Why Lightning restricting tickets, opposing logos sends wrong message

Why Lightning restricting tickets, opposing logos sends wrong message

If you are a fan of Tampa Bay’s general manager and you decide to wear his old jersey into a certain part of the rink at a Lightning playoff game, you may be asked to remove it.

That’s because of a new team policy forbidding non-Lightning logos in club areas of Amalie Arena in the playoffs.

"Chase Club and Lexus Lounge ticket holders,” reads a statement on the team’s Ticketmaster site, "please note that for all 2015 NHL Playoff Games at Amalie Arena, only Tampa Bay Lightning team logos will be permitted in these areas. Fans wearing visiting team logos will be asked to remove them while in the Chase Club and Lexus Lounge areas."

So if you wear GM Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings jersey into those premium spots, well, the puck police might pull you over and ask you to pull off your sweater. Or cover it up.

Then again, if you happen to hail from out of state, you may not be able to get into the building at all.

"Sales to this event will be restricted to residents of Florida,” reads the same statement. “Residency will be based on credit card billing address. Orders by residents outside the selected area will be canceled without notice and refunds given.”

So if, say, you grew up in the same city as Steven Stamkos in Canada and you want to see him play in the postseason in Tampa, you may not be able to buy tickets.

We’re not going to apologize for trying to create a home environment for our season ticket members and our team,” said Lightning VP of communications Bill Wickett.

The team has already gotten calls from out-of-state fans who fear being frozen out. “Of course we’re going to sell them tickets,” Wickett insisted. He said fans from out-of-state can call the team directly to get help with playoff tickets. But the logo restriction in the private areas stems from fan feedback, and the team is responding.

“We want to let our season ticket members drive what happens in those clubs,” Wickett said. “They like those clubs to remain for Lightning fans.”

Tampa Bay has the best home record in the NHL at 30-8-1. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
Tampa Bay has the best home record in the NHL at 30-8-1. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Now, the Lightning is not the first team to do regional “zip code restricting.” The Seahawks tried to cordon off ticket-buyers by geography and got sued by a fan from California. The case was thrown out, as the Seahawks claimed they had no obligation to provide access to all fans from all areas. The Predators tried a “Keep the red out” policy that forced buyers of tickets to Blackhawks games to also buy a ticket to a different game.

But Florida-based attorney John Phillips has some concerns about the jersey policy, seeing that the building is publicly owned.

“I think there may be legitimate concerns of suppression of speech,” he said. “It reminds me of the Marlins guy who sat front and center at the Giants game. They are trying to prevent that and control the crowd but a little too extremely.”

(So perhaps Kate Upton had a legal case when she was told by the Yankees to ditch her Tigers cap?)

Beyond the legality question, this sends the wrong kind of message about the franchise and the Tampa area. First of all, the Lightning are superb at home: the team’s 30 wins at Amalie Arena is tops in the league. So, it’s not like there’s no home ice advantage. Second, while other Tampa teams have issues with opposing fans taking over the home turf — Packers backers at Raymond James Stadium and Yankees fans at the Trop — the Bolts have a loud and supportive environment. The Thunder Alley outside the arena is one of the better gathering spots in all of sports — offering a pleasant vibe and weather that cannot be found in Boston or Philadelphia in winter.

Third, is this the best way to draw new fans? What if a young fan wears his Bolts jersey to a playoff game with his Canadiens-loving father and then watches his dad get accosted for wearing a Guy Lafleur jersey? It’s the kind of thing that can repel more people than it lures.

The entire state of Florida has some insecurity about its fan bases, at least in pro sports. It’s almost become a pastime to post photos of gaping swaths of empty seats from stadiums around the state. But when the home teams are good, they draw. And they draw real fans. A lot of those fans are either new to the state or new to the team or both. The better policy is to welcome everyone to watch one of the best teams in hockey and gleefully send the opposing fans home after a good time and a bad loss. Maybe they will change their minds about their teams the way they changed their minds about their earlier residence.

The Original Six teams have always had passionate fans because those franchises predated those fans. The Lightning will get generational fans too, over time. For now, the franchise should keep the focus on the one thing that will bring an overwhelming majority of Bolts jerseys to the arena: the home team.