Who is the Tampa Bay Lightning Astronaut?
Sometimes all it takes is a single moment to make someone famous.
Millions watched on TV in the U.S. and Canada as the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs. During a time out a man in astronaut costume, seated in the front row, taunted goaltender Carey Price with non-stop dancing. Price pretended not to notice but couldn't stop himself from cracking a smile. Both the U.S. and Canadian TV networks captured the moment. By the time the game was over, the astronaut was all over the internet.
The twitterverse wanted to know. Was he just a zealous fan? Was he a new Lightning mascot?
The answer may disappoint you. It is product placement.
Matt Sammon, Director of Broadcasting for the Lightning, offers the explanation.
"The Lightning astronaut is not a crazed fan. He is not a crazy mascot. There is something sinister and marketable about him. Yes, it is marketing in most pure, sinister, genius format."
The astronaut character is the creation of Ben Malek. He owns a company called Malektronic, which manufactures and sells Bluetooth speakers. The astronaut represents the futuristic nature of the product. Malek found a man who makes custom space suits and uses the astronaut character in his marketing.
The astronaut was never supposed to be a regular at Lightning games. That happened by accident.
Malektronic is a Lightning adversiser. He purchased an advertisement on the dasher boards and donates a product to be given away at all the home games. Malek owns a suite at the Amalie Arena and purchased the seats in the front row.
The astronaut's climb to stardom began with one regular season game in February, Malek remembers.
"I asked if the astronaut could show up at one game," he said. "The Lightning partnership people thought it was great but the building and security people were concerned. I had to bring someone wearing the suit to the arena the day before so they could see how it would look. They didn't know what to expect."
The wearer of the outfit does not speak to the media. That is because it isn't just one person. The suit is hot, uncomfortable and aromatic, Several people, mostly Malek's employees, take turns. Sometimes they change out between periods.
Malek says the social media and internet reaction caused him to bring the astronaut back for another game.
That second game was a come from behind win over the Florida Panthers. It was only then that Malek realized his astronaut had gone viral.
"People wrote that the comeback was inspired by the astronaut. Others said he should have been made the game's third star," he said.
That led to national press. Among those writing about the astronaut. ESPN.com, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and the Washington Post.
Malek says he noticed a common theme.
"Everyone included a mention that they hope the astronaut would be around for the playoffs," Malek said.
Malek made a promise to the fans that he would. A decision that brings with it a considerable financial sacrifice. Malek pays for those seats in the front row and had considered selling those seats for the playoffs.
"A you can imagine," he said, "I could sell those seats for a good amount of change."
That is an understatement. Seats several rows behind the astronaut are selling on Stubhub.com for almost $12,000. Each. Per game.
"It's one of things we said we had to do," he said. "For the fun of it, for the fandom and for the luck factor..."
The fate of the astronaut at season's end is unknown. Maybe Malek will continue to buy those expensive seats and pay people to wear the costume. Maybe the Lightning will offer some sort of deal for the astronaut to join the organization. Maybe both partners will move on. But for the Stanley Cup finals, you'll see Ben Malek's dancing astronaut in the front row with the Lightning just one small step away from the Stanley Cup.