What does the future hold for the Panthers in Florida?
The Florida Panthers had their smallest crowd for a home opener on Oct. 11 when 11,648 tickets were sold and that figure dipped to 7,311 tickets sold for their second home game on Oct. 13. That second contest represented the smallest attendance for a Panthers game by a margin of 2,752.
They had an average attendance of just 14,177 last season, which put them 29th in the league, but their recent decline has been dramatic -- and anticipated.
“We are disappointed. We are not happy. But it’s fully expected,” Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu told the Miami Herald.
The reason why Cifu saw this coming is because the Panthers discontinued their former practice of giving away or discounting tickets in an effort to fill more of the BB&T Center. They stopped doing that because they felt it devalued their product and season-ticket holders didn’t like it. Despite the early results, Cifu insists that there’s no way Florida will reverse its decision.
Meanwhile, the team is asking for a $78.4 million bailout from the Broward County Commission, which Florida is seeking in light of its annual losses of $25 million to $30 million. The Panthers are unlikely to get that though, according to three county commissioners that spoke to the Herald.
In light of all of this, the obvious question is what’s next and the answer’s not clear. Cifu insists that he, along with majority owner Vinnie Viola, have no intention of moving the team even if their bailout request is rejected. However, he wouldn’t address the possibility of them selling the franchise to an ownership group that’s more open to relocation.
The Panthers don’t have an out-clause in their arena lease agreement and there’s still 14 seasons left on it. They could still chose to relocate if they get the NHL’s permission, but Broward County Commissioner Martin Kiar said that the Panthers would still have to cover their $63 million in remaining debt payments.
Although this paints a rather gloomy picture, the Panthers ownership isn’t ready to throw in the towel. Regardless of what the recent attendance numbers show, Cifu is convinced that there’s still a market for hockey in South Florida.
“Vinnie and I are 100 percent convinced of that,” Cifu said. “The demographics are good. They will come. We just have to earn their trust through great play on the ice and a ticket plan full of integrity and transparency.”
There’s always the potential to grow a team’s fanbase through winning, but that’s of course easier said than done. Part of the Panthers’ problems stem from their poor track record and they’re currently 1-2-2 this season. Florida will play against Colorado on Tuesday.