Florida Matters: Newsmaker Jeff Vinik
Jeff Vinik became the new owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning just over two years ago and quickly won over fans and local officials for what he’s done both on and off the ice. He bought the team with his own money and privately funded $40 million in renovations to the publicly-owned Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Yet when the assets manager first arrived in Tampa, sports writers did not get a good first impression.
“I was myself and I’m a pretty reserved person,” Vinik recently told Florida Matters’ host Carson Cooper. “I’m a very competitive person both with my asset management job as well as with the Lightning.”
Vinik’s competitive fire is fueled by his passion for hockey.
“Even though I’m a small owner in the Boston Red Sox actually and most of my Red Sox partners thought baseball was my favorite sport, by far hockey is the sport I love,” Vinik said, “the excitement of the game, the sounds of the game just every part of it.”
Yet, he believes it’s important to be bold and be willing to make the difficult decision for the betterment of an organization. So, Vinik didn’t settle on the Lightning and the Tampa Bay area without first studying all he could about sports management, hockey ownership and analyzing several different franchise opportunities.
He said the Tampa Bay Lightning came out on top because of its young talent, the welcoming community and the team had had prior success in leading the league in attendance.
Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio called Vinik an excellent example of “straightforward leadership” – someone who does not look to place blame, but instead looks to move forward.
“It’s all about people,” Vinik said. “I’ve been able to be fortunate enough to hire Tod Leiweke as CEO of the Lightning overseeing all the business aspects and Steve Yzerman as general manager overseeing the hockey.”
He said his job is to stay out of their way and focus on the long-term endeavor of making the organization “world class.” Vinik said he willingly invested his own money to renovate the Tampa Bay Times Forum because “it needed a soul” to build a brand and become a special place. He did not consider asking the city or county for money.
“The economy is tough down here, it’s been tough for a number of years.” Vinik said. “People are hurting and this is not the right time to go and ask for money for a private sports venture.”
He credits his dad and Harvard Business School for his leadership skills. “I learned there, hire the best people and do everything in a first class manner,” Vinik said.
When he bought the Lightning it was losing money. Those losses have shrunk, but he’s yet to make a profit.
“Things are going to work out fine as long as we can grow our brand, field a winning hockey team for the long term,” Vinik said. “Steve Yzerman will do that, I have no doubt, he’s a super star.”
He isn’t just focused on the Lightning and events at the Forum, Vinik has talked with the City of Tampa about the Channelside District development. He said he’s not sure how he’ll get involved, but he cares about it because they are neighbors and he wants to help.
Vinik and his wife Penny have donated $10 million over five years to the Community Heroes program. The program, again the brainchild of Leiweke, recognizes an individual making a difference or a local charity at each Lightning home game and contributes $50,000.
Vinik is proud of the Community Heroes program and said he had three goals when he bought the Lightning: winning the Stanley Cup, continued excellence on the ice and making the community a better place.
The team owner also partnered with the University of South Florida to create a MBA program in Sports and Entertainment management.
“We think USF here can build one of the best MBA sports management programs in the country,” Vinik said. “We’ve got the right leader in there we’re going to try and help, given a little bit of money and a little bit of time.”
Since the announcement, Vinik said the phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from potential faculty and students.
The video shows the Florida Orchestra performing "Be the Thunder," composed and conducted by Gregory Smith for the Lightning's 2011-12 season.
This is the video that is played prior to the Lightning taking the ice at every home game in the 2011-2012 season.
Learn more about the Tampa Bay Lightning Hockey team, the players, the managers, the fans,the forum and the schedule HERE.
You can learn more about the Lightning Foundation, checkout the Community Heroes eligibility guidelines and deadlines for nominations HERE.
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Carson Cooper is a familiar voice. He has become a favorite of WUSF listeners as the local host of NPR's "Morning Edition" on WUSF 89.7 since he took the job in 2000. Carson has worked in Tampa Bay radio for more than two decades. He has been the host of WUSF 89.7's Florida Matters since its launch in 2006. During that time he has reported on a variety of issues of importance to the community, including growth management, education, transportation, affordable housing, taxation, public health and the environment.
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