Putting on the show
Attendee experience is top of mind for the Lightning’s John Franzone
It is 4:30 p.m., on a Saturday afternoon in February, about 2½ hours before the Tampa Bay Lightning face off against the New York Islanders.
John Franzone texts a reporter asking if a meeting can be pushed back to 5 p.m. on account of “brush fires” that need to be extinguished.
Indeed, it is just another day at Amalie Arena where many details require attention as game time nears.
“There is always something that is going to come up,” says John Franzone, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s vice president of game operations. “We want everything to be as smooth as possible so that when the doors open, the fans get the best experience possible.”
Franzone, and his game staff of about 60, do that well. While fans flock to the arena to take in an exciting on-ice product, they are also entertained during stoppages in play, television timeouts and between periods.
“Our goal, here every game, is to make you feel that you got your money’s worth, that you were entertained, and even a little bit informed, as we try to have a stat-heavy presentation up on the [center-ice scoreboard],” says the 54-year-old New York native. “That’s our collective goal. I have a really talented team of young graphic artists, video editors and a couple of good assistant producers. We do the best we can.”
Franzone has been doing his best since graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He had an internship with his beloved New York Mets in 1986, the year of the team’s most recent World Series victory. His duties included producing videos to be played on Shea Stadium’s large video-playing scoreboard—something that was relatively new in athletic venues at the time.
“My dream was to do screenplays and make movies, but somehow I fell in love with these big [scoreboard] screens that were starting to be installed in stadiums,” Franzone says. “When the Mets called, well, I was not going to turn that down.”
The internship launched a career that led Franzone to a 10-season stint with the New York Yankees as director of video operations and broadcasting. A brief stop at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, followed, before returning to baseball with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, for whom Franzone oversaw event production and entertainment.
Franzone traded baseball for hockey in 2008, two years before Jeff Vinik purchased the Lightning and at a time when the brand needed to be energized.
“Even though the team won a Stanley Cup a few years earlier [in 2004], I am not sure that when I got here in 2008 the Lightning logo stood for much,” Franzone says. “Because of everything Mr. Vinik, and our management team, put into motion, 10 years later, if you look at the Lightning logo you know exactly what it stands for. I have been fortunate to be a part of it.”
The Lightning are flourishing under Vinik, and game presentation provides a critical dimension to the overall product. While the game is primary, as it should be, Franzone and his group enhance and elevate it, without getting in the way.
“He is the master of ceremony on game nights,” says Bill Wickett, the Lightning’s executive vice president of communications. “We work really hard and it starts with John and his team, to inspire not only our fans, but anybody who is in the arena.”
Nothing was more inspiring than the evening of Oct. 23, 2019. Anybody at Amalie Arena that night will not soon forget a pregame ceremony that featured 46, of the 70, living recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
There were few dry eyes in the arena by the time the ceremony concluded.
“My heart was pumping with patriotism,” Franzone says. “It transcended the game and you don’t see that too often in sports. There was a hockey game, but the [Medal of Honor recipients] are on a different plane. That was a special night that I will never forget.”
Three weeks later, on Military Appreciation Night, 101-year-old U.S. Army Air Corps (Ret.) Lt. Robert McClintock joined regular arena anthem singer Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, a 20-year Air Force veteran, in performing The Star Spangled Banner.
The Lightning honor military members in many ways, including an anthem guest, standing alongside Bryson-Kirksey during the anthem and honoring an active military member with a Standing Salute that takes place during a television timeout.
“By virtue of having MacDill Air Force Base here in Tampa Bay proper, this is a military town,” Franzone says. He was made an honorary commander for the 6th Air Maintenance Group at MacDill.
“A lot of civilians work at the base, and a lot of servicemen live in the community, so it really is interwoven,” he says.
Franzone and his staff are interwoven within the entire organizational structure as they work with marketing, community relations and other departments.
“John is tireless and very creative,” Wickett says. “He challenges his team to make things better and he has brought people in here who, like him, want our show to be the very best it can possibly be.”
Frankly, no detail is too small when it comes to presenting the Lightning brand.
“We have tentacles to all departments, even hockey operations,” Franzone says. “We need to make sure the nuts and bolts of the game are presented—from the clock, the scoring, the stats and all that. Then you get into creative with how we treat the graphics, which steers more into marketing and making sure we are up on our own brand.” ♦