Saturday, March 1, 2008

WRT Report: Tampa Bay

Fellow Russotan, (and self-described) "Wild Road Tripper" was the inspiration for my Columbus trip earlier this season with his tales from the road with the boys. He and his wife took advantage of a late-February scheduling opportunity to travel to Florida to see the Wild play (which I suspect falls neatly into the category of euphemism for "get the F out of Minny in the middle of winter").

He was kind enough to share his thoughts on the trip, the first installment of which follows:

Wild Road Tripper On Tampa Bay:

The St. Pate Times Forum (Newspaper bought the naming rights. Nice.) is on the surface a not-so-inspiring building, despite its' location near the Port of Tampa on the edge of Tampa's downtown. Put 17,000 (announced) fans in there, however, and it can get downright crazy.

Opened in 1996, the Forum (formerly known as the Ice Palace) is the second home for the Lightning, having spent their first two seasons playing at Tropicana Field in Downtown St. Petersburg, across Tampa Bay from their current location. The arena has two levels of suites (atop the 100-and-200 levels) and club seating on the 200-level. The 300-level "cheap seats" leave a lot to be desired, as the seats in the ends are quite a ways from the ice surface.

The staff is almost TOO eager to assist you; I had to shy away from a number of them from time to time. They all wanted to sell me the Lightning 2008 calendar ($5), and why was never explained (charity?) but I can only digress to others as to why the hard sell.

Note to those who drink soda: the Forum is clearly in the Pepsi camp, and no fountain beverages; only 20-oz plastic bottles ($4) available. You can get a souvenir cup with a beer ($6) but not with a soda. And, in direct contrast with other NHL venues, like the 'X' in St. Paul, you keep the cap with you. (The ushers are responsible for picking up the 20-oz bottles after the game for recycling. Go figure.)

The fans were all right (what there were of them; over 17,000 was announced, but you could get your choice of seats no problemo). I would say about 14-15,000 actually showed up Wednesday night.

To cater to the downtown crowd post-work to pre-game, the Forum opens 2 hours prior to game time, at 5:30 PM. All concession stands, the two restaurants on the Club level and the open-air bar outside open at this time. (Yes, I said open air bar. More on this wonder later.)

Concesssions are primarily handled by lease-outs to local restaurants (Outback Steakhouse, Five Guys Burgers, etc.) and to undo this maze they have a guide pamphlet you can get at the gates and also at the Box Office (for those of you, like me, who don't wish to pay an extra $2.50/ticket to Ticketmaster for them to allow you to print your ticket on your computer).

All patrons (except disabled, VIP and Suite level) are expected to walk up three sets of not-too-steep stairs to the entry level where the access is then straightforward (no pat-down searches, no wanding, no showing your waist, a la Nationwide Arena in Columbus) and in you go.

Now, having said that, here's where the fun comes in. The access wells are labeled not only by Section but by SEAT number (so you go in the correct entry). Of course, we went in what we thought was the right entry. And, of course, we were wrong... Programs are FREE (Minnesota Wild, are you listening?) and available from any usher in the arena. Of course, with all this free stuff, it made for an unwieldy seat situation, but with no one sitting next to us, we spread out and made full use of the available space.

We were in Section, 120, Row 8 (end where the Wild shoot 1st & 3rd periods, a requirement for us) and next to the Zamboni tunnel in the Northwest corner of the lower level. To say that most of the fans were interesting would be stretching the truth...a lot. Most were transplants from the Northeast (Boston, NYC, Philly, DC) or 'snowbirds' like us 'just visiting', like in Monopoly jail. The guy in front of us was from New Jersey, as an example. Two others we met (in Lightning regalia) were from Detroit. And, so on.

The sound is above rock-concert level loud all night. My ears were ringing after a while. They do the standard array of in-game promotions, and the usual type of between-periods stuff. Even the pre-game intros are nothing to write home about. Same old, same old...interferes with the alcohol sales, I guess.

There were a few boors in the crowd; one especially wore a #28 white Lightning 'original' jersey (with the pseudo-'painted on' numbering) and the name 'Ekman'. He took every opportunity during the second period (when the Wild were defending the goal near us) to come on down to the edge of the open door to the ice, and scream 'YOU SUCK BACKSTROM! DO YOU HEAR ME!?! YOU SUCK!!!!' until his eyes bulged out, his face turned as red as a beet, and everyone standing in the tunnel, including the Lightning game day staff, paramedics, even the Ice Girls, were laughing AT him. This guy had DEFINITELY been over-served.

After the game (a 3-2 Wild win) ended a few of the disgruntled Tampa fans (the stupid ones, anyhow) stared yelling at anyone in Wild regalia. None of us listened; a few just pointed at the scoreboard. The rest just shuffled out of the place, and into the night, or to...the OPEN SPORTS BAR just outside the west gates! You got it right, can 'get a load and hit the road' by stopping at this bar open for a half-hour after every 'Bolts game. I couldn't believe it. This reminded me of the old Chicago Stadium, where it was 'Hard Liquor and Handgun Night' every time the Blackhawks played at home in later years.

How the Lightning get away with this in this day and age of cracking down on drunken sports fans is beyond belief. We walked across the street (and the Tampa Historic Streetcar tracks to Ybor City) to the Marriott Harborside, which was built after the Forum opened. This hotel (and the Embassy Suites) are the two closest hotels to the arena (although not the cheapest by ANY stretch of the imagination). There is parking available to the west of the arena (two huge parking ramps, general parking $12) and took a taxi (after a wait) back to our hotel (flat rate in the downtown, $3/person).



Anonymous said...

100% of the Wild programs go back to the youth hockey organization selling them that night. So the program comment is a little unnecessary. Other than that, great report!

Anonymous said...

Then why not let the kids just hand them out at the door and let the advertisers pay for the privelige of knowing 18,568 people will see their ad? More fair for the hockey associations, more fair for the kids themselves, and much more revenue-enhancing for the Wild (and the advertisers!)