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Jeff Vinik is the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey club. (Dirk Shadd/Associated Press/Dirk Shadd/Associated Press)
Jeff Vinik is the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey club. (Dirk Shadd/Associated Press/Dirk Shadd/Associated Press)

Paul Waldie

The man behind the Lightning bolt Add to ...

Jeffrey Vinik has already revitalized the Tampa Bay Lightning and many people in this city are hoping he’ll do the same thing for the Rays.

Vinik has become something of a hero in Tampa since he bought the Lightning for about $110-million (all currency U.S.) in 2010. He spent $40-million revamping the county-owned Tampa Bay Times Forum, he hired hockey great Steve Yzerman to run the team, and started donating $50,000 at each home game to various local charities.

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Now Vinik, who runs a hedge fund, has been approached about an even bigger challenge – turning around a downtown shopping and restaurant complex called Channelside Bay Plaza. The 230,000-square-foot mall has been in receivership for nearly a year and up for sale since last summer. It’s located just down the road from the Tampa Bay Times Forum and it was supposed to be the key part of a new entertainment district in the area when it opened in 2001. But the mall fell victim to the recession, squabbling owners and angry lenders. Today the mall has several empty storefronts and a visit on Wednesday afternoon found only a handful of vaguely interested shoppers.

Vinik has been asked to help breathe new life into Channelside. There have been reports that he is interested in building a baseball stadium on a nearby piece of empty land and suggestions he’d either buy or lure the Rays to the site. A spokesman for Vinik denied the Lightning owner is making any attempt to buy the Rays. “Absolutely no truth to the Rays rumour,” the spokesman said. “We were approached about Channelside, but to say it has gone farther than that is inaccurate.”

What’s keeping the rumour afloat is the sad state of the Rays and their current venue – Tropicana Field in nearby St. Petersburg. The Rays had the second-worst attendance in baseball last season, averaging barely 19,000 a game, and attendance has been dropping steadily. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg is eager to find a new location for the team and he has been pushing city officials to get out of the club’s lease at Tropicana Field. The lease runs until 2027.

The Lightning have been held up as an example for how to reinvigorate a sports franchise. One of Vinik’s key hires after buying the team was Tod Leiweke as chief executive. Leiweke, who is also a co-owner of the Lightning, arrived from Seattle, where he ran the company that owned the Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Sounders. His brother, Tim, runs Anschutz Entertainment Group in Los Angeles, which owns the Kings, L.A. Galaxy, part of the Lakers and the Staples Center. Anschutz also helped develop an entertainment district around the Staples Center called LA Live, which includes music venues, restaurants and nightclubs. Some in Tampa hope his brother can do the same thing here.

For now, though, the Lightning still have plenty of work to do. While season ticket sales doubled this year to 10,000, there are signs the team continues to struggle attracting fans. The team offers plenty of promotions, including a $35 package that includes one ticket to a game on a Tuesday and free food. There is also a $99 “four pack” that includes four tickets, four hot dogs, four drinks and a free movie rental.

But Vinik has brought recognition to the team and some badly needed publicity, as well as real lightning bolts during games and a statue of Phil Esposito, the hockey legend and Lightning co-founder.

“He’s really, really involved,” Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier said of Vinik. “He’s really working hard.

“I think people are really excited about the Lightning and everything because of Mr. Vinik,” added Lecavalier, who has become the face of the franchise, so much so that his voice greets air travellers riding the tram at the Tampa Bay airport.

Follow on Twitter: @PwaldieGLOBE

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