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Business Observer Friday, May 11, 2012 8 years ago

Tod's Town

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Tod Leiweke has built a deep reservoir of goodwill in the two years he's run the Tampa Bay Lightning. His admirers are primed for more.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The Seattle Seahawks were the silent swans of the National Football League a decade ago.

There were only 29,000 season ticket holders for their new home stadium, Qwest Field, out of nearly 70,000 seats. The fan base, once lauded league-wide for its boisterous and passionate support, fell quiet. The buzz around the team was likewise flat.

Tod Leiweke, new to town, thought he knew the root of the problems. It wasn't only on the field, where wins were infrequent.

“It wasn't a likable brand,” says Leiweke, pronounced LIGH-wih-kee. “It just flat out didn't work. Ultimately if you follow the fans, you can't go wrong. A great brand is a reflection of those you serve.”

Lucky for Seattle, Leiweke was in a position to act on his beliefs. Billionaire software entrepreneur and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen hired Leiweke in 2003 to turnaround the team, both on the field, and on the balance sheet. Leiweke was wildly successful with the task: The Seahawks made the Super Bowl in 2005, and had 62,000 season ticket holders by 2010.

Leiweke was so good, in fact, the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jeff Vinik, lured him away from Allen's Northwest sports empire. In addition to the Seahawks, Leiweke also ran the Portland Trail Blazers, in the NBA, and the Seattle Sounders FC, a professional soccer team. Leiweke was named CEO of the Lightning and the Tampa Bay Times Forum in July 2010. The position included a minority ownership stake in the hockey team, and a leadership role with Tampa Bay Storm Arena Football League team.

Now, after being in Tampa for nearly two years, Leiweke, 52, has garnered a reputation as one of the more gifted and hard-working executives in town. “Tod has touched a lot of lives in the short time he's been here,” says Joel Momberg, CEO of the USF Foundation in Tampa. “He doesn't do anything in a small way. I don't know when the guy sleeps.”

Indeed, to almost everyone who has met Leiweke, the executive is both a rock star and a humble guy next door. He quickly embraces a host of local causes and initiatives — many of which are far removed from hockey. “He's not only a brilliant leader,” says Guy King, president of Tampa-based insurance firm M.E. Wilson Co. “He's also a creative social entrepreneur.”

Adds Tim Marks, president and chief operating officer of Metropolitan Ministries, a Tampa-area homeless shelter: “I can't think of a better guy to be in our community. He's a difference maker.”

A new regime
The first place Leiweke set out to make a difference was with the Lighting, a post with acute challenges. The team's home arena, the Forum, was in dire need of upgrades when Leiweke was hired. Moreover, the Lightning's fans needed sustainable reasons to come support the team, which finished at the bottom of the league standings in 2008 and 2009.

“In our business, great brands do have equity, but you need to work at it,” says Leiweke. “I admire our fans. They have put up with a lot.”

Leiweke faced a third glaring problem early in his tenure: The Lightning's reputation in the business community was ice cold under the past owners, a group that included former NHL player Len Barrie and Hollywood executive Oren Koules. Barrie and Koules bought the team in 2008, but by 2009 they were in a highly publicized dispute over players and salaries. Both failed in efforts to buy the other out.

The Barrie-Koules battle reverberated in Tampa Bay. Several community leaders and local executives say the team, before Leiweke and Vinik, did a poor job of following through on commitments.

Leiweke made some immediate changes in the team's approach to the business community. He started by easing access.

Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob Clifford is one of many who noticed a big difference. “We struggled forever to get a foot in the door,” says Clifford. “But it's a much different environment now. They really looked at the ways they market themselves.”

The marketing and branding changes Leiweke has overseen in Tampa mirror some of his moves in Seattle. The steps are key pegs in his philosophy about how to run a sports team. The idea, in short, is to emulate a franchise like the Green Bay Packers, a team with regional and in some ways, national cachet. It revolves around establishing a connection between players and fans.

“Teams aren't owned by the towns they are in,” Leiweke says. “They are owned by the regions. If we are just a Tampa team, we are too small to make it work. We need to encompass the entire region.”

Rich details
It was in that vein Leiweke led a massive renovation of the Forum soon after he arrived in Tampa. Funded by Vinik without any local or state government subsides, the project quickly went from $15 million to $20 million to $40 million. “We had a tired building,” Leiweke says. “It wasn't old, but it was tired.”

The project ultimately included new concourses, a new heating and air-conditioning system and an outdoor party deck. The team also put in a new restaurant, and redid some suites. It was a detail-rich project, too. Features ranged from Tesla coils to a pipe organ — reminiscent of old-time, Original Six hockey — Leiweke calls the mother of all organs.

Says Leiweke: “We gave the building a soul.”

Leiweke then set out to give fans, especially season ticket holders, more reasons to come to the games, and spend more money when they get there. On that front, a key move was to rebrand the entire concept of season ticket holders.

First, the team changed the name of that customer segment, from season ticket holders to season ticket members. Then, more significantly, the Lightning gave all season ticket members a team jersey, where they could choose a name for the back. (A few fans chose Vinik; at least one picked Leiweke.)

The jerseys, furthermore, come with an electronic chip in the sleeve that can be used for food, beverage and merchandise discounts. “Why should our season ticket members pay the same price for a beer as a Detroit Red Wings fan?” asks Leiweke.

The program has been successful, both inside and outside the Forum. Fans love it, says Leiweke, and so do other teams. The Detroit Pistons in the NBA, for example, now run a similar program. “Our only mistake in this idea,” quips Leiweke, “was not copyrighting it.”

Those kinds of programs will be the backbone of the effort to retain and grow the fan base, Leiweke says. “There's a lot to do here,” Leiweke says. “On any given day, you can kayak, you can golf, or you can have a barbecue. There's also a stigma that hockey can't work in Florida.”

Mountain climber
Leiweke, meanwhile, worked in a lot of places before the Gulf Coast. Stops include Seattle; Vancouver, Canada, where he worked with the Canucks in the NHL; and San Francisco, where he was an executive with the NBA's Golden State Warriors. He also worked in marketing with the PGA Tour in Jacksonville.

A St. Louis native, Leiweke says hockey was always his favorite sport. He played ice hockey and other sports recreationally, but he didn't pursue any professionally.

Tragedy also struck Leiweke at a young age: His mom died of cancer when he was 8 years old, and his stepmom died, also of cancer, when he was 17. The deaths forced Leiweke to grow up fast. “People are shaped by adversity, but also by success,” he says. “Sometimes, it's more adversity than success.”

Success marked Leiweke's tenure with the Seahawks, which is also where he began to get national recognition for his leadership. He reconnected the team to fans through several projects, like the high school wall at Qwest Field, where every high school football team in Washington state had a helmet. Longtime Seahawks executive Gary Wright, now an executive with the Sounders soccer team, says Leiweke left a big hole to fill.

“He's such a great big-picture guy,” says Wright. “He paints a masterpiece, but he does that only after he thinks about it, worries about it and wakes up in the middle of the night about it.”

One of Leiweke's most notable off-the-field accomplishments in Seattle was in 2009, when he was part of a seven-person group that climbed to the top of Mount Rainier, southeast of Seattle. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell joined Leiweke on the 14,410-foot climb, which raised money for the United Way. It was the second time Leiweke climbed Mount Rainier.

'Easy decision'
Leiweke was actually so happy in Seattle he had no plans to leave.

Then Leiweke met Vinik. The pair had dinner together in Vancouver during the 2010 winter Olympics. A hedge fund manager, Vinik had just closed on a deal worth more than $100 million to buy the Lightning.

The ardent hockey fans hit it off, but Leiweke turned down a job offer. He told Vinik the timing wasn't good. Vinik was persistent in his pursuit, though, and a few months later, after NHL Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman joined the team, Leiweke's interest grew.

“It was after Steve Yzerman came that I said, 'man something special is happening here,'” says Leiweke. “It made it an easy decision to come.”

Nonetheless, leaving Seattle was tough. “I've given this place everything I had, and we built something special here,” Leiweke told Seattle area sportswriters at a farewell press conference. “Walking away from that is something that keeps you awake at night.”

The things that keep Leiweke awake at night now are how to make the Lightning better in everything, from the food fans eat to the comfort of the seats.

“We have a really good organization that's full of ambition,” Leiweke says. “But there's a lot more that we can do that we are not doing. We are about halfway there.”

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