In Praise of Ownership: Broward County Commission Approves $86 Million for Panthers

Since their purchase of the Panthers in 2013, owners Vincent Viola and Doug Cifu have been a driving force in improving the South Florida franchise. They eliminated ticket giveaways that inflated attendance numbers and that alienated fans who paid full price. They re-configured the Panthers as a community-oriented organization that has also fielded an ever more competitive on-ice product. This narrative of ‘improvement’ continued Tuesday afternoon when the Broward County Commission voted, by a margin of 5-3, to approve an $86 million aid package in the form of an agreement amendment that Viola and Cifu negotiated to help keep the Panthers in Sunrise.

This partnership ensures that the BB&T Center will continue to be a premiere sports and entertainment facility benefiting the Broward County community and all of South Florida,” said Florida Panthers Executive Chairman Peter Luukko. “The agreement shows the county’s commitment to arena improvements and to the team. We are excited for what the future holds for both the Panthers and the BB&T Center.

A Deal That Makes Sense

It can be difficult for those of us far removed from the local politics to understand how providing $86 million in financial assistance can simultaneously be good for the Panthers as well as “benefit the Broward County community.” However, situating it in this context is critical to an appreciation of what the owners have achieved.

When it was originally constructed in 1998, the BB&T Center was financed through local tourism taxes. The county and Panthers organization have subsequently shared the responsibility of making (re)payments on this debt. While the team has reported losses of millions of dollars in recent years, a County Commission analysis revealed that if the Cats were ever unable to meet their financial commitments – or opted to relocate – the County could end up footing an even larger share of the tab.

While this is the third proposal the Panthers have submitted to the Commission for relief, their provision of a “letter of credit” this time around guarantees the County that they will not be stuck with any such bill. At the same time, the modified operating agreement reached between Cifu, Viola and Broward County makes the Panthers’ future in Sunrise more sustainable by easing the financial burden currently carried by the franchise so long as they stay.

A Community-Oriented Franchise

Whether or not they agreed with the Commission’s eventual decision on Tuesday, supporters and opponents of the amendment alike praised the team’s contributions to Broward County. This is indicative of the community-oriented brand Cifu and Viola have helped instill into the Panthers organization.

“You see when I think of the Florida Panthers, I think of hope first and hockey second,” said James Robertson of Parkland, Florida during the public comment segment of the Commission’s meeting. “The team ownership . . . with the leadership of players are highly invested in Broward County.”

Whether it’s the Florida Panthers Foundation’s support of the Boys & Girls Club, the “Try Hockey for Free” clinics the team offers in promotion of youth hockey, or mascot Stanley C. Panther’s visits to local schools in encouragement of reading programs, the organization is, at the very least, making an effort to act as a positive influence in the community.

While another attendee of the public comment segment of Tuesday’s meeting, Ina Lee, indicated that she was “nervous about the monies that are being committed,” she acknowledged that “certainly the new ownership is a player in this community.”

Broward County Panthers
Venues such as the BB&T Center may find themselves filled with new fans very soon. (Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)

Delivering a Higher Quality On-ice Product

In case resolving a precarious financial issue and providing a model of community stewardship isn’t enough, the Panthers owners’ efforts to field a much more competitive team are also worthy of applause.

At the end of last season, TSN’s Scott Cullen wrote that the Panthers became “surprisingly competitive” and that “young core players . . . provide reasons for optimism.”

However, there is perhaps no better example – albeit anecdotal – of the effort to improve than ownership’s approval of the Jaromir Jagr acquisition. Beyond leading the Panthers in points so far this season, Jagr exemplifies the kind of meaningful connection that the Cats are continuing to foster in South Florida.

They say that this is a football town,” said Executive Vice President of Fanatics, Inc. Victor Shaffer at the meeting Tuesday. “The last game I was at, I happened to sit next to Mike Tannenbaum from the Miami Dolphins and his son [was] wearing a Jaromir Jagr jersey.

The solid commitment to building a sustainable, community-oriented, and competitive franchise when considered alongside Broward County’s willingness to partner with the fifth owners in Panthers franchise history should, at the very least, put persistent relocation rumours to rest.

“We are humbled and appreciative of the support from Broward County,” said Florida Panthers Owner, Governor and Chairman Vinnie Viola. “My partner Doug Cifu and I want to thank the County Commissioners, County Administrator and County staff for their work on this agreement. As we have repeatedly stated the Florida Panthers are committed to Broward County and South Florida. We will continue to work tirelessly to make the franchise successful on and off the ice and a valued member of the Broward County community.”