In a time of uncertainty, social unrest, and growing financial inequality, it seems difficult, if not absurd, to root for the success of a multi-billionaire businessman. Tampa Bay Lightning owner, and most recent Stanley Cup champion, Jeff Vinik is the exception to the rule. Vinik’s likable personality, generosity, passion and authenticity provide a refreshingly positive experience for those fortunate enough to cross paths with him.
You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who is not happy for the 61-year-old’s first Cup victory (save the 30 other NHL owners). Perhaps that’s because Vinik has developed a different formula for success, which primarily focuses on investing in community development, a winning hockey team, and a world-class entertainment experience.
Vinik is no stranger to investments. Before purchasing the Lightning in February 2010, the New Jersey native attended Harvard Business School where he obtained an MBA before joining Fidelity Investments. He became a star at Fidelity and went on to manage their world-renowned Fidelity Magellan Fund in the mid-1990s, earning investors a whopping 17% in average annual returns.
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After a very successful career at the firm, Vinik left to start his own hedge fund, Vinik Asset Management which was the catalyst that brought him the wealth, network and knowledge required to punch his ticket into professional sports (from ‘Manager of Magellan Fund Quits,’ Washington Post, 05/25/1996).
Tough Times in Tampa
While Vinik was enjoying success in the financial industry, the Lightning franchise was flirting with bankruptcy and potential relocation. By 2009, the organization was losing tens of millions of dollars, had one of the lowest season ticket bases in the NHL (4,500 season ticket holders) and played in a facility that needed significant upgrades.
The Bolts were also the worst-performing team in the NHL between 2007 and 2010, putting together a miserable combined record of 89-118-39. To make matters worse, the US was struggling to navigate its way through the most devastating economic crisis since the Great Depression, and Florida was among the states hardest hit.
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In mid-2009, former Lightning owners Oren Koules (a Hollywood executive) and Len Barrie (former NHLer) had come to grips with reality. They owned a losing franchise, both on and off the ice, they were disconnected from their fan base and they needed a way out. The shine of the 2004 Stanley Cup championship had worn off and fans had grown frustrated with the team’s performance and absentee ownership group. In February 2010, Koules, Barrie and the Lightning faithful got exactly what they wanted, and so desperately needed.
Vinik’s Next Chapter
In 2008, Vinik began to ponder the next chapter of his life and what that would look like. He had already built a fortune through his wildly successful multi-billion dollar hedge fund and could easily fly into retirement on his private jet, but there was something missing. He needed a new challenge and he wanted to make a difference. After some deep thought, and a few glasses of wine, he targeted professional sports as his next pursuit.
Almost immediately, Vinik began researching everything he could find on owning and running a professional sports team. Vinik left no stone unturned and his studies took him from how to build sales and marketing programs all the way to learning the entire NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Between 2008 and 2009, Vinik became a sponge for information and, in addition to his own studies, leaned on his powerful network for advice and insight into the covert world of pro sports.
At the time, Vinik was living in the Boston area and decided to reach out to the owners of the Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics to get some tips as to how he could begin his journey to owning an NHL franchise. These conversations lead to a three-hour meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in New York. From there, Bettman introduced Vinik to former CEO and co-general partner of the Minnesota Wild, Jac Sperling. Sperling and Vinik became fast friends and Sperling agreed to help guide Vinik through the process.
The financial destruction caused by the economic crisis forced many NHL owners to consider selling their franchise and at least five NHL teams were looking for new ownership (Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars and Tampa). Vinik had no shortage of options and the newly formed duo began conducting market research on the various teams and marketplaces. Their research produced some interesting results. Tampa Bay, a sunbelt team, was a solid hockey town on paper.
A large portion of the population had an affinity for a game usually reserved for northern US states and Canadian provinces. What Vinik and Sperling hadn’t realized was that there was a good number of transplants from strong hockey markets, like Montreal, Chicago and Philadelphia, who were now living in the area. As he had done for decades in the financial sector, Vinik did his due diligence and found an opportunity worth investing in.
On Feb. 5, 2010, Vinik purchased a rotting Lightning franchise from Koules and Barrie for the bargain price of $140 million. After phase one of his plan was complete, the newest member of the NHL owners’ club had to get to work and quickly. Vinik turned to his network again and Sperling introduced him to the CEO of the Seattle Seahawks, one of the brightest business minds in professional sports, Tod Leiweke. Not surprisingly, Vinik and Leiweke hit it off instantly and began discussing the possibility of Leiweke overseeing the business operations of Vinik’s new investment.
It took some time, but Leiweke eventually agreed to take on the role of Lightning CEO and he got started rebuilding their business operations. With construction underway to stabilize the business side, Vinik set his sights on the hockey side and needed to recruit a general manager who could bring the team back to being contenders.
Tampa needed a strong leader, someone with clout, a tough negotiator and, above all else, was a proven winner. They needed Steve Yzerman. After several long phone calls and a trip to Detroit, Vinik got his man and Yzerman brought instant credibility to a franchise in peril.
Investing in the Community
Now that he had hired the right people and provided them with the resources to rebuild the struggling franchise, Vinik shifted his focus and energy into how the organization could have a positive impact in the Tampa community. He jumped in with both feet, and relocated his family from Boston to the Sunshine State so that they could be entwined into the fabric of the community.
From there, Vinik committed to a variety of programs including a $3 billion investment in the Water Street project to revitalize the city’s downtown core. He also poured $80 million into Amalie Arena renovations, including the installation of a massive center-hung arena HD video display board, the largest of its kind in North America at the time.
From a charitable perspective, it would be difficult to find a non-profit organization within the Tampa community that has not been touched by Vinik’s philanthropy. One of his most prominent programs, “Lightning Community Heroes”, celebrates a local hero during each Lightning regular-season home game and donates $50,000 to a non-profit charity of his or her choice. This program alone has surpassed the $20 million mark.
More recently, Vinik purchased local newspaper ads, radio ads, and billboards to promote resources available for local residents affected by unemployment, small business struggles and food shortages due to COVID-19. Additionally, he donated $300,000 to provide food boxes for underprivileged families in the Tampa area and, with his donation, 300 meal boxes are being provided each day.
In his ten seasons as the owner of the Lightning, there have been no scandals, no lawsuits, no distractions and no disconnect from the community. Vinik has become a civic leader, providing the city with his time and money which has been reciprocated by the community.
His Lightning franchise has finished in the top 10 in league attendance for eight consecutive seasons, and they have been resurrected as Stanley Cup Champions while Vinik continued to pay his full-time staff their full salaries during the NHL shut down due to the pandemic.
When a prospective owner reaches out to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to inquire about taking on a franchise, Bettman sends them to Tampa to learn from Vinik. There are probably a few owners who would be well served to study the notes Vinik took back in 2008. Perhaps they contain the secret to becoming a champion both on the ice and in the community.