Hours before the Lightning and Penguins faced off in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins social media department Tweeted "We're gold rushing into the Eastern Conference Final! Shoutout to @VisitBradenton for the rally towels!", accompanied by a picture of two Penguins fans posing in front of CONSOL Energy Center, displaying one of the towels.
Visit Bradenton, "the official Twitter account for Bradenton Gulf Islands, including Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch" replied, "You're welcome! :) Have fun!", a Tweet that has since been deleted.
As one would expect, response from Lightning fans was swift and severe, resulting in a barrage of angry Tweets tagged with #BoycottBradenton.
In an attempt to defuse the situation, Visit Bradenton released the following statement (available at http://www.bradentongulfislands.com/media/1728234/final.pdf)
On May 13, 2016, the Pittsburgh Penguins released a
statement on Twitter thanking the Bradenton, Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key Area for
sponsored promotional materials. The Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau has released a
statement to the Tampa Bay community clarifying the purpose of these promotion items.
"As a destination, we have and will continue to support the Tampa Bay Lightning through our annual
marketing initiatives and wish both teams the best of luck in the Eastern Conference Finals," said
Elliott Falcione, Executive Director of the Bradenton Area CVB.
The Bradenton Area holds deep roots to the Pittsburgh community being the Spring Training
destination for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their sister city. The destination currently has marketing
campaigns with multiple Pittsburgh sporting teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh
Penguins. Due to these and other initiatives, visitation to the destination from the Pittsburgh area has
increased by 37 percent.
The destination also holds a larger advertising buy with the Tampa Bay Lightning as an official
partner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Amalie Arena.
Throughout the state of Florida, it is common for destination marketing organizations to have out-ofstate
partnerships through sports marketing initiatives, including major league teams.
"It's a great way to get our brand in front of a demographic that meshes with our visitor profile,"
Falcione explained. "It's about economic development for our region, the entire region which
"That came off as 'tone-deaf' and out-of-touch to me", says Gina Morales, who is the Vice President of Marketing for Nationwide Title Clearing, a national financial services firm. She also oversees public relations for the firm."You need to understand that nobody cares about your marketing strategy, whether or not your reasoning is sound. More important is your relationship with the people in your community. When you make an error and upset those people, you need to take responsibility for it and sincerely apologize. Trying to justify your actions by pointing how much money is at stake is the opposite of that."
Bradenton is one of many towns in Florida with deeply-rooted ties to a Major League Baseball team, serving as their spring training home, hosting a minor league affiliate and in many cases, providing a southern base of operations. The model for that kind of relationship can be found in Lakeland, where the Detroit Tigers have been ensconced since 1934 and where Michigan residents frequently re-locate upon retirement. The Pirates have been in Bradenton since 1969, playing their spring training exhibition games at McKechnie Field, named for Bradenton resident Bill McKechnie. It is currently the oldest ballpark in use for spring training games and the second oldest park in Florida (behind Jackie Robinson Park in Daytona Beach). They also operate the Florida State League's Bradenton Marauders as well as an "extended spring training" program. There's also a Gulf Coast League team for rookies, in addition to rehab and conditioning programs and scouting operations, giving the Pirates a year-round presence in Bradenton. Similar situations exist in Clearwater with the Philadelphia Phillies, Dunedin with the Toronto Blue Jays and even in Tampa with the New York Yankees. It makes sense that Bradenton would want to market their city to people living in Pittsburgh. Still, none of those cities have ever taken sides against a "home" team before. Those involved with promoting tourism in Clearwater were probably happy on some level that the Phillies won the 2008 World Series but they didn't put themselves in a position where it could be perceived that they were rooting against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Clearly, Bradenton and its residents are not anti-Lightning. The client services lounge at Amalie Arena is sponsored by Lakewood Ranch and the Lightning have historically drawn very well from faithful Bolts fans who live in Manatee and Sarasota counties. It's almost entirely an issue of timing. If this had happened when the Penguins hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets last November, few people would have even heard about it and even fewer would have cared. But prior to the start of a playoff series against a team that plays its home games only 45 miles away? The fact that local fans in the throes of playoff hysteria would voice displeasure should come as no surprise. The only thing that could have been worse is if it been prior to a Game 7.
How could something like this happen? "I would think this had to be a decision made by one person who didn't think it through", says Gina. "It's hard for me to believe that this would be something discussed in a room full of people without at least one or two of them at least questioning the timing, if not the appropriateness of the item itself. Unfortunately, sometimes that's how creative people are. They get excited about a concept and they don't think about the bigger picture. You have to take into consideration how what you're doing is going to be perceived on multiple levels. That's why effective marketing can't exist within a bubble. You have to do your research and decisions can't be made without considering lots of opinions. And you definitely have to be able to evaluate the intrinsic value of your relationship with your whole community."
For as much value as there is in promoting yourself to out-of-state tourists (tourism remains the number one industry in the state of Florida, after all), it would be foolish to alienate nearby residents, people who presumably enjoy nice beaches and fine restaurants all year round as much as people who come from Pennsylvania in February and leave at the end of March. Allowing yourself to be seen as on the wrong side of a local team making a second consecutive deep run into the postseason is simply not a good idea, especially when you're selling hospitality.
What should Bradenton do now? Gina says, "They should apologize and then they should lay low for a while. You don't want to send out press releases every day but the one they put out yesterday didn't offer much in the way of an apology and actually made things worse, in my opinion. If they want to be pro-active, they should sponsor some sort of similar giveaway item for Lightning fans. But they really need to apologize and then back off and let this blow over. It's never too late to say you're sorry, and they should do so at the risk of sounding disingenuous. If your strategy for business is profit before people, you're doing it wrong."