Plenty of blue there.

Photographer: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Tampa Bay's Hockey Dress Code Insults Lightning Fans

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Stanley Cup Finals -- great news for Bolts fans, unless they live outside the state of Florida.

Throughout the playoffs, the Lightning have been taking heat for their draconian ticket policies meant to limit attendance by fans of opposing teams. Here's the disclaimer on the team's Ticketmaster site:

Amalie Arena is located in Tampa, FL. Sales to this event will be restricted to residents of Florida. Residency will be based on credit card billing address. Orders by residents outside the selected area will be canceled without notice and refunds given.

In addition to disallowing out-of-state residents from purchasing tickets, the Lightning have effectively banned visiting jerseys from premium seating:

Chase Club and Lexus Lounge ticket holders: Please note that for all 2015 NHL Playoff Games at Amalie Arena only Tampa Bay Lightning team apparel (or neutral) will be permitted in these club and adjoining seating areas. Fans wearing visiting team apparel will be asked to remove them while in these areas.

These policies have been in place since the first round, but with the Lightning set to take on the Blackhawks in the finals, media outlets in Chicago and elsewhere are starting to take notice. Local radio host Dan Bernstein has written a column denouncing the policy as "pathetic," blasting the opposing team's petulance with his own brand of petulance.

And yet, it's hard not to agree that these restrictions, and the team's justifications for them, are terribly misguided. The limits on opposing jerseys seems to be at best bad sportsmanship and at worst a First Amendment violation. But the practice of restricting ticket sales to certain ZIP codes is perfectly legal and has been employed by other teams and leagues in the past. In 2014, the Denver Broncos limited ticket sales to their AFC Championship matchup against the New England Patriots to fans who live in the Rocky Mountain states. The Seattle Seahawks similarly sold tickets to their NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers to fans in the region, with the notable exception of California. At the time, I wrote that the restrictions made some sense given a recent spate of incidents involving violent attacks on opposing fans.

But the Lightning aren't chalking up these limits to safety concerns; they admit it's to secure the heaviest possible home-ice advantage. "We’re not going to apologize for the policy," Bill Wickett, Tampa Bay's executive vice president for communications, told the New York Times. "We want to create as much of a hometown environment for the Lightning players and our season-ticket holders as we can."

Cranking up the hometown fans is all well and good, and according to Wickett, the decision to implement the ticket policy came after complaints from Lightning fans that their arena wasn't Bolt-blue enough. There are logistical considerations: Florida has an especially transient population, calling into question the effectiveness of limiting ticket sales to residents, many of  whom originally hail from elsewhere. Meanwhile, Lightning fans who live outside Florida can apparently call the team directly to purchase tickets, but this still seems to shut many of them out. It certainly shuts out general hockey fans or fans of particular players who might not be rooting for the jersey itself but the name on its back.

Then there's the unsavory idea of what amounts to "separate but equal" premium seating, promising richer Bolts fans a Blackhawks-free safe-zone in the luxury suites and clubs. 

In the end, though, the broader problem with such a policy is it confers an inferiority complex -- a particular consideration for a town known for its fickle sports fans, but not one for a team that has had no problem filling the seats (or winning at home, for that matter, where the Lightning were 32-8-1). The Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Buccaneers often play in front of either empty seats or hordes of opposing fans, but the Lightning have enjoyed consistent support during this playoff run, and can actually be blamed for some of the Rays' attendance woes. In a way, these ticket restrictions are an insult to the Lightning fan base, sending the message that they can't be trusted to show up for their team without special incentives. It makes it seem as if the team is still stuck in its struggling expansion phase. And it just serves to remind everyone that sure, Tampa Bay is a nontraditional hockey market and no, Lightning fans don't have the same generational fortitude as Original Six backers.

The Lightning management should give its fan base a proper chance to prove itself without the safety net of segregated premium seating. And as the Lightning showed an arena full of passionate New Yorkers Friday night, the best way to silence opposing fans is by winning, not enforcing a dress code.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net