Last preseason saw the Lightning trek across the continent, playing an excruciating schedule (and carrying a huge roster) during the month of September. Winnipeg, Manitoba; Everett, Washington; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; Loveton, Colorado; Norfolk, Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia. Through the west and then back east, the Lightning played 6 games in 7 nights.
Now here's a question: How much good did this do for the Bolts extending their brand reach in the state of Florida, and to potential fans that have season long access to the game in-state?
Let's not make a mistake and try to play up exhibitions as the genuine article of a regular season NHL game, that's part of the argument against the team playing more preseason games at Times Palace: Why would fans want to go to watch what amounts to practice while paying standard prices?
That logic is why the team sojourns elsewhere for preseason games, and that I don't have a problem with. Last season's epic road trip covered costs for the entire preseason. But why not help their own cause (and the cause of teams throughout the southeast) and play some exhibition games in the southeast?
Just why shouldn't the Bolts play some preseason games in Orlando and expose / extend their brand directly to Central Florida fans?
It's been 15 seasons since the Lightning played last at the O-rena (renamed X number of times since then, but I'll always know it as the former Orlando Arena by its first nickname). The Bolts played five home games in orlando during the 1993-94 regular season that year (their second in the league). As the Lightning tried to solidify its organization, branching out and winning over more local markets took a back seat. Having Tampa / St. Pete was going to be good enough.
In the long run, it's not. Not for the franchise, not for the popularity of the league or the sport. Y'see, while teams spend training camp playing in 3rd party cities for the sake of an immediate payout, the long-term growth of the game (by exposing the game to new markets) stagnates. You play in Winnipeg, you play in Saskatoon - two hot beds that are going to invest in hockey no matter what (and no matter what level - NHL, AHL, junior league play, etc)- and you ignore your own backyard.
With the Lightning, it's Orlando, or Jacksonville, maybe Estero to the south (where the ECHL Florida Everblades play) and Pensacola to the northwest. Orlando's new Amway Center is a major league venue, with the ice surface technology built in. Now think about those Orlando natives who have an appreciation or hockey but who don't make trips to Tampa or Sunrise to watch the Lightning or the Panthers, respectively. These people are worth just as much as those up north, if not more.
"More?" you ask. Yes, more. Winnipeg fans showing up for an exhibition between the Lightning and another squad (the Edmonton Oilers last season, the Chicago Blackhawks this season), aren't likely going to jump on the Lightning bandwagon. They're not going to be tuning into Sun Sports to watch Lightning games (and influence ratings). Orlando, on the other hand?
Playing preseason exhibition games in Orlando won't alone sell the Lightning to residents. There has to be a persistent and dedicated outreach to the market, all season long, in order to influence anyone to take interest in the Bolts... Yet, by establishing a preseason presence in Orlando as well as marketing to the town, the Bolts gain in the long term by exposing their brand to a neighboring market and increasing ties to fans in the market.
As a sidenote, Donttradevinny had a good FanPost more than a month ago on the need to incorporate more regional exhibition games in the preseason. He focused more on the traditional markets in the north and exposing the NHL brand to cities without teams.