, that spring it happened. I was the first one to be "drafted" onto a team, that come to find out, was the team that always finished last. Even knowing this, I continued to play and learn every position and somehow leading my team to its first championship in years.

This.

This was the moment I learned to love the sport I least expected to, and first met the coach who would change my view on the game. Although the story leading up to this point may not have been the same as yours, we all know the moment we realized, this coach was going to change us.

For me, this coach over my middle and high school careers became one of the most important people in my world now revolving around this sport. He fought for my spot on the middle school team when the coach claimed I was "too young" and wanted to give older girls a spot. He pulled me to the varsity lineup as a Freshman and trusted me to catch every-game behind the plate of the senior pitcher who clearly had the speed and talent to pitch collegiately. He continued to mentor me, step by step as my role on the team transitioned from freshman catcher, to second baseman, to senior captain pitcher.

This coach changed everything for me. He taught me respect and accountability and I'd get out what I put into not only the sport, but all my other endeavors. He taught me integrity, and perseverance. But he also taught me how to have fun while I played. How to step onto the field and play my hardest, but know no-matter the score as long as I did my best it was a good game.

I had never known what it was like to have someone other than my parents be so invested in my success before. Of course, they're going to be there for every game, every carpool to practice and every early Sunday morning tournament. But often times, the coach who leaves it all on the field goes unnoticed. The coach who will sit after a game and cry with you after you played your very last game... the coach that truly made you believe in yourself.

So here's to him. Here's to the blood, sweet and tears left behind. Here's to "the good, the bad and the ugly" as he'd say, and learning that any bruise can be fixed by rubbing a little dirt on it. Thank you for your devotion. Thank you for shaping me in to the player I am today, and continuing to do so for others. Thank you for inspiring me everyday to be the best I could be.

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