Last Sunday, 2/6, I was invited to go to the Tampa Bay Lightning game vs the St. Louis Blues. When I arrived I noticed many things that were different, and better, than the fan experience the Panthers have been providing over the last few seasons. This post is a comparison of the differences and my thoughts on what the Panthers should provide to their fans.
Parking and Arrival:
Lightning: Upon pulling into the area by the St. Pete Times Forum you get a feeling that this is a special event. Traffic was dense, even though the game was not sold out due to it being Super Bowl Sunday. Parking is available in various lots around the arena. I paid $10 to park in a city lot about a block away.
People are on the street, wearing Lightning jerseys, walking the few blocks to the game. There is a buzz in the crowd as you walk up to the arena.
Panthers: Compare this to the Panthers, parking is free and you're right next to the arena, which are definite pluses. It may just be me but the buzz is missing lately, that feeling of excitement before the game.
Outside of the Arena and Ticket pickup:
Lightning: The area in front of the main entrance was packed with fans drinking, buying food, watching the entertainment from various sources. The entertainment ranged from things for the kids to TV and music for the adults. Souvenir, food and drink stands were outside to encourage a good atmosphere. People would trickle into the arena at their own pace, there was no line to get in. My tickets were at will call, took about 1 minute to get them even though the box office area was very busy.
Panthers: The area in front of the arena is usually packed with people, almost all of them get into line to get into the arena. There are a few events going on outside of the arena, usually concerning a corporate sponsors with some additional things to do for the kids. No food, drink or souvenirs are sold outside. Music is played occasionally. I would characterize the atmosphere as more subdued. The Panthers focus seems to be to get you into the arena ASAP. The box office has definitely improved this season, lines can be long but move quickly at will call.
The Fan Experience:
This is the key, there are substantial differences on what each team focuses on and how they relate to their fans.
Lightning: Extremely fan oriented, I've been to Lightning games in the past and they've upped their game significantly. It's professionally produced and focuses on the fans and the experience of the game. Advertising is present but its not the main focus.
The before the game ceremonies and events honor fans - the honorary puck drop was done by a fan, they had a peewee/junior hockey player as a honorary player for the game decked out in full Lightning gear and a custom jersey, there were few corporate or sponsor mentions.
Time out and in-between period media is all about the fans - kids cams, fan cams, military person of the game, real Lightning trivia competitions, etc. Prizes are Lightning merchandise, tickets and sponsor toss ins. Some advertising is done but its not overdone. I don't remember hearing about any other arena events as a main screen announcement. Event announcements are on side screens and on the 3rd level scoreboards.
Panthers: We used to do most of what the Lightning currently does but its been replaced by advertisements, advertisements and more advertisements. The focus is on the corporate and business sponsors and not on the fans.
Before the game ceremonies and events honor sponsors with the occasional fan tossed in. Can't remember when I saw a fan take the slap shot or dropped the puck. It's always been XXXXX of company YYYYY for the past few years. We do have the kids who skate the Panthers flag around and I hope they are local players.
Time out and in-between period media is mostly advertising. Even cam shots of the crowd are sponsored. Arena events are advertised repeatedly as well as sponsor messages. In-between period events include sponsor advertising, really bad events - kids stacking pucks to get tech support vouchers?! WTH! Panthers prize packs are seemingly a thing of the past.
Overall, my opinion is that the Lightning have it right. They are catering to their fans AND their sponsors, not their sponsors at the cost of the fan experience, which is where the Panthers are currently. As a inaugural fan and a season seat holder since 1994, for the majority of the time the Panthers were focused on the fan, unfortunately with the move to the new arena that emphasis has changed, slowly but surely to their corporate and business sponsors. Those sponsors may be a huge revenue source but often their seats are empty or occupied with people who may not be interested in the game. In comparison, the Lightning have a vibrant game atmosphere with a significant fan base who are really into their team. In a 2/3 - 3/4 full arena on Sunday it was LOUD, when a goal was scored it reminded me of the Miami Arena Panthers experience. Several people were waving large Lightning flags on poles and it was electric.
I'd love to see the Panthers stop talking about the fan experience and actually follow it up with action. I think if I brought a Panthers flag on a pole to the game they'd probably confiscate it. The fans are what makes a team, they generate excitement and atmosphere that is crucial to a great game.