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Tampa Bay’s sports owners talk about challenges of keeping fans

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Jeff Vinik was talking about even ice. He was saying how good it was that a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning can compete with a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs even though the revenues are so far apart. He was talking about a salary cap. He was talking about how 60 percent of hockey games are within one goal in the third period.

And Stu Sternberg, the owner without a cap, was starting to breath heavily. Sternberg, the Rays’ owner, sat between Vinik and Bryan Glazer, the Bucs’ owner, and maybe between his new stadium and his old one, and he tried to make sense of it all.

“One of the reasons we bought the Rays is we were going to be able to try some crazy stuff,” Sternberg said. ‘We had nowhere to go but up. You don’t have to do as much. Still, it gets a tough when other teams are spending $200 million, $300 million and we’re losing money at 70. You know, 100 million dollars buys you five all stars. If I had five all-stars, I’d feel pretty good.”

Around Sternberg, the crowd laughed, and Glazer laughed, and Vinik laughed. So was the surroundings Monday night at the Poynter Institute when the three principal owners of Tampa Bay’s three biggest sports shared an evening with a normal conversation about sports in the area.

They sat at the front of the room, all in blue blazers, all talking about this subject and that one. They were not asked about Jameis Winston or Chris Archer or Steven Stamkos for once. Instead, they talked about challenges, and women in the the front office, and gay people in the locker room. They talked about making the experience better for the fans. Sternberg, in particular, talked about a new stadium.

As far as the biggest challenge is keeping people coming to the stadiums while the view at home gets to be so much easier.

“The biggest challenge we’re facing is people sitting at home vs. the going-to-the-game experience,” Glazer said. “It’s very comfortable to be there on your couch with your high-definition television, the refrigerator a couple of feet away, the bathroom a couple of feet way. We want to be sure the in-game experience is better than that. There’s nothing like watching a professional sporting event in person, the feel of the game, the smell of the game.”

All three owners said that women in the front office would come, although Sternberg said baseball “was about a decade behind.” Vinik said his locker room was to be “all-inclusive” as far as possible gay players.

The owners talked about playing in other countries. The Rays are awaiting approval about a trip to Cuba, and the Bucs have played in three countries.

The owners were loose. Vinik talked about the early days of ownership when the crowds weren’t nearly as big. One night, he and his wife drove by a scalper. Vinik’s wife exclaimed “You’ve got a scalper!”

Glazer said he watched the Lightning in Italian while on his honeymoon. “Was anyone with you?” Vinik asked.

Glazer said he would like to see the NFL return to more games against former rivals, such as Green Bay, Detroit and Minnesota in the Bucs’ case. Sternberg said he would like to see a draft not based just on results but on revenues so his team didn’t have to draft behind richer teams it had outsmarted.

Vinik seemed to take up the new-stadium argument from Sternberg, referring to companies he tries to recruit.

“If we lose baseball, I can’t recruit a company,” he said. “He’ll say you couldn’t even keep baseball.”

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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