Flynn’s Harp: Tod Leiweke Remains Admirer of Seattle Sports Teams and Their Fans
Although it’s been more than two years since Tod Leiweke was lured to Tampa to turn around that city’s hockey fortunes the way he restored the luster of the Seattle Seahawks, he remains an ardent admirer of the Seattle sports scene and its fans. He also sings the praises of his current community-minded owner, Jeff Vinik, the way he touted the community focus of his Seattle boss, Paul Allen.
While now far distant in terms of miles, he remains an up-close booster of the Seahawks, whose fortunes he turned around, and the MLS Seattle Sounders, whose franchise he helped create, during the seven years he set down roots in the Seattle area.
“I love the idea of the Sounders playing before more than 60,000 fans,” Leiweke enthused about the MLS team’s recent contest. “But think about the fact that in the space of five days, the Seattle area turned out 170,000 fans for the Sounders, Seahawks and the (University of Washington) Huskies. That’s unbelievable for any region.”
But Leiweke, a self-described “eternal optimist,” declined to involve himself in the controversy over the proposed new sports arena in Seattle’s SoDo District south of downtown, other than to praise Seattle-raised investor Chris Hansen who wants to build the facility on land he now owns.
I asked him, in a recent telephone conversation, whether Hansen’s dream of attracting both NHL and NBA franchises for Seattle to play in his planned but not-yet-approved arena, was realistic.
“It could work, yes,” he replied. “But for the market to absorb two teams won’t be easy.”
Almost from the day in early 2010 that Boston financier Jeffrey Vinik bought the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning and the sports and entertainment facility since renamed the Tampa Bay Times Forum and moved his family to Tampa, he went Leiweke hunting. He was rebuffed at first in his efforts to have Leiweke forsake Seattle and come to Florida as CEO the team and the entertainment arena.
But by the time Leiweke announced in July of 2010 that he had accepted the position as CEO of Vinik’s Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment, as well as its subsidiaries the Lightning and what was then the St. Pete Times Forum, he acknowledged that an ownership stake in the parent company had closed the deal.
The Lightning needed to rebuild a brand battered by three years without a postseason appearance and two years of mismanagement by the previous owners.
Coming to Tampa and the Lightning was a return for Leiweke to his first love, hockey. He had been president of the Minnesota Wild, which he built into a major NHL success, and before that was with the Vancouver Canucks, prior to his hiring to turn around the Seahawks.
When Allen had coaxed Leiweke then 50, to Seattle to turn around the fortunes of a once-proud franchise, the team was believed losing money, but in fact, no one knew for sure because until Leiweke arrived to bring business acumen and marketing savvy, there apparently were no budgets. As Leiweke once confided, “when they ran out of funds they just asked Paul for more.”
When Leiweke arrived in Seattle in 2003, the season-ticket total was 30,000 and his first game as CEO wasn’t a sellout. But by the time the Seahawks reached their only Super Bowl two seasons later, every game was a sellout and season-ticket holders now top 60,000.
This year was to bring two big visibility opportunities for Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment. But storm clouds threatened both. A major renovation of Tampa Bay Times Forum was carried out to make it ready to host the Republican National Convention, which was threatened with cancellation but in the end was only delayed by Hurricane Isaac.
But since the bulk of convention week took place, the facility, ranked the nation’s fourth busiest, got good visibility as backdrop for the political gathering.
“The arena wasn’t ready when the new ownership arrived and so we funded a $50 million renovation of a publicly owned building,” Leiweke said. “The building looks almost new now.”
The other big visibility opportunity was for the Lightning, plans to mark the franchise’s 20th anniversary, described by one observer this way: :The 2012-13 season was supposed to be marketing gold, with the celebration of Tampa Bay’s 20th to be the thread that tied together an expected on-resurgence.”
“This has to be frustrating, even for a self-described ‘eternal optimist,’” I suggested to Leiweke.
“I don’t really feel that way,” he replied. “If you look up Jeff Vinik, you see a guy who is committed world class and getting a right-sized collective bargaining agreement is part of us getting that done.”
“I have always believed that no one follows a pessimist,” he added. “Optimistic leadership is the key to leading.”
“We have all the stuff for the 20th planned,” Leiweke said. “If we have to compress it, we will. The best thing we can do for this franchise is put it on a trajectory for the next 20 years.”
In talking about Vinik’s role in community, Leiweke is overboard in his enthusiasm for a unique charitable program the owner put in place for the Lightning. Vinik and his wife honored a Community Hero at each of the Lightning’s 41 regular season games, and awarded a $50,000 check to a non-profit charity of his or her choice, a total of more than $2 million year.
“Even though we’re in a work stoppage, he announced he’s going to make the same $50,000 donations,” Leiweke said. “I’ve been lucky to work for two pretty good owners.”
Our first telephone conversation took place just after Leiweke had returned from a 90-minute outing on his paddleboard off Anna Maria Island, where the Leiweke family has a retreat about 60 miles from Tampa.
“I love it out there,” Leiweke said of his paddleboarding, a sport he fell in love with after moving to Tampa Bay. “But something big was just surfacing and I told myself ‘time to get home.’” That’s the kind of challenge that doesn’t occur when he pursues his other entertainment of “beer-league” hockey.