The scene was sad, subdued and in some ways surreal for a major professional sports team:
Less than 15 minutes before the Florida Panthers’ second home game of the season, Oct. 13 against Ottawa, just a few hundred spectators milled around the BB&T Center, the team’s arena in Sunrise. It was a gathering so small that attendees standing in the upper deck could hear coaches speaking to players on the ice and fans, in the seats below, chatting among themselves.
“Obviously it’s not what you want to see in your home rink,” Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. “The silence is noticeable.”
By the time the game ended — the Panthers lost 1-0 — the team had confirmed everyone’s suspicions: The number of tickets sold (7,311) was the fewest in franchise history, shattering the old record by 2,752. And the number of people actually in attendance was 1,000 or so fewer than that, according to estimates.
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The Panthers’ ownership hopes this is not a harbinger of the future, but acknowledges it might be.
For the first time, the Panthers have stopped distributing free and discounted tickets to games, a strategy that boosted attendance significantly in past years but also, according to the owners, devalued the product and angered season-ticket holders.
That means small crowds could become the norm.
The sharp drop in fans — only 11,419 attended the home opener on a Saturday night against New Jersey — comes at the same time the Panthers have asked the Broward County Commission to give them a $78.4 million bailout — a break the team says it needs to curtail losses of $100,000 a day.
Three county commissioners told the Miami Herald it appears highly unlikely the team will be given the type of tax break it wants.
Both the attendance and the arena lease issues have raised questions about the franchise’s long-term future in South Florida.
“We are not moving. We have no plans or intentions to move the team anywhere,” Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu said last week.
Cifu, who last year partnered with majority owner Vinnie Viola to buy the team from Clifford Viner for $240 million, said they would not try to move the Panthers even if the County Commission rejects their bailout request — a vote that might not be taken until next May.
County Mayor Barbara Sharief said the team’s arena lease — which runs for another 14 seasons — does not include an “out” clause. But Commissioner Martin Kiar said the Panthers could leave at any time if they agree to cover their remaining debt payments, currently $63 million.
The National Hockey League would need to approve a relocation, and the Panthers have not asked for permission to move.
“We can’t force them to stay here if they are given permission by the NHL to move, but they would still need to fulfill their obligations to the county,” Kiar said.
Part of the requested bailout is that the team be relieved of the $63 million in debt to the county, which owns the arena. The Panthers also are seeking relief from an estimated $8.4 million obligation in property insurance and from $7 million in payments expected to be allocated to an arena maintenance fund.
The Panthers say they are losing $25 million to $30 million annually. The team is spending $64 million on player payroll this season, about the league average.
“The losses are not going to be less than $25 million to $30 million this year unless we make the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup,” Cifu said. “The only way to mitigate the losses is to grow revenues.”
Though Cifu is adamant about not moving the team, he declined to comment when asked whether he and Viola might sell the team — potentially to an owner who would relocate — if the commission rejects the bailout.
Cifu said he has not been contacted by anyone who wants to relocate the team.
The Panthers once had a real foothold in the market. Their improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals — where they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche — drew large crowds to the Miami Arena, where they played at the time, and thrilled fans who threw rubber rats onto the ice after Panthers’ goals and victories, a tradition that began when former team captain Scott Mellanby killed a rat with his hockey stick inside the team’s locker room on opening night that season.
The Panthers made the playoffs the following year, then plummeted in the standings before moving to their plush new digs in the West Broward suburbs for the 1998-99 season.
The team has been largely unsuccessful since then. A playoff berth in 2012 was their first in 12 years, they finished 30th and 29th in the 30-team league the past two seasons and they have opened the season with a 1-2-2 record after a winless six-game preseason.
Even when they gave away tickets, the Panthers had trouble filling the BB&T Center, which has undergone several corporate name changes since opening as National Car Rental Center.
Last season, the Panthers sold or distributed 14,177 tickets per game, on average, ranking ahead of only Phoenix. The arena seats more than 19,000 for hockey.
The Panthers generate other revenue at the arena by booking events such as ice shows, concerts and conventions. Non-hockey events have netted the Panthers more than $127.5 million in profits over the arena’s first 16 years, county officials estimate. The county has received less than $400,000 from those events. But the Panthers have said those profits are not enough to offset the team’s annual losses.
Cifu said the Panthers reduced prices on many lower-bowl seats this season but decided to stop distributing free and discounted tickets partly because season-ticket holders complained.
“I went to five season-ticket holder forums, and one of the complaints was, ‘You want me to make a commitment and you are giving me a purported discount on seats, and I look at Stubhub and for [most games], I can buy the same seat on the secondary market for the same price or a discount,’” Cifu said.
Viola and Cifu, co-founders of the electronic trade business Virtu Financial, knew there would be a drop in attendance. Did such a big drop surprise them?
“Not really,” Cifu said. “We are disappointed. We are not happy. But it’s fully expected.”
Might the Panthers reverse the freebie policy if ticket sales don’t pick up? “Not a chance,” Cifu said.
Asked whether the small crowds raise questions about the viability of hockey in this market, Cifu said no.
“There is a passionate hockey base in South Florida,” he said. “Vinnie and I are 100 percent convinced of that. 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.”
Cifu declined to discuss the bailout request or whether he and Viola would accept a smaller one. He noted that the team’s arena lease was negotiated by the Panthers’ original owner, H. Wayne Huizenga, before the facility opened.
“The world has changed dramatically since then,” Cifu said.
The bailout would have to be approved by a majority of the nine-member commission. Commissioner Tim Ryan, expected to be named Broward County mayor on Nov. 18, opposes the bailout and said he would like to hold off on a vote until May.
That timing would allow the Florida Legislature to consider whether to allow gambling if a casino is built adjacent to the Panthers arena, an idea that appeals to the team if the county is willing to donate the land. Ryan said the county would consider leasing the land to the team in that scenario.
Three of the six commissioners not up for reelection before a potential vote next spring told the Herald they oppose the current proposal. Another, Sharief, said she is undecided. Commissioner Dale Holness said he is undecided and is waiting for the analysis of whether the BB&T Center could survive if the Panthers left. The sixth, Stacy Ritter, will abstain from voting because her husband is a lobbyist for the team.
Kiar said he opposes the proposal because revenue to cover the bailout probably would come from the county’s tourist tax development fund.
“That money is much better spent for beach renourishment, which is vital to our tourism and economy,” Kiar said. “I have a lot of respect for the owners, but they bought the team with their eyes wide open and they knew what they were getting into. ”
Ryan said he opposes the proposal because “I’m not interested in one-sided deals. If the Panthers are willing to restructure their profit-sharing arrangement, I would look at it. The first thing the Panthers need to do is win on the ice. South Florida likes winners.”
Commissioner Lois Wexler, who has two years left on her term, said she opposes the bailout, “but I am willing to negotiate.”
Said Sharief: “I just want to figure out if they’re asking for too much. Because we wanted more of the profits, that’s where the stalemate came in. They were not interested in that.”
If the Panthers ever decided to move, they probably would have several suitors. Quebec City is nearing completion on a $400 million arena and hopes to lure an NHL team. Las Vegas and Seattle also are interested in landing a franchise.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said through a spokesman that he is not concerned about the team’s attendance, and declared that the franchise is not leaving South Florida.
In the meantime, the Panthers can only hope more fans will start coming to their games.
Gudbranson said the small crowds have “brought us together. Is it tough to come out and play in front of 7,000 people? It’s not what you want. No one does.
“Part of it is what we've put ourselves into. Having a winning franchise is the best way to sell your team.”
Miami Herald sports writer George Richards contributed to this report.
PANTHERS HOME OPENERS
Since opening of Sunrise arena in 1998
1998: 19,227* (v. Tampa Bay)
1999: 16,727 (v. Washington)
2000: 17,535 (v. Vancouver)
2001: 19,250* (v. Islanders)
2002: 18,013 (v. Tampa Bay)
2003: 17,212 (v. Carolina)
2004-05: NHL lockout (no season)
2005: 19,250* (v. Atlanta)
2006: 19,250* (v. Boston)
2007: 19,250* (v. New Jersey)
2008: 18,401 (v. Atlanta)
2009: 18,802 (v. New Jersey)
2010: 17,040 (v. Tampa Bay)
2011: 18,352 (v. Tampa Bay)
2012: 19,688* (v. Carolina)
2013: 18,584 (v. Pittsburgh)
2014: 11,419 (v. New Jersey)
(*) - Denotes sellout
Panthers average attendance over the years, and where that ranked in the 30-team league:
2003-04: 15,936 (17th)
2004-05: NHL lockout
2005-06: 16,014 (19th)
2006-07: 15,370 (22nd)
2007-08: 15,436 (25th)
2008-09: 15,621 (24th)
2009-10: 15,146 (25th)
2010-11: 15,685 (22nd)
2011-12: 16,628 (21st)
2012-13: 16,991 (22nd)
2013-14: 14,177 (29th)
2014-15: 9365 (for two games; 30th)