I recently had the opportunity to visit the south Florida area and stopped by the BB&T Center for a Wednesday night Florida Panthers game against the Anaheim Ducks. Hearing about their attendance woes for years, I was actually rather excited to visit their arena and see for myself what the actual experience of a Florida Panthers game is truly like. Here is what I observed, learned, and took away from my three-hour experience at a Panthers game.
Before getting into the obvious lack of attendance from my view of the empty seats, first I want to talk about my thoughts even before arriving to the game which in a way relates to the attendance. I strongly believe that outside of the team or the people, the geography of the arena in which the Panthers call home is beyond terrible.
A huge burden, I can see why no one in the immediate Ft. Lauderdale area would ever care about going to a Panthers game. The actual location of the arena plays a huge factor in whether people attend the games or not. When I originally arrived at my hotel, I looked up on my phone how far away BB&T Center was from my location in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. It was a 25-minute drive inland and combined with rush hour traffic, it took 40 to 50 minutes to finally arrive at the game.
So that is the first big market of the south Florida area that the Panthers are missing out on. The other big market is obviously Miami. From American Airlines Arena, which is in the absolute heart of Miami, to BB&T Center, it is a 38-minute, 35-mile drive. Nobody from Miami wants to drive 35 miles to go watch a Panthers game and I see why.
The Panthers need to bring the game to the people instead of the people bringing themselves to the game. This is probably one of the most looked over reasons as to why the Panthers aren’t doing well in attendance. Where the Panthers are located is the furthest thing from ideal.
Of course, the fact that the Panthers have made the playoffs four times since 1996 doesn’t help but I will get into that later.
The Panthers’ arena, BB&T Center, although it is a perfectly nice venue, is in a terrible location that only hurts the team. The south Florida area is one of the largest in the country and without a doubt can certainly support a hockey franchise. However, that franchise needs to play in a trafficked area to actually attract local fans and tourists alike. Right now, the location of their home ice isn’t doing the franchise any good.
Once in the arena, I noticed that it is quite obvious that Vincent Viola, arena management and just the management of the Panthers from an off-ice standpoint in general really care about their fans that do show up. Turning BB&T Center into a very comfortable venue for a game of hockey, the Panthers have a wonderful team store, adequate food concessions, comfortable seating, fan involvement and just an overall knack for entertainment. It is truly a superb experience overall.
For the fans that do make it to the game, they can expect a wonderful time from an off-ice perspective. This is definitely a reflection of the dedication that Viola has to the Panthers as there is no way the Panthers have made a profit in the past 20 or so years. Viola has most definitely sunk a stupendous amount of money in the franchise over the years but continues to provide the best overall experience to everyone who walks through the doors. The one major problem with the hockey experience in BB&T Center is, well, the hockey.
This season the Panthers are celebrating their 25th year but considering what they have accomplished, I’m not sure there should be much celebrating. Since their conception in 1993, the Panthers have made the playoffs just five times with one Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1996. All other playoff appearances have been ended quickly in the first round and in some cases to inferior opponents. There has been very little success for a team that really relies on such to draw a crowd. Sitting in a smaller hockey market, the success of the team has a huge impact in determining attendance.
The Panthers historically have been a terrible hockey team. This falls on the on-ice management of the club. If a team is bad, they get a better draft pick. When they get enough good draft picks, they get a good roster. When they get a good roster, they win games. And finally, when they win games, people notice.
I’m not saying the Panthers need to drink from the Stanley Cup every year to be somewhat successful attendance wise but they at least need to be competitive. They aren’t even that. In watching the game I attended, the atmosphere was just dead due to both the team and the fans. The team is simply boring to watch as they don’t have a true star player or star line and in return, there is no energy for the team to feed off of as the fans are pretty quiet throughout. They have some very talented players and certainly some household names but no one that can truly put fans in seats based solely on their play. That kind of player is rare in the NHL but the Panthers could certainly use one.
Above all, the product needs to be attractive if people are going to buy. Hockey, although it can be successful in south Florida, will not be if the team is bad. No one wants to spend their money and take their time to watch a team that they know is going to lose. There are of course a few exceptions but for the most part if masses are going to show up to watch the Panthers, the Panthers need to put on a show.
If you notice, the two biggest struggling teams right now when it comes to attendance are the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers. When the Panthers went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996 they nearly sold out every single playoff game and the next season they had great attendance.
When the Hurricanes won it all in 2006, they had absolutely terrific attendance the next season and that continued for another four to five years. Since 2009, the Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs and that’s why they are now suffering at the bottom of the league in attendance numbers.
Attendance for smaller market teams relies on the success of that team. It doesn’t have to always be a perfect season for people to show up and fill the building but again, there does need to be a sense of competitiveness. It is very important to remember that in 2007, the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals were at the bottom of the league in attendance because those teams were pretty bad in those years.
The Panthers are just at the bottom of the league at this point in attendance because of a bad team and bad arena. Things will get better if the Panthers can improve their game but until then the low attendance numbers will remain stagnant.
I get really sick and tired of the constant attendance or lack thereof jabs directed at teams in non-traditional hockey markets and then the relocation propositions that more often than not follow. These jabs directed at teams like Arizona, Carolina, Anaheim and of course the team in conversation, Florida. It’s ridiculous to have angst for these teams when they are attempting, and at some points succeeding, at doing something that is very difficult to do. Introducing and growing a game that is usually kept for the traditionally cold and icy communities of the northern United States and Canada.
Fans of the traditional teams in traditional hockey markets should be proud that the game they love is being grown and spread to places it never would have been without some hardworking people trying to make the greatest game in the world work in a place one wouldn’t normally picture it in.
No not every team that isn’t selling out every single night needs to be relocated to some Canadian or northern American city. No not every team struggling to sell tickets has “no fans” or “fans that don’t care”. There are very passionate Panther fans who would do anything for their team and want nothing else but to see their team succeed and prove that they are a valid NHL city in a very competitive league.
It can be difficult to provide your unwavering support to a team that isn’t doing well. In Florida, hockey isn’t necessarily the staple sport and because of that, people go to hockey games because they love it or because they are looking for an entertaining night. Watching the local team lose isn’t necessarily entertaining and for those already in attendance, they love it.
There is some blame to be put on the front office, the arena, the people of the south Florida area, and the team, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the Panthers. The day will come when the Panthers have the right team, at the right time, and the right things happen in order to win it all. When that happens, I can promise you the south Florida area will become another non-traditional hockey town. Until then, there will be a tough road ahead. But, with all of the negativity the Panthers and their fans have had to go through since the late 90s, I’m confident the collective whole will persevere and eventually thrive.