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Jeff Vinik talks sports, philanthropy at USF

Jeff Vinik

Jeff Vinik's ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning started with a Google search.

Just before his 50th birthday, the then-hedge fund manager was living in Boston wondering about his future. "I'm turning 50 years old, what am I going to do for fun the rest of my life?" he said to a friend. Then he decided: "I'm going to buy a hockey team."

Next morning, he said, he got up and searched "how to buy a sports team."

That search led him to Tampa, and by extension as a guest lecturer to USF on Nov. 5, speaking to a sold-out audience of hundreds of students, faculty, alumni, and community members at the USF Muma College of Business. USF Sport & Entertainment Management Program Professor Mike Mondello interviewed Vinik about managing a sports team and how philanthropy goes along with leading a team.

Vinik said his self-education on owning a sports team resulting from that first Internet search led him to two conclusions: First, "like everything in life, it's all about the people." Second, "to really be a good sports owner, you have to be a part of the community."

Mondello asked about three of Vinik's stated goals for the Lightning: competing for championships, breaking even financially, and giving back to the community.

"Why are all three important?" he asked.

Vinik spoke about how all three goals are important to having a sustainable team. The breakeven point, he said, is all about which choices to make as a team owner: he could spend $20 million less on players, but then the team wouldn't be able to compete for championships. Giving back to the community, he said, is a responsibility - to invest in the area where the team plays and that supports the Lightning. Vinik said he put $75 million into Amalie Arena because of that belief in the area and the image he wanted to present.

"It didn't represent this area in terms of its soul or the Lightning in terms of a brand," he said."

"This whole area is really starting to catch fire ... we're resonating. The Tampa Bay area is starting to get on the radar of companies around the country," Vinik said.

He spoke extensively about integrity and its role in his business decisions. He defined his formula for success as great people plus integrity plus common sense - and said he wanted to win a championship, but wanted to do that by focusing on the long term health of the Lightning organization as a fan-centered brand. He said success isn't something he determines by a strict benchmark.

"You measure success in your gut," he said. 

One last takeaway for ambitious job-seekers from Vinik's appearance: a dinner can make or break your chances to join the leadership of his companies. While he looks for passion, integrity, and intelligence from the people he hires, Vinik said, the real test comes when he takes them out to dinner.

"I look at how they treat their spouse, and I look at how they treat the waiter," he said.

A gallery of photos from the event is viewable on the USF Muma College of Business Flickr page.