Endangered NHL Species?: Florida Panthers Want $70M Taxpayer Bailout

Technology enables the Florida Panthers to make ice in Miami. But it can’t make the Miamians watch the Florida Panthers make hockey on ice.

The beleaguered franchise has asked Broward County for $70 million in concessions to its existing arena agreement. South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel outlines the proposal for BB&T Arena, located outside Miami in Sunrise, in its edition today. The team claims it bleeds $20 million annually. The Sun-Sentinel points out that ownership actually runs a profit on non-hockey related attractions at the tax-payer funded venue.

“The $185 million arena, which opened in 1998, was built with public financing for then-Panthers owner H. Wayne Huizenga,” Brittany Wallman reports at the Sun-Sentinel. “Broward leaders were sold on the controversial arena deal with promises that profits would return to the taxpayers. That has so far happened only once.”

The current arrangement has the county paying $8 million a year toward the debt for arena construction. Another $2 million comes from state funds, and the Panthers pay $4.5 million. The team also maintains the arena and pays insurance. The proposed deal relieves the Panthers of that $4.5 million yearly payment, $500,000 in annual arena maintenance costs, and all insurance tabs above $1 million. It also enables the trade of 12 acres near the arena for a more desirable 22 acres, which ownership seeks to build a casino upon. The team suggests raising hotel taxes in an effort to offset the funding, arguing that a stronger hockey team will entice more visitors to South Florida (but more expensive hotel rooms won’t scare them away). In exchange for the concessions, the Panthers would immediately repay more than $10 million in debts to the county and promise to implement a payroll “at a level competitive with the rest of the National Hockey League.”

That startling promise strikes Panther fans as an admission of what they have long known: the team isn’t financially committed to a competitive roster. This past offseason the Panthers were a nonentity in the free agent market and allowed center Stephen Weiss, who played more games in a Panther uniform than any other player in franchise history, to depart for Detroit. CapGeek.com ranks the Panthers last in NHL payroll. The team’s $29 million in salary-cap leeway gives Florida a larger cushion between payroll and cap than the combined cap space of half of the NHL’s teams.

Cheapskate contracts have yielded predictable results for a roster that skates for cheap. The team has reached the NHL’s sixteen-team playoffs just once in the past decade. They currently place seventh in the eight-team Atlantic division and appear on track to miss the playoffs yet again.

A January 2 piece by George Richards in the Miami Herald documents how problems on ice have led to problems filling seats. According to Richards, the team ranks second-to-last in NHL attendance, filling just three-quarters of available seats, despite mathematical gymnastics aimed at proving otherwise. Richards writes, “The Panthers have reduced official capacity by putting up tarps in the upper deck for select games.”

The team’s struggles reflect wider league struggles stemming from ’90s-era decisions to expand to America’s Sun Belt to exploit booming populations and follow dollars. But without local hockey-playing traditions, NHL teams have generally fared poorly in such venues. Quanthockey.com, for instance, lists just four Florida-born players competing in the history of the NHL. Fans of NHL franchises that travel well end up filling a sizable number of seats in BB&T Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes, Phoenix Coyotes, and Dallas Stars rank with the Florida Panthers as among the Sun Belt teams that display sections of empty seats.

The Panthers’ effort to secure tens of millions from Broward County taxpayers appears as a far-fetched effort to keep NHL hockey in South Florida--or justify a move. Already possessing an advantageous arena deal, the Panthers may be pushing an unobtainable agreement as a pretense to migrate North. The Atlanta Thrashers, commencing play during the 1999-2000 season, moved to Winnipeg after the 2010-2011 season, becoming the second Atlanta-based NHL franchise to depart the city.

Should the Panthers find South Florida an inhospitable climate for hockey, they, too, will find many suitors boasting more fans with fewer dollars.

The Quebec City Panthers? Saskatoon Panthers? Hamilton Panthers?

Panthers generally don’t find such frigid locales inviting. Then again, hockey players feel much the same way about South Florida.


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