Fans vote Lightning best in sports in Ultimate Standings

Lightning take crown as top franchise in Ultimate Standings (0:49)

ESPN The Magazine's Peter Keating breaks down why the Tampa Bay Lightning are the No. 1 franchise among the four major professional sports in the 2016 Ultimate Standings. (0:49)

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LOVE -- OFFERED AND justified, frustrated or spurned -- has been at the heart of our Ultimate Standings for 14 years as we've used fan surveys and financial analysis to rank MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams by how they reward fans for the time, money and emotion they invest in them.

So when Lightning captain Steven Stamkos answers a question about his team's fans, players and staff with "You can feel that love" -- well, that says it all about his team's place at the top.

Love is also something Stamkos had to weigh over the summer as one of hockey's most coveted free agents. Stamkos, who started skating on ponds and public rinks in the Toronto suburbs at the age of 2, could have gone home to play for the Maple Leafs. Or to Detroit, where the Red Wings have made the playoffs for 25 seasons in a row. Or to Buffalo, or any of half a dozen other cities whose teams might have offered him north of $10 million a year. Instead, he re-upped with Tampa Bay for eight years and $68 million.

Among his possible suitors, the Lightning probably offered Stamkos his best chance to win a title. And in Tampa, he trusts the front office, enjoys the sun and appreciates the lack of a state income tax. But something else counted too. The organization, he says, has done "almost a complete 180" since 2008, when he was an 18-year-old rookie and the Bolts were one of the worst teams in the league. In describing the changes he has seen, Stamkos sounds more like a VP of marketing than the Lightning's six-time top scorer:

"When you can't necessarily sell your product on the ice, you really have to sell the fan experience," he says. "In larger markets, you can sell out your games whether you go 82-0 or 0-82, but Tampa isn't like that. So now we give fans a lot of access to players, like at Carnival Day. Fans enjoy the huge scoreboard and the lightning inside the arena and concerts before and after the game. The staff is friendly. And now that we've developed a core of players and expectations are high for us, we still genuinely want fans to come and bring their families.

"You can feel it, whether it's during games or coming to the rink or when you're recognized throughout the community," Stamkos says. "Tampa is gradually becoming a hockey town."

EIGHT YEARS AGO, the Lightning were incompetent on the ice and in the owner's box. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Vinik was a gazillionaire looking for his next big investment.

Growing up in the shore town of Deal, New Jersey, Vinik loved hockey so much that at the age of 5 he would sneak a small black-and-white TV into bed with him to pick up night games. "I used to watch the Rangers on Channel 9," he recalls. "And after we moved to New York City, I would go to games all the time. Brad Park was my guy."

Vinik was no skater, though; it turned out his talents lay in managing wealth. As a financier, he twice made fortunes for himself and investors: He ran Boston-based Fidelity Magellan, which became the world's largest mutual fund in the go-go '90s, and then his own hedge fund.

It wasn't until he was about to turn 50 that he began to imagine getting involved with his childhood love at a different level. At a holiday concert in December 2008, Vinik was drinking wine with a friend and musing about the future when he suddenly said: "I'm going to buy a hockey team."

This was during the dark interregnum between the 2004-05 and 2012-13 lockouts, when many NHL clubs failed to spend within their means, various Sun Belt franchises teetered on the brink of survival and several owners started looking to sell. By the time Vinik was ready to buy in 2010, he estimated that eight to 15 teams were either on the market or potentially available. And he quickly zeroed in on the Lightning. For one thing, the team was mismanaged but had some intriguing assets, including an established star in Vincent Lecavalier and an emerging young stud in Stamkos. For another, Vinik saw the entire Tampa region as an undervalued asset: mired in recession but with all the raw materials for recovery, like a fast-growing and well-educated population. "It was an opportunity looking for a catalyst," he says. "I was extremely bullish on the area, and I still am."

In 2010, he bought the Lightning and 5.5 acres around their arena for a reported $170 million, $30 million less than the team had sold for two years earlier.

In sharp contrast to his earlier gigs managing funds, Vinik, as sole owner of the Lightning, doesn't have other investors pushing him to chase quick profits. Instead, he has pursued the twin goals of building an elite NHL franchise and making a major civic impact in his new hometown. "Nobody wants to lose money, and we've gotten ourselves to breaking even," he says. "But the metrics you can use to evaluate how much a team is worth -- its sport, media revenues, cash flow -- they're kind of irrelevant. I'm not selling.

"I don't play golf. This is what I do for fun. And I want to be the owner of a great franchise."

The Tampa faithful appreciate Vinik's perspective -- and how it differs from that of other sports landlords, some absentee, whom they have encountered through the years. In our surveys, fans rated the Lightning among the top three teams in sports in having honest ownership, showing commitment to their community and providing avenues for fans to give feedback. "Vinik -- the guy is at every game, he's a fan," says Marshall Ames, a 58-year-old financial adviser who has been a season-ticket holder since 1991, before the team ever took the ice. "Meanwhile, Stuart Sternberg, when is he at a Rays game?"

Vinik acquired the Lightning in February 2010; three months later he hired Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman as GM. After a 22-year playing career in Detroit, Yzerman had moved into the Red Wings' front office and also assembled the Canada roster that won Olympic gold in 2010. With the Lightning, he's had a knack for finding contributors beyond the top of the NHL draft, such as Ondrej Palat, a seventh-rounder in 2011, and Tyler Johnson, an undrafted WHL center. Yzerman has also traded shrewdly, like in 2014 when Martin St. Louis wanted out of town and reportedly said he'd play only for the Rangers. Despite having close to zero leverage, the Lightning got back Ryan Callahan and three draft picks for St. Louis and a pick. (St. Louis is now retired, Callahan is signed through 2020 and Yzerman has wheeled and dealed the picks into more prospects.)

Under Yzerman, the Lightning have established the kind of continuity fans love: They produce and retain enough talent not just to contend but to keep fans attached to the organization even as veterans such as Lecavalier and St. Louis depart. Tampa Bay ranked No. 2 in our surveys in keeping core players, and fans placed the Lightning in the top five in both willingness to pay for players and getting the most out of the money they spend -- a feat almost as difficult to pull off in these standings as in real life.

All that has led to real on-ice success. Under coach Jon Cooper -- a former standout junior hockey coach whom Yzerman groomed in the AHL -- the Lightning have racked up an average of 102 points over the past three seasons and made the Eastern Conference finals twice. Yet fans pay 28 percent less than the NHL average to see games in Tampa (average ticket price in 2014-15: $44.50).

But the Lightning experience has become more than a tag sale. The team's executives have used the Green Bay Packers as their model: smaller market, rabid fan base, good service. And it's in that last category that Tampa Bay truly excels. For one thing, Vinik has invested more than $70 million renovating Amalie Arena, giving it an identity it sorely lacked and a conviviality for everyday fans, who can now walk around the concourses during the action because eight lower-level suites were removed to open up the stadium bowl. A huge pipe organ, the biggest in the league, blasts music and three types of thunder noises-one gigantic boom when they're all played together. And there's actual lightning, from a pair of Tesla coils sparking purple arcs. "Six years ago in our arena, you wouldn't have known you were in Tampa Bay," Lightning CEO Steve Griggs says. "Now you couldn't be anyplace else."

The Lightning also award $50,000 at every home game to a "community hero," whom fans can nominate and who then donates the money to a charitable cause of his or her choice. The program has honored local citizens ranging from Bob Buckhorn, the mayor of Tampa, to Ben Carpenter, a teenager who plays power wheelchair soccer. It has rewarded more than 400 nonprofits -- while extending the Lightning's reach to those charities' board members. Vinik and his wife, Penny, recently pledged $10 million to keep the program going for at least five more years.

There's a vibe running through many of the Lightning's efforts that is downright ... friendly. Walk through the turnstiles in Tampa, watch the Lightning and the lightning, primal-scream during the thunder, cheer the community hero-it's almost as if a phantom limb of your sports personality comes back to life.

That was a priority for Vinik. Since taking control of this operation, he has imprinted courtesy on its business model. (He imposes only one rule in his owner's box: No talking while there's action on the ice, which is sometimes enough to drive Buckhorn out of the suite.) "We want ticket takers, ushers, bartenders, everyone in the building to think about how to serve fans," Griggs says. "It's about making lasting memories. It's about being nice."

YES, TO BE a Lightning fan is to be pleasantly surprised. Hillsborough County, Florida, buzzes with tales of how former CEO Tod Leiweke once rushed to assist a woman struck by a puck. Or how former captain Dave Andreychuk, now a Bolts VP, has helped customers find the right jersey size. Or how staff noticed a mom having trouble with her son's faulty wheelchair, so they took it to the maintenance facility and repaired it. Not coincidentally, in our surveys, Tampa Bay ranked first in having owners and players who show appreciation to fans.

For all of that, the entire enterprise did seem to hang in the balance during the run-up to Stamkos' decision in the summer. "We didn't think there was a chance he'd come back, and we were devastated," says John Thresher, a 40-year-old construction attorney and Tampa Bay season-ticket holder. "And if he had gone, who knows how much talent the Lightning would be able to hang on to. For him to come back rather than taking the money and running, it just endorses what we like to feel about this team."

Two days after Stamkos committed to the Lightning, defenseman Victor Hedman followed his lead, inking an eight-year extension. A few months later, the Lightning re-signed Nikita Kucherov to another team-friendly deal. So now, with their core intact on the ice and season tickets up from 3,000 to 14,500 under Vinik, the Lightning are planning to build out from a whole new plateau by growing the fan base. As local interest in playing hockey explodes, the team is investing in programs and equipment around the region. One example: The Bolts are distributing 100,000 sticks and balls to get kids playing in driveways and on streets before taking the ice. "This team's been around for 24 years now," Griggs says. "Second- and third-generation Lightning fans are starting out believing. We've created tribalism."

Forbes magazine says the Lightning have increased in value by 49 percent since 2011, to $260 million, and carry less debt than any comparable NHL franchise. Beyond those numbers, fans tell the story of an organization inspiring such loyalty that hockey no longer feels foreign to Florida. "A lot of teams think, 'If we win, they will come,' " Griggs says. "But you have to look at all the pillars that sustain the ebb and flow of your support. And it's not just in this building. It's in this community."

Other franchises, take note: Treat fans well and you just might capture love, and lightning, in a bottle.