The Florida Panthers may never be a winning hockey team. They may never be successful in South Florida, and they may very well relocate north in the coming years.
They're a hot topic right now after a franchise-worst attendance showing on Monday night, and a figure not much better for the 2014-15 season opener last week. The numbers are deflated by the fact that ownership has stopped giving away as many free tickets as they have in the past, but no matter which way you slice it, things look bleak. It has many of us thinking that their time in Broward County might be coming to a close sooner than later.
And it has many saying things like "move them to a city that cares" and "Miami has no business hosting a hockey team."
But before we jump to the conclusion that South Florida simply doesn't deserve the NHL, there are some things that we should put into perspective when discussing this franchise, their history, and their uncertain future.
Would you willingly root for this team?
The Panthers have made the playoffs four times in their 21-year history. Aside from a magical run to the Cup Final in 1995-96, which was their first playoff appearance in just their third-ever season, they have not won a single playoff series. They've finished with a winning record just eight times in 19 completed seasons to date.
This is a franchise that's never even had a chance to be successful, and we really don't know what their fan base would look like if they were a successful team. (Although you can take a 250 mile drive to the northwest in Tampa and give yourself an idea.)
You might say that there are plenty of bad teams in the NHL, and that fans in Calgary and Edmonton still show up despite a horrible on-ice product. There are two points to be made in response to that:
- Teams like Calgary and Edmonton are generations-old, and they have a Stanley Cup history that's been passed down from parents to their children. They are franchises that are as synonymous with their cities as the names of their cities. Meanwhile, the Panthers are so young that most of us can remember when they entered the league, and they've been terrible on the ice ever since. Nothing to pass down from generation to generation there.
- Is South Beach in Alberta?
This could easily be your favorite team.
You think empty seats happen just in South Florida or Arizona? Think again.
You don't need to be elderly to have coherant memories of when some of the NHL's current "model franchises" were absolute jokes both on the ice and on the nightly attendance sheet.
Remember the Chicago Blackhawks of the late 2000s?
Here's a piece of a story from the New York Times, published February 4, 2007. That's just seven years ago.
Sam Walter and three of his friends, all in their 20s, decided an hour before the opening face-off to come watch the Blackhawks. They got their choice of $15 seats in a corner of the upper level.
Asked why they came to the game, Walter smiled and said, "The Bears are off, and it's fun."
A $15 ticket is barely more than a movie, he said. He paused, then said, almost sounding as if he were reminding himself, "This used to be a hockey town."
The Blackhawks provide a sharp contrast to the city's beloved Bears, who will play in the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years today. The Blackhawks, who have not won the Stanley Cup since 1961, stir little passion in a sports-crazy city.
"It's kind of hard at times to see it like this," said Jon Eller, who sat beside Walter as he looked around the arena.
Remember the Detroit Red Wings of the late 1970s and early 1980s?
When Mike Ilitch bought the Wings, he had to give away a car to get people to show up to their games.
— Winging It In Motown (@wingingitmotown) October 14, 2014
Or the St. Louis Blues of the mid-2000s, when they were purchased by Dave Checketts?
Lack of success on the ice this season has resulted in a big drop in attendance at Blues games. The Blues ranked sixth in the league in 2003-04, averaging 18,560 fans per game. This season, they're 26th with 14,080 fans per game.
The message probably was delivered by the thousands of empty seats in Mellon Arena on so many game nights during the 2002-03 season.
The Penguins sold the equivalent of about 8,100 season tickets last season, down about 1,600 from 2001-02. Mellon Arena seats 16,958 for hockey; the Penguins' average attendance in 2002-03 was 14,755.
[Team VP of communications Tom] McMillan said there is not a target figure for attendance in 2003-04, but that luring more fans is a priority.
Or the Boston Bruins for more than a decade between 1996 and 2008:
Or the Washington Capitals pre-Ovechkin -- or even early in the Ovi era, via this 2006 ESPN.com story:
With Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby meeting for the first time this season and with Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Ovechkin's Washington Capitals both defying observers by staying in the playoff hunt, one would have imagined that the lure of such a spectacle would have been strong enough to give the Capitals their first sellout of the season.
Instead, great gaping rows of empty purple Verizon Center seats greeted the two young stars as they conspired to produce a compelling, seesaw tilt that saw the Penguins fall behind 4-0 before stealing a 5-4 shootout victory.
You get the idea. People don't show up to watch bad teams, and this happens in every single sport. If your favorite franchise packs the stands even when the team is terrible, good for them. They are not in the majority.
Looming relocation is a scary thing for lots of people.
We all get a little excited about the thought of the new toy. We get excited about what an energized franchise and fan base might look like in Quebec City or Seattle or anywhere else that wants NHL hockey to come to its town. We get excited about seeing what happened in Winnipeg in 2011 happen again.
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And yeah, there's a capitalist side in most of us that takes some pleasure in seeing a failing business like the Florida Panthers lose the opportunity to stay in business, while some place that yearns for that same opportunity gets it.
But if you want a franchise to relocate just out of that feeling, or even worse, out of spite for southern hockey fans that "don't deserve the game" because they'd rather spend their time and money fishing or going to the beach or other than watching absolutely terrible hockey, you should rethink that.
Consider that if the Panthers leave South Florida, it will leave hundreds (thousands?) out of work. The Broward County-owned BB&T Center will sit as an empty shell for those 41 nights a year, impacting the entire local area around the arena in Sunrise and the arena employees -- from ticket takers to ushers to concession workers to janitors -- who rely on those 41 Panthers games to make a living.
In addition to those flat out losing work, many team employees -- if they're lucky enough to keep their jobs under what we assume would be a new ownership regime -- would have to relocate their families. That's not a joking matter. It's a serious life change for a lot of people, and a scary prospect that currently hangs over their heads.
In the end, it might not work in Florida. They've already started tarping off seats in the upper deck, an admission that they just can't possibly fill their building each night even under the best of circumstances. The team on the ice will, yet again, struggle to make the playoffs this year. Ownership has "reassured" fans that they won't be relocating, but in their own words have also said that this current scenario is unsustainable.
The Florida Panthers might be headed for Seattle or Quebec City in the next few years, and if it happens, it happens. It will be exciting to see a new city embrace the NHL and hopefully treat it just like Montreal does. But in the meantime, there's no good reason to be smug about a situation that's more sad than anything else.