Alumni/Students, now Employees/Fellows with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Savoring the Stanley Cup
By Keith Morelli
TAMPA (October 9, 2020) -- Aside from the Stanley Cup skaters on the ice, the Tampa Bay Lightning organization is well represented by fellows and alumni of USF. To determine the strength of the partnership between the Lightning organization and the Muma College of Business, look no further than the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program, named after the hockey team’s owners Jeff and Penny Vinik.
It was through the encouragement of the Viniks in 2012 that the program was founded and their $6 million donation in 2017 resulted in their name going on the program. Through its existence, the program has funneled talent from the classroom to internships – now called fellowships – to full-time jobs with the Lightning, mostly in the realm of business analytics and marketing.
Greg Greenhalgh, a visiting instructor who teaches with the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program at the Muma College of Business, said the relationship between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the program “is like nothing I have ever been a part of in the past.
“The hands-on experience this relationship provides our fellows is nothing short of spectacular,” he said. “Students are not fetching coffee and making copies. Rather, they are fully embraced as part of the Lightning organization. Our students are in meetings alongside the Lightning administration and they are sked to provide their opinions during these meetings. The partnership provides immense opportunities to network within the organization and grow as professionals via regularly scheduled professional development sessions."
Here is a short list of alumni and fellows working with the Lightning and glimpses into their thoughts during and after the decisive Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals last week.
Robert Earnhardt is a content fellow, whose main responsibilities include the handling and reporting and analytics for web/app, email and social data to drive business decisions.
“I was in my living room jumping up and down! Watching the final two minutes of Game 6 was one of the most nerve racking experiences I’ve ever gone through,” he said. “The adrenalin that was going through me was at an all-time high.”
He said working for the Vink Sports Group over the past month has “been the best time of my life. The people, the experiences, the passion, everything there is unmatched. I can already tell I am going to learn a lot from my time there.”
A memorable experience: “I had the opportunity to help take a family that won a raffle down the tunnel used by the players to get on the ice,” Earnhardt said. “Seeing those young children’s eyes light up when the players walked by was such a cool moment. They were so full of excitement being next to the players, giving them high-fives and cheering them on. It was so contagious.”
Emily Dachs is a consumer intelligence fellow in the business strategy and analytics department. She uses data to determine market and business insights to support various departments’ decisions. She contributes to the design, development and distribution of analytics.
“I watched from home with my cats,” Dachs said. “Those final two minutes were a blur, I may have blacked out.”
She said working with the Lightning is a “dream.”
“The organization is run so well, from Jeff Vinik up top, all the way down to us fellows. Everyone is respected and appreciated and we can really feel that. We are very lucky to be working with the team during such an interesting and successful season.”
She interviewed for her fellowship a day before the NHL paused the season. “Crazy timing for us,” she said.
Ryan Geiger is a partnership activation and development fellow who is responsible for partnership contract renewals, brand dives for research and ideation. He researches best practices used by Stanley Cup championship teams in terms of parades, activations and celebrations.
“It made it more real that the Lightning were, at the time I was hired on, on the verge of something special,” he said. When the team won the Stanley Cup, he was visiting relatives in north Texas, all Dallas Stars fans.
“It was a particularly interesting series given I grew up in Stars territory but am now deeply connected to the Lightning,” he said, “They were cheering hard for their team, but their happiness for me was evident as well. I was very calm and reserved throughout the entire game until those last few minutes. That is when it hit me that I was experiencing something truly unique.
“I may never experience something like this ever again,” he said. “I started to get fired up as time wound down and I just kept saying, ‘Wow.’"
Working for the Lightning is special, he said.
“You may not find an organization with a better reputation, so it feels like a genuine honor,” he said. “The full-time staff has included the fellows and seem legitimately interested in our growth and development. Even though I am only entering my second year in the Tampa Bay area, it fills me with a sense of pride to work for this organization. The staff is clearly passionate about the team and that makes a huge difference.”
Erin Beck is a partnership development and activation fellow who performs brand dives and research on prospects and researches industry trends and news for the department. She creates decks, writes copy, proofreads text for presentations and pitches and assists in the planning and organizing partner events and meetings.
“Not being in Tampa for this incredible Stanley Cup run has been challenging to say the least,” Beck said. “I was at my apartment in New Brunswick, sitting on the ground in front of the television yelling, "THEY'RE PULLING THE GOALIE! OH, MY GOSH. ARE WE GOING TO DO IT? WE ARE GOING TO DO IT. WE'RE DOING IT.’” Those were the longest last two minutes of a game of my life."
Beck as only been a part of the organization a month.
“The Vinik Sports Group has done an incredible job incorporating fellows into the organization,” she said. “Not only have they had to do it virtually in a pandemic, but also while juggling a Stanley Cup Finals run that ended in a championship. They are very communicative and always make time for questions and learning sessions.
“We are always included in brain-storming sessions and encouraged to participate. They sent us all care packages that arrived the weekend before our first day of the fellowship.”
Reece Anderson is a partnership development manager who drives new partnership revenue for the various properties within the Vinik Sports Group. He started an internship with the Lightning five years ago when they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals so there has been some highs and lows since then.
“My dad was in town and he is also a fan of the team, so it was great to watch Game 6 with him,” Anderson said. “The last few minutes were stressful, to say the least. We just sat there in silence, nervously waiting for time to expire.”
His job with the organization is rewarding.
“From Mr. Vinik on down, the organization treats people the right way, and employees are truly valued,” he said. “Throughout my tenure, they've continued to elevate the employee experience through the programs and initiatives they've put in place. Add in the community-first focus led by Mr. Vinik, and there is definitely a sense of pride as well. It was rewarding to see everyone celebrate this well-deserved championship. It feels like this has been a long time coming.”
Amy Rubin is a partnership activation coordinator who first interned with the organization during her first year in the graduate program. She was hired shortly after graduation in 2018.
“During Game 6, I was working the watch party at Amalie Arena, but moved to an area during the final two minutes to be with some of my coworkers,” she said. “The final two minutes had my anxiety at an all-time high, and I could not believe anything until the game clock read 0:00. Every time you saw someone in our organization after that win, you just gave them a great big hug, knowing how hard all of us have worked to get to this point.”
She is grateful to be working in the organization. “When you have an owner like Jeff Vinik, the best owner in sports, you are just so proud and pumped that the man just won a Stanley Cup,” she said. “I also could not be more grateful that throughout the pandemic, Mr. Vinik kept all full-time employees working, which is one of the many reasons that working for the organization is amazing.”
Crystal Ortiz is an account executive on the membership sales and service team who is the primary liaison for about 450 season ticket holders.
“I was actually working as an usher at our watch party, so watching the last two minutes was really awesome,” she said. “I got to feel the energy of the people in my section building and I knew our lead was sufficient that we would definitely win, so it was just a huge rush of excitement.”
She considers it an honor working for the organization. “I work with some of the best people in our industry on a daily basis and I’m constantly pushed to grow and learn more while also give back to the community,” she said. “It is fun for me to build relationships with them and find ways the Lightning can help achieve their entertainment goals.
“I am a Tampa native and I went to USF for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” Ortiz said. “I bleed green and gold at my core and I am a diehard Bucs, Rays, and Bolts fan. I was in the Class of 2019 in the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program, where I was a resident in the Lightning Made Sales Academy.”
Johnas Pulley is a membership sales and service fellow, who was hired by the Lightning organization within months of moving to Tampa from California just to enroll in the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program.
“Quite funny, the moment the Lightning won the Stanley Cup I was in Dallas,” he said. “I was in Dallas for Game 5 and Game 6. After Game 5 (which Dallas won), the fans let me have it. But after Game 6, I was the one with the last laugh. I could not rub it in too much because I was still on their home turf. But an amazing experience, nonetheless.”
He said working for the team is beyond expectations. “The entire staff is super helpful and supportive of my professional development,” he said. “When I was working with the Blue Crew (as an intern), my direct supervisors were eager to help me level up within the organization. They helped me schedule meetings with executives and invited me to help on numerous marketing tasks. With the Blue Crew, we were in charge of engaging fans around the community, in the arena and at team events.
“Working with the Blue Crew definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I was tasked to run around Thunder Alley and Amalie Arena to get fans excited for the puck drop. I was standing on railings and throwing t-shirts from the ice in a cow suit. Nothing is better than interacting with the fans.”
Greenhalgh said the Stanley Cup champions benefit from the relationship as well.
“For the Lightning, our students provide fresh insights to their business,” he said. “The entire sport industry is grappling with ways to try and engage younger fans. Our students are those younger fans, so what better group to lean on when trying to create plans to get younger fans through the door or tuning in on television.”